White House

Trump thumbs nose at impeachment, Dems by hosting Putin’s top diplomat

Russia expert on Oval meeting: ‘It could either enable or obstruct progress on Ukraine’

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference to unveil articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As President Donald Trump live-tweeted his reaction to House Democrats’ impeachment articles, his spokeswoman vowed he would “continue to work on behalf of this country.” Hours later, that business included huddling privately with Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat in the Oval Office.

Trump essentially thumbed his nose at Democrats as they continued linking his July 25 telephone conversation with Ukraine’s president to an alleged affinity for Russia’s as he hosted Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s minister of foreign affairs. If Lavrov steps foot in the Oval Office, it’s a safe bet there is a controversy nearby.

The last time Trump and the top Russian diplomat met there, in May 2017, they were joined by the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time, Sergey Kislyak, and U.S. journalists were banned from the meeting, although an official Kremlin news agency photographer was allowed, and documented the trio.

Trump revealed classified information that was so sensitive it had not been shared with some parts of the American national security community and close allies. This time, Lavrov strolled into the cornerless space just hours after House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment that accuse Trump of abusing his power and obstructing Congress.

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Congressional Republicans, long the more anti-Moscow American political party, were mum about the GOP commander in chief hosting the Russian official amid the impeachment inquiry. But Democrats were not silent.

“How many times has President Trump met at the White House with President Zelensky? It’s zero,” Rep. Eric Swalwell of California said Monday during the House Judiciary Committee’s final impeachment hearing. “And who is President Trump meeting with at the White House tomorrow (Tuesday), do you know?” he asked a witness rhetorically.

“It's Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Swalwell said. That came four days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Trump: “All roads lead to Putin.”

No matter for Trump, who insisted on meeting with Lavrov.

The meeting, on the same day of the unveiling of impeachment articles related to a call with the president of a country Russia invaded in 2014, prompted Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York to tweet: “Trump, Lavrov, and Pompeo are meeting in private this afternoon. What conspiracy are they cooking up today?” (Pompeo joined the duo in the Oval.)

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Russia-focused Kennan Institute at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called the Trump-Lavrov-Pompeo meeting a “high-stakes moment.”

“It could either enable or obstruct progress on Ukraine,” he said, adding: “Both sides have acknowledged the risks of the current state of conflict: Moscow and Washington have pulled out of key Cold War-era arms control treaties while backing rival factions in regional conflicts from the Middle East to South America.”

About an hour before the 2:30 p.m. White House session, Pompeo and Lavrov appeared before reporters at the State Department. The top American envoy echoed Trump by saying the United States “should have a better relationship with Russia.”

Pompeo said he and Lavrov spent a “fair amount of time” discussing Ukraine and he warned his counterpart the administration would “take action in response” to Russia or any country meddling in an American election. For his part, Lavrov called those election interference charges — which all U.S. intelligence communities and the full Senate Intelligence Committee agree on —“alleged” and “baseless.”

“No one has given us this proof because it simply does not exist,” the Russian official said less than one year before the next America presidential election.

The second controversial Oval Office visit for Lavrov of the Trump era highlights how, for the next 11 months, all things Russia and Ukraine will be at the “center stage of U.S. politics,” Rojansky said, which he noted is “hardly a conducive atmosphere for delicate diplomatic maneuvering.”

That followed a presidential tweetstorm before, during and after House Democrats rolled out their articles that, if passed on the floor next week, would make him just the third sitting president to be impeached. His top aides were all but daring House Democrats to do just that as they expressed certainty their boss would be acquitted by the GOP-run Senate.

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Trump wants a Senate impeachment trial “sooner rather than later,” White House Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary J. Hogan Gidley told reporters on a rainy North Lawn driveway.

“But … what form that takes, time will tell,” Gidley told reporters, saying White House officials and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office are in “constant contact” about the shape of a likely trial.

But will Trump himself volunteer to testify?

“I’m not sure what form that’s going to take,” Gidley said of an expected January Senate trial.

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