WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump said his talks with Russia’s foreign minister were “very good” and said both Washington and Moscow were working toward ending the six-year war in Syria.
Trump’s May 10 White House meeting with Sergei Lavrov was the highest-level meeting the U.S. president has had with a Russian official since taking office in January.
The talks were overshadowed, however, by Trump’s decision a day earlier to fire FBI Director James Comey, a surprise announcement that roiled Washington.
Comey was overseeing the criminal investigations into the ties between Trump associates and Russian officials.
In brief comments to reporters at the White House, Trump praised the outcome of his meeting with Lavrov.
“I think that we are going to do very well with respect to Syria. I think things are happening. They are really, really, really positive,” Trump said.
Trump made the comments alongside Henry Kissinger, the legendary diplomat who served in Richard Nixon’s presidency more than four decades ago. Kissinger has served as a back-channel intermediary to the Kremlin for many years under several administrations, Democratic and Republican.
WATCH: Lavrov Says Trump Seeks Pragmatic Solutions With Russia
In a statement released later, the White House said Trump urged Lavrov to “rein in” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran. Both are close allies of Russia.
Trump also discussed the issue of Ukraine, the White House said, and Trump “stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements,” which set out conditions for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, sparking a war that has killed more than 9,900 people.
Lavrov, meanwhile, told reporters at the Russian Embassy that Trump wanted “mutually beneficial, businesslike, pragmatic” relations with Moscow.
Lavrov said the issue of sanctions — imposed by the international community on Moscow for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — was not raised during the meeting. And he brushed aside questions about Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s presidential campaign.
However, a State Department statement, issued after Lavrov’s meeting earlier in the day with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said that Tillerson also “stressed the need for progress toward full implementation of the Minsk agreements” and told Lavrov that “sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them.”
Lavrov also said that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time in July in Hamburg, when the German city hosts a summit of leaders from the Group of 20 economic powers.
Lavrov was joined in the meeting by Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, who has been at the center of speculation concerning Trump associates’ ties to Russian officials. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired after he misled White House officials about his interactions with Kislyak and others.
Lavrov also discussed Syria and other issues with Tillerson, who said the meeting was a chance for the two to “continue our dialogue and our exchange of views” since his trip to Moscow last month. At the time, Tillerson said relations with Russia needed to be rebuilt.
Asked by reporters about the Comey firing, Lavrov reacted sarcastically, saying, “Was he fired? You’re kidding. You’re kidding.” Then he waved his hand dismissively and exited the room alongside Tillerson.
In Russia, Putin said he didn’t expect Comey’s firing to have any effect on relations with the United States.
“There will be no effect,” Putin told CBS News in a short interview after playing in a charity hockey game in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. “Your question looks very funny for me. Don’t be angry with me. We have nothing to do with that.”
During last year’s election campaign, Trump called for better relations with Russia. Since taking office, however, many top cabinet officials have voiced a tougher stance that is closer to more conventional Republican approaches and to the policies of former President Barack Obama.
The administration has backed NATO efforts to counter Russia’s military buildup and aggressive actions in Europe, from the Baltics to Ukraine and Georgia.
Despite sharp differences, Syria is one area where Russia and Washington have worked to find common ground to jointly battle Islamic State militants and end the war there.
Last week, Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to the establishment of “de-escalation zones” in Syria, where Russia has given Assad’s government crucial military and diplomatic backing throughout the war.
The State Department has stressed that the United States is not a party to the agreement but hopes it “can contribute to a de-escalation of violence, end the suffering of the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on May 8 that the United States would examine the plan “very, very carefully.”