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U.S., Russia Talks Try To Find A Path Forward After Syria Attack


President Trump has talked a lot about possibly having a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessor did, doing things like working together to defeat ISIS. But in the days since Trump ordered airstrikes against Syria, an ally of Russia in retaliation for its apparent use of chemical weapons, all of that talk has seemed to have evaporated.

And this is the backdrop now as Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, went into meetings today with his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Let's talk about what is playing out in the Russian capital with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.


GREENE: So I guess we saw Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Rex Tillerson in one of those brief photo ops. And now, I guess, the serious business has begun. What do we know about what's happening?

LIASSON: What we know is as the meeting began, Tillerson said he wanted to clear up some sharp differences with Russia. And his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, said that he wanted to clear up the very ambiguous and contradictory ideas coming from the Trump administration. He said it was important for Russia to understand the real intent of the Trump administration.

So like many in the U.S., the Russians say they are trying to get a handle on what the Trump foreign policy is. We don't know yet if Tillerson is going to get a meeting with Vladimir Putin. If he didn't, he would be the first secretary of state in a very long time not to be offered that kind of meeting on his first trip to Russia.

GREENE: So that's certainly something to watch for...


GREENE: ...Whether that is the message being sent by Russia if Putin doesn't meet with him.


GREENE: I mean, it's - both sides seem to be not just willing but almost eager to set up this meeting as there being some difficult things to deal with. And it's incredible where we've come because since those airstrikes and since this chemical attack, Tillerson and the Trump administration, I mean, a much harder line against Russia.

LIASSON: Much harder line considering how friendly Donald Trump was consistently and conspicuously all throughout the campaign. It really is a bit of whiplash. Since Thursday, Tillerson has said that Russia was either complicit or incompetent - those are very harsh words - because it failed to guarantee that Syria got rid of its chemical weapons per that 2013 agreement. The U.S. administration has also pushed back against Russian accusations that the U.S. claim that Syria used chemical weapons was a fabrication.

They've even gone so far as to unclassify a classified report that bolsters their case that Russia knew Syria had used these weapons. They've called on Russia to abandon their support of Syria. The White House press secretary has called Syria a failed state. And in his first comments on Russia since that chemical weapons attack, President Trump told Fox this morning that, quote, "Putin's support for Assad is very bad for Russia and very bad for mankind."

Now, as that harder line is taking shape, the investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign is continuing. And we now know from a Washington Post report that there was a FISA warrant for Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. And to get that FISA warrant, the FBI had to say that it believed there was probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of a hostile government, in this case Russia.

GREENE: Well, how might that play into things? I mean, just the idea, an investigation into the Trump administration - have, you know, colluding with Russia. I know obviously, I mean, we have nothing firm about that. But just that being an open question, does that change things in terms of credibility or change the dynamic of these meetings?

LIASSON: Well, there's some people who say that they have to take a harder line because they're under a cloud. But I actually think that this is a case of just national interests at work and reality reasserting itself.

GREENE: One big question with this Syrian airstrike that President Trump ordered was whether this was a one-time action, I mean, in response to what it appeared was a chemical attack by the Syrian government or whether this is really U.S. policy evolving. Do we have any insight?

LIASSON: Well, it isn't entirely clear but it does seem that this was a limited strike. General Mattis warned yesterday that Syria would pay a big price if it used chemical weapons again. But it seems that our involvement is limited to the use of chemical weapons.

GREENE: The defense secretary saying that, yeah.

LIASSON: The defense secretary saying that. One foreign policy adviser in the White House said he wouldn't call the strike on Syria a one-off because that sounds like a symbolic slap on the wrist. But he said the top priority is still getting rid of ISIS. The U.S. would like Assad gone but that U.S. troops will not be the instrument for Assad's removal. And Trump himself - President Trump himself - told FOX Business news about what he thought about further U.S. involvement in Syria. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're not going into Syria. But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration but they violated it.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: They said they got rid of them.

TRUMP: Hey, look. What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it. And you would have had a much better - I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.

LIASSON: So the operative statement there is we're not going into Syria. Now, we are in Syria. A few hundred U.S. troops are there already. So I think the president might mean we won't have massive numbers of troops there, we won't have a big ground invasion.

GREENE: And very briefly, Mara, I mean, this feels like a big moment in understanding Trump's foreign policy, these meetings today.

LIASSON: Well, I think that the bottom line is his foreign policy is evolving into something a lot more conventional than you what - might have thought based on his campaign rhetoric. In some cases, his bark has been worse than his bite. But also, I think it's the result of surrounding himself with a team of more conventional foreign policy thinkers like Mattis and Tillerson and McMaster. They are running foreign policy, not Steve Bannon.

GREENE: Mara Liasson, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.