Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov waves as he leaves the White House after meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)
Written by Edward Wong
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Russia not to interfere in American elections while meeting Tuesday with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia. But Lavrov denounced accusations of election interference and said the Trump administration still had not unveiled proof of nefarious Russian activity.
Standing next to Lavrov at a news conference in the State Department, Pompeo said he had reiterated the American government’s disapproval of Russia’s interference efforts.
“I was clear — it’s unacceptable,” Pompeo said. “And I made our expectations of Russia clear.”
American intelligence agencies say Russian intelligence services and the military carried out an organized interference campaign during the election in 2016 and may do so again in 2020. The Justice Department indicted 12 Russian hackers last year for electronic intrusion into the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
President Donald Trump, though, has dismissed those conclusions and has stressed in recent weeks, without presenting evidence, that he thinks Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections and hacked into the Democrats’ operations.
“All speculations about our alleged interference in domestic processes in the United States are baseless,” Lavrov said. “There are no facts that would support that. No one has given us this proof, because it simply does not exist.”
Asked about the recent assertions by Trump and his allies that Ukraine, a rival neighboring power of Russia, had interfered in 2016, Lavrov said: “It has nothing to do with us. That is an issue for two sovereign states.”
Officials at American intelligence agencies and Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who recently left Trump’s National Security Council, have said the idea that Ukraine organized interference in the 2016 election is part of a disinformation campaign started by Russia in early 2017.
Republican lawmakers have embraced the conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference to defend Trump in the impeachment inquiry, which is being led by House Democrats and centers on Ukraine policy and political favors. Pompeo himself, a stalwart Trump ally, has said in recent weeks that the United States should look into potential interference by Ukraine.
But on Tuesday, Pompeo emphasized an earlier position he had taken, when he was CIA director: that it was Russia that had run an interference campaign in 2016. “We don’t think there is any mistake about what transpired,” he said.
Pompeo and Lavrov spoke to reporters before Lavrov left the State Department to meet with Trump at the White House. Pompeo and Lavrov had led delegations that began a meeting in the Thomas Jefferson room of the State Department at 10:30 a.m. The Americans in attendance included John J. Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state and Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Moscow, and Philip T. Reeker, the assistant secretary for Europe.
The officials also discussed arms control and a potential extension of the Obama-era New START treaty, which limits the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the two nations. Trump has criticized conditions of the treaty, which expires in February 2021. Last week, President Vladimir Putin of Russia offered to extend it with no preconditions, and Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow was ready to act on that.
But Pompeo stressed the administration position that the United States would agree to a new treaty only if China was part of it. Chinese officials have balked at any such suggestion, since China’s nuclear arsenal is a small fraction of the size of those of the United States and Russia.
Trump said at a NATO meeting in London last week that he had been speaking with Putin about a potential treaty extension, which raised the possibility that the administration might put aside the China issue, at least for now. But Pompeo gave no indication that U.S. officials would do that.
If the two presidents successfully negotiate an extension of the nuclear treaty, Trump would be able to advertise a significant diplomatic win while campaigning for reelection in 2020.
Pompeo and Lavrov also discussed crisis points around the globe, including Syria, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea, as well as the jailing in Moscow of Paul N. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, on espionage charges.
Pompeo said the two sides spoke about sanctions enforcement on North Korea, which recently has threatened to resume testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Lavrov said he hoped that Washington and Pyongyang would restart diplomacy. He added that dialogue must be based on “reciprocal steps,” saying, “You cannot demand that North Korea do everything.”
Lavrov’s visit to Washington comes at a delicate moment in the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders in Congress announced two articles of impeachment against Trump, in a case that centers on Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine while demanding political favors. Ukraine depends on the assistance in its fight against a Russia-backed insurgency in the east.
Since the start of his presidency in early 2017, Trump has been dogged by accusations that his public affection for Putin and efforts to create warmer ties between the two nations undermine the national security interests of the United States. American intelligence agencies agree that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, a conclusion backed up by the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Justice Department, even though he did not find a conspiracy between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
The Justice Department inspector general released a report on Monday saying the FBI had sufficient reason to open an investigation in 2016 into links between Russia and Trump campaign aides — a precursor to the Mueller investigation.
In the long, labyrinthine narrative of Trump and Russia, Lavrov’s last visit to the White House, in May 2017, was a signature moment and was scrutinized in the Mueller investigation. That visit occurred on May 10, the day after Trump fired James Comey, who as director of the FBI was overseeing that agency’s inquiry into Russia and the Trump campaign. After firing Comey, Trump told Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
In that same meeting, Trump revealed classified information that undermined an Israeli counterterrorism operation in the Middle East and angered Israeli officials.
At noon Tuesday, Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Democrat from New York, raised that incident in a statement and said he remained concerned over Trump’s handling of intelligence and policy matters in meetings with the Russians.
“President Trump’s pattern of cozying up to autocrats and our adversaries harms American interests and undermines American leadership,” he said. “While dialogue with the Russians is important, especially for strategic stability and the future of arms control, I have no confidence in President Trump to defend our interests in these conversations. With President Trump, all roads lead to Putin.”