By Ali Vitali, Abigail Williams and Halimah Abdullah
As scrutiny intensifies around investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump emphasized his hope for better relations between the U.S. and the Kremlin in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.
Trump described the meeting to a group of reporters on Wednesday as "very, very good."
But the critical issue of Russian election interference was not discussed, according to Lavrov.
In a press conference after the Oval Office meeting, the Russian Foreign Minister said he and Trump "discussed specific issues and we didn’t raise those absurd issues” about election tampering.
Instead, Lavrov pointed to Trump’s own comments — frequently relayed via Twitter — that the Russia story is "fake news."
"There is not a single fact, there is no compelling evidence given to anyone regarding Russia’s intervention and that is it," Lavrov said.
Russian government social media accounts tweeted out images of Trump with Lavrov, as well as with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak whose attendance, his government said, is considered protocol. U.S. press was not allowed into either meeting nor has the White House released any photos.
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Kislyak’s role is critical in the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who met with the ambassador during the Trump transition and misled Vice President Mike Pence about the two men’s discussions on Russian sanctions levied by the Obama administration.
Those sanctions were not discussed Wednesday, Lavrov said in a press conference at the Russian embassy after the meeting. But Lavrov called the Obama administration's expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.S. in retaliation late last year “pitiful” and a “dirty” trick.”
Lavrov's meeting with Trump and Tillerson in Washington comes less than 24 hours after news of the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which ushered in a wave of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans with renewed calls for an independent investigator into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including alleged collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. The meeting also comes at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are seen by the administration as "at a low point."
Lavrov arrived at the White House after the Tillerson meeting and ahead of a press conference at the Russian Embassy. The meeting with Trump, billed on the White House schedule as an Oval Office meeting, was closed to reporters.
During his meeting with Trump, Lavrov discussed efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up "de-escalation zones" in opposition-held areas of Syria, a plan enacted on Saturday. Still, stark differences remain on the best way forward in the six-year Syrian war which has left more than 500,000 dead and displaced millions.
Washington has long said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad can't remain in power if the war-torn nation is to move forward. Russia supports Assad.
"We do not have a notion of an exit strategy," Lavrov said during the press conference at the Russian embassy on Wednesday. The "obsession with ousting particular leaders — look what it has led to. Why don't we try to learn from our mistakes, focus on process, defeating terrorism."
And as the Trump administration mulls sending as many as 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan to join the fight there, Lavrov stressed that his nation's government is not supporting the Taliban.
"Those who are working on Afghanistan have not found a single expert to say we're transferring arms," Lavrov said.
Lavrov and Trump also discussed the ongoing violence in Ukraine where, since 2014, the U.S. has found itself on opposite sides of the conflict with Washington backing the Western-leaning Ukrainian government and Moscow backing pro-Russia separatists.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, reacted to the meeting with a warning, urging Trump to be careful and aware of who Lavrov represents.
"The president's meeting with Lavrov today. It's okay to want to work with the Russians, but I hope, Mr. President, you know who you're dealing with," Graham told CNN. "You're dealing with a man who represents a government that is brutal, that tried to undermine our elections and, be careful, these are not teddy bears you're dealing with."
Ali Vitali is a political reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.
Abigail Williams is a producer in the NBC News Washington bureau.
Halimah Abdullah is a digital editor and writer for NBC News and is responsible for reporting, writing, editing and web producing federal policy news for NBCNews.com. Prior to joining the site in April 2015, Abdullah worked at CNN.com, where she reported, edited and web produced stories on federal politics and policy. In that role, Abdullah was responsible for helping cover Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and national political races.
A veteran politics and policy reporter and editor, Abdullah has worked for Bloomberg Government, McClatchy Newspapers' Washington Bureau, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times and TODAY.com, among other publications. Her journalism and creative writing have won awards, been published in several anthologies, and earned her invitations to attend several writing colonies. Abdullah is also a writing professor who has taught at the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia and John Jay College and Brooklyn College in New York.