President Donald Trump on Tuesday planned to host Russia's foreign minister at the White House, two years after a similar meeting with the minister and Russia's ambassador to the United States ignited a firestorm.
Trump was scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office Tuesday, just hours after House Democrats announced they were unveiling two articles of impeachment against him for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals and attempting to obstruct Congress from investigating the matter.
A senior administration official said they would be joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with whom Lavrov would hold a press conference earlier in the day. The White House did not preview an agenda for the meeting.
When president Trump last met with Lavrov at the White House, in May 2017, he divulged intelligence information Israel had shared with the United States. Russia's ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey Kislyak, also attended the meeting.
While the White House denied Trump had passed on any classified information, ABC News reported then that his sharing of the information jeopardized exposing an Israeli spy who provided the intelligence on an active ISIS plot.
While U.S. media was prevented from covering the meeting, a photographer from Russian state media made it inside; the White House said it believed he had been an official Russian photographer. The White House said Tuesday's meeting would be closed off to the press.
The 2017 meeting also came one day after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, which prompted calls for a special counsel to investigate Russian interference into the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump's campaign.
A week after the meeting, The New York Times reported that, according to a document summarizing the meeting, Trump had told Lavrov and Kislyak that firing Comey removed "great pressure."
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the document, the Times reported. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” The White House at the time did not not deny to ABC News that Trump made the comments.
Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Trump signaled frustration with the FBI director he had selected to replace Comey, Christopher Wray, after Wray in an interview with ABC News endorsed the findings in a report by the Department of Justice's inspector general that found the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election were proper. Wray also said that he had "no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election" -- a debunked conspiracy theory pushed by Trump and some of his Republican allies.
"I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me," Trump tweeted. "With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!"
I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me. With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2019
When he chose Wray to lead the FBI in 2017, Trump praised him as "a man of impeccable credentials."
While the White House did not explain the rationale behind the timing of Lavrov's Tuesday visit to the White House, a number of issues have for years strained the U.S.-Russia relationship -- a determination by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump chief among them.
The high-profile visit will play to Russia's interests in dividing Americans in a polarized time, particularly considering the ongoing impeachment inquiry in the House, Heather Conley, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe program, told ABC News.
It also throws into stark contrast the divergence between Trump's predilection for engagement with Russia and Congress's generally more hawkish approach, she said.
"Considering the tensions in the relationship with Russia, it just seems absolutely unnecessary for the President to meet with a foreign minister," Conley said. "If business needs to be conducted, it could happen, certainly, at the foreign minister level."