In Washington visit, Russia’s chief diplomat pleads innocence on election meddling

The secretary of State said in his opening remarks Tuesday at the news conference, held at the State Department, that he and Lavrov had discussed “interference in our domestic affairs.”

“I was clear. It’s unacceptable, and I made our expectations of Russia clear,” Pompeo said. “The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections. Period. Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response.”

When his turn came, Lavrov lamented the “wave of suspicion that has overcome Washington,” saying it has “hindered” cooperation between President Vladimir Putin’s government and the United States.

“We have highlighted once again that 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. We did not see these facts. No one has given us this proof because it simply does not exist.”

The pair said they discussed a range of other issues, from the crisis in Syria to extending a major arms control agreement to future economic cooperation — Pompeo forecast announcements on the latter in the coming months. Lavrov then headed to the White House with Trump.

In a readout of the meeting later, the White House said that the U.S. president had “warned against any Russian attempts to interfere in United States elections and urged Russia to resolve the conflict with Ukraine.“

But during a press conference at the Russian Embassy early Tuesday evening, Lavrov would not confirm that Trump gave such a warning. At first the Russian diplomat said: “We haven’t even discussed elections.” But when pressed again, Lavrov — speaking via an interpreter — appeared to indicate that he’d raised Pompeo‘s earlier remarks with Trump.

Lavrov’s denials and muddled responses seemed to play into concerns by some lawmakers and analysts that he was taking advantage of the platform the Trump administration had given him to sow doubts among Americans about Russia’s role.

“Trump is meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister in the Oval Office — again. Adversaries invited in. Allies locked out,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, one of the Democrats leading the impeachment investigation, wrote on Twitter.

“It’s shameful that Lavrov gets a platform … to spread disinformation,” tweeted Alina Polyakova, a scholar with the Brookings Institution. “Russia attacked the U.S. in 2016. That’s a fact. It’s neither alleged nor disputed.“

In both appearances before reporters, Lavrov said Russia wants the United States to publicize some of the correspondence between Washington and Moscow over the accusations that the Russians, through hacking and other means, tried to steer the election in favor of Trump.

The release of that information — much of which is likely to be highly classified — “would clear many matters up, I believe,” Lavrov said. Pompeo, however, countered: “We’ll publish all the documents we think appropriate. We think we’ve shared plenty of facts to show what happened in the 2016 election with our Russian counterparts. We don’t think there’s any mistake about what really transpired there.”

Trump has one big point in his favor: The investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller into the allegations of Russian interference effectively cleared the Republican’s campaign of having conspired with the Kremlin to tilt the race. But the investigation also found significant evidence of systematic Russian election meddling effort.

When a reporter asked Lavrov if Kremlin officials, who say they want to see evidence of the alleged Russian interference, had read Mueller’s mammoth report, Lavrov said: “We read it. There is no proof of any collusion.”

Lavrov’s visit to Washington comes as there is confusion over U.S. policy on Ukraine, which is caught in the middle of the impeachment crisis.

House Democrats’ articles of impeachment allege that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine’s government to announce investigations into his political rivals by “conditioning” official acts “of significant value to Ukraine on its public announcement of investigations.”

The main political rival mentioned is former vice president Joe Biden, who is running to unseat Trump in next year’s presidential race. The official acts include a White House meeting with Ukraine’s president and the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

As the impeachment case has unfolded, Republicans have seized on largely unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine’s government tried to interfere in 2016 against Trump. Critics say that’s a conspiracy theory in part resulting from a Russian disinformation effort to cast the spotlight away from the Kremlin.

One reason Lavrov‘s White House meeting Tuesday raised eyebrows is that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has yet to receive such an Oval Office welcome.

The last time Lavrov met with Trump in the Oval Office was in 2017; afterward, there were reports that Trump had inappropriately disclosed sensitive classified information to his Russian guests that damaged the U.S. intelligence relationship with Israel.

Trump’s supporters note that, despite his personal affinity for Russia and seeming fondness of Putin, his administration has imposed sanctions on Moscow and ramped up U.S. military support for Ukrainian soldiers battling a Russian invasion.

Asked whether Russia believes Trump is a reliable partner, Lavrov said during his solo press conference that he did not doubt Trump’s “sincerity” in trying to improve the U.S.-Russian relationship and showing mutual respect.

Source: The Washington Post 

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