Maybe you heard about this, but President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last night. I thought Comey had been fired to spend more time with his family, and Trump let him go as a reward for completing such a thorough investigation of any connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. But apparently that investigation is ongoing, even though the president just fired the man in charge of it. Why he would do something that looks so bad at first glance—and at subsequent glances leading up to prolonged eye contact, until you’re just staring into the terrible optics of this thing and flicking your tongue a little—is unclear. It took everyone by surprise. But then along comes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:
Asked if Comey’s firing would cast a pall over his talks with Rex Tillerson, Lavrov responds, “Was he fired?” In this moment, his whole demeanor changes. He spent the last few seconds with downcast eyes, but now he draws himself up and looks straight at the reporter. “Was he fired?” he asks again. “You’re kidding!” Then he..scoffs? Rolls his eyes? Whatever it is, it’s an expression of knowing disdain any middle-school girl would be proud of, and he delivers it without mercy.
Why do I feel like a lot of Russians are good at the kind of joke where you pretend not to know something and then make the other person feel stupid for telling you about it? Russophobia, probably. But whether he has mastered a national pastime or just a useful technique of boss humor, Lavrov really sells it here. The first time I watched this footage, I thought he genuinely didn’t know.
That’s part of what makes this such a great response. Lots of people didn’t know Comey had been fired. According to the Times, Comey himself was delivering a speech in Los Angeles when the news appeared on video screens behind him. By convincingly acting like he, too, was shocked by the news and then showing that he played us, Lavrov sends a message: “Of course I knew.” Our stunning news is old hat to him. It’s an attitude that lets him neatly avoid the question, which was not “did you know Comey got fired” but “will Comey’s firing cast a shadow on these talks?”
“When will the Leningrad Soviet distribute heating oil for the winter?” the people demand. “Is it cold?” young Precinct Director Lavrov responds. “Is it cold? You’re kidding?” He rolls his eyes and gets into his limo, which takes him to the airport for his flight to Sochi or wherever. Damned Russians—always one step ahead.