With tensions rising over Syria and other issues, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that U.S. relations with Russia "may be at an all-time low" as he moved ever further away from his campaign promises to establish better ties with Moscow.
"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all," Trump said flatly during a White House news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Soltenberg.
It was a grim assessment that echoed the words of Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left an almost two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow declaring the countries had reached a "low point" in relations.
Trump said Tillerson had completed a successful meeting with Putin, where "things went pretty well." But he said it was an open question where relations go from here. He said "it would be a fantastic thing" if the two nations got along better but cautioned that "it may be just the opposite."
Could Syria have launched the chemical weapons attack with Russia's advance knowledge? Trump said it was "certainly possible" though "probably unlikely."
The less-than-positive assessments of relations by both Trump and Tillerson reflected the former Cold War foes' inability to forge greater cooperation, as Trump until recently has advocated.
More than 80 people were killed in what the U.S. has described as a nerve gas attack that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces undoubtedly carried out. Russia says rebels were responsible for whatever chemical agent was found, which the Trump administration calls a disinformation campaign.
The Moscow news conference came after Putin met Tillerson for the first time since Trump took office. The diplomats know each other well from Tillerson's days as Exxon Mobil CEO. Putin had even honored Tillerson with a friendship award.
Beyond Syria, Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election also hovered over what was the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and any Trump administration Cabinet member.
Lavrov blasted U.S. claims that it has "irrefutable evidence" of election interference.
"We have not seen a single fact, or even a hint of facts," he said. "I do not know who saw them. No one showed us anything, no one said anything, although we repeatedly asked to produce the details on which these unfounded accusations lie."
He also rejected American claims of incontrovertible evidence that Assad ordered the chemical attack.
Still, Tillerson sought to stress the positives from his meetings. He said working groups would be established to improve U.S.-Russian ties and identify problems. He said the two sides would also discuss disagreements on Syria and how to end the country's six-year civil war.
But such hopes appeared optimistic as the diplomats outlined their sharply diverging views on Syria. Until the chemical attack, the Trump administration had sought to step back from the U.S. position that Assad should leave power. But Tillerson repeated the administration's new belief that "the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."
Tillerson said Syria's government had committed more than 50 attacks using chlorine or other chemical weapons over the duration of the conflict. And he suggested that possible war crimes charges could be levied against the Syrian leader. Russia has never publicly acknowledged any such attacks by Assad's forces and has tried for the past 18 months to help him expand his authority in Syria.
The civil war is separate from the U.S.-led effort against the Islamic State group in the north of the country.
While the most immediate U.S.-Russian dispute concerned culpability for the chemical weapons, broader disagreements over everything from Ukraine to Russia's support for once-fringe candidates in European elections were among other sore points.
Steeped in geopolitical intrigue, the meeting between Putin and Tillerson wasn't formally confirmed until the last minute, following days of speculation about whether the Russian would refuse to grant the former oil executive an audience. Putin's decision to host Tillerson signaled Moscow's intent to maintain communication with the U.S. even as the countries bash each other publicly in louder and louder tones.
Tillerson was greeted frostily in the Russian capital as Lavrov began their meeting Wednesday by demanding to know America's "real intentions."
"We have seen very alarming actions recently with an unlawful attack against Syria," Lavrov said, referring to the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump launched at a Syrian air base to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. "We consider it of utmost importance to prevent the risks of replay of similar action in the future."
Trump and others have indeed threatened similar action. But in a Fox Business Network interview, the U.S. president said he wouldn't intervene militarily against Assad unless the Syrian leader resorts to using weapons of mass destruction again. "Are we going to get involved with Syria? No," Trump said. But, he added, "I see them using gas ... we have to do something."
Only weeks ago, it appeared that Trump, who praised Putin throughout the U.S. election campaign, was poised for a potentially historic rapprochement with Russia. Any expectations of an easy rapport have crashed into reality amid the nasty back-and-forth over Syria and ongoing U.S. investigations into Russia's activity connected to the U.S. presidential election.
Allegations of collusion between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates also have weakened Trump's ability to sweeten any offer for greater cooperation, such as by easing economic sanctions on Moscow related to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.