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

Source: Politico | December 10, 2019 | Nahal Toosi and Quint Forgey

Sergey Lavrov calls allegations that Kremlin interfered in 2016 “baseless.” Some critics wonder why Trump gave him a platform.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned his Russian counterpart on Tuesday that the United States will not tolerate meddling in its elections, calling such interference “unacceptable.:”

To which the veteran Russian diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, replied, in essence: “Who, us?”

The exchange was indirect and in careful, semi-diplomatic language, coming during a news conference. It coincided with Democrats’ unveiling of articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. It also preceded a Lavrov meeting with Trump, after which the two sides haggled over whether election meddling was even discussed.

Overall, the day‘s events showed that, three years after U.S. intelligence agencies pinned blame on the Kremlin for interfering in the 2016 race, Russia is far from willing to admit any culpability. If anything, Moscow has been amused to see the impeachment debate give steam among Republicans to a debunked conspiracy theory that it was actually Ukraine, a country with which Russia is at war, that interfered in the U.S. election.

Some observers even faulted the Trump administration for giving Lavrov any public platform to air his denials, saying he was simply engaging in another disinformation operation.

To some extent, the Russians have been aided in their denials by Trump, who has downplayed the intelligence community’s assertions of a Russian role in 2016. Pompeo, who previously led the CIA, has maintained some distance from Trump on the issue, agreeing with the assessment of Russian interference while also suggesting at times that the problem isn’t limited to Russia.

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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.

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