Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clashed with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, with both men pointing fingers at the other as the U.S. ramps up its preparations for next year’s presidential election.
In a news conference during Pompeo’s first trip to Russia as America’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to reject the accusations that his government engaged in the kind of multifaceted meddling operation outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report last month.
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After intercepting a question about election interference intended for Pompeo, Lavrov blamed Washington in a six-minute tangent, accusing the U.S. of conducting the “lion’s share” of attacks against Russian internet operations. He also told reporters of a memo he delivered to Pompeo that he said contained “actual information” to prove that the U.S. government had interfered in Russian domestic policy.
The public dispute between the two officials was the most extensive airing of interference accusations since President Donald Trump suggested last summer he accepted President Vladimir Putin’s private denials of election involvement. Trump said that in a phone call with Putin several weeks ago the topic was only briefly discussed.
Mueller’s 448-report, a redacted version of which was made public last month, described Russia’s 2016 efforts as a “sweeping and systematic” plot to to disrupt the election and sow discord that included hacking into and compromising Democrats’ computer networks and targeting state and local election offices.
The special counsel also returned indictments on 25 Russian operatives, including 12 military officers, for their hacking efforts and for spreading inflammatory posts on social media, though Mueller did not find evidence to prove Trump or his campaign conspired to assist in those efforts.
Still, Lavrov attempted Tuesday to minimize the findings of Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation — in addition to several independent groups and the whole of the U.S intelligence community — to hype.
“We can discuss this topic forever but until we have cold, hard facts on the table we cannot have a grown-up discussion about it. The facts tell us that there is no proof of those trying to hype up this topic,” he said, before pushing for a more open dialogue between the U.S. and Moscow on cybersecurity.
Lavrov’s repeated denials rang especially hollow in that they came at nearly the same time Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was revealing that the FBI had informed him of successful intrusion by Russian hackers into voting registration files in two countries there during the 2016 election.
“You can see we have some disagreements on this issue,” Pompeo said with a smirk once Lavrov finally ceded the floor.
“I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, as we’ve made clear for the past months that interference in American elections is unacceptable,” Pompeo added.
“If the Russians were to engage in that in 2020 it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been,” he continued, saying he would “encourage them not to do that, we would not tolerate that. Our elections are important and sacred and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering in those elections.”
Pompeo was set to meet with Putin later Tuesday, where he will likely be grilled on whether he passed along the same warning.