White House Says Trump Warned Russian Against Election Meddling

Justin Sink

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday against interference in U.S. elections, the White House said in a statement after an Oval Office meeting between the two men.

But Lavrov suggested in a news conference at the Russian Embassy in Washington that Trump delivered no such warning. Lavrov said he brought up elections during the meeting but only to protest a warning from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo earlier in the day.

The meeting came hours after House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment alleging the president sought to coerce a foreign leader to help his bid for re-election, and it was the first encounter between Trump and Lavrov May 2017, when the U.S. president boasted to the Russian about firing then-FBI Director James Comey and reportedly shared classified information.

“Just had a very good meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and representatives of Russia. Discussed many items including Trade, Iran, North Korea, INF Treaty, Nuclear Arms Control, and Election Meddling,” Trump tweeted after the meeting as he traveled to a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The last time Trump met with a Russian -- President Vladimir Putin, at the Group of 20 summit in Japan in June -- he appeared to mock the idea of warning his counterpart against election interference.

“Don’t meddle in the election, president,” Trump then told Putin, pointing his finger at his Russian counterpart. “Don’t meddle in the election,” he repeated. Putin laughed after Trump’s admonition was translated, and Trump smiled.

Tuesday’s White House gathering, in which Pompeo also participated, was even more loaded with tension. Earlier in the day, House Democrats announced articles of impeachment that include a finding Trump damaged U.S. national security by withholding military aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russia-backed separatists, in hopes of forcing its government to undertake an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

Immediately before the White House meeting, Pompeo and Lavrov sparred in front of reporters over U.S. findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

In a summary of their discussion, the White House said Trump also urged Russia to resolve its conflict with Ukraine. Trump expressed support for an arms control agreement that would include both Russia and China, and asked for Russian support in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and ensuring that North Korea reduces its own stockpile.

Biden and other Democrats routinely criticize the U.S. president for showing deference to Vladimir Putin. They frequently reference a news conference in Helsinki in which Trump said he believed the Russian leader’s claims more than the findings of his own intelligence services.

Separately, the Justice Department inspector general released a report on Monday finding no political bias in the FBI investigation into allegations of Russian collusion, a conclusion that counters Trump’s contention that he and his campaign had been unfairly targeted. The report, however, cited significant missteps by the bureau as it sought a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.

And just last week, Trump attended a NATO summit in London, where other leaders expressed concern about Russia -- not just its annexation of Crimea but also its tightening grip on Syria after Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Revealing Intel Source

The 2017 meeting came just a day after Trump fired Comey over frustration with the probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia. It darkened the cloud of controversy related to Russia that still looms over Trump’s presidency, even after federal investigators found no evidence he was involved in Moscow’s efforts to influence the U.S. elections.

Lavrov arrived at the White House at about 2:20 p.m. in Washington and left about an hour later. The meeting was closed to reporters and none of the participants made any public remarks.

After their first meeting, the Russian state news agency Tass released pictures of Trump and Lavrov laughing in the Oval Office. White House officials then rushed members of the American media into the room, but the Russian delegation had already departed.

Only official U.S. government photographers were allowed into Tuesday’s meeting, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because it was private.

The White House said after the 2017 meeting that it had been misled by Russian officials and believed the Tass photographer was there on behalf of the Kremlin.

In the following days, the Washington Post reported that Trump revealed highly classified information during the meeting and may have jeopardized a source considered crucial to the battle against Islamic State. Subsequent reports identified the source of that intelligence as Israel. Trump denied ever explicitly revealing the source to Russia, but concerns remained that he had given the Russian officials enough information to determine it for themselves.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump said during a 2017 trip to Jerusalem. “Never mentioned it during that conversation. They’re all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”

Putin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Paris on Monday. That summit led to an agreement to exchange prisoners and the withdrawal of some troops, but no permanent resolution to the ongoing conflict in the disputed Donbas region. More than 13,000 people have died in the conflict over the 500-kilometer (310-mile) contact line over the past four years.

North Korea, Venezuela

Trump is also eager to enlist Russia to help pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program amid worrying signs that his efforts may be failing.

Kim Yong Chol, Chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, called Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” in a statement to the state-run Korean Central News Agency earlier this week. On Sunday, Trump warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un risked voiding “his special relationship with the President of the United States” amid reports that North Korea had conducted a key test at a missile site.

“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted.

Trump has also said he wants to broker a replacement deal for the New START treaty, which limits the production of nuclear weapons and expires in February 2021. Trump said last week he’s eager to expand the deal to include other nations like China, and want to see “a cessation on nuclear and nuclear creation.”

“It’s -- in my opinion -- the biggest problem the world has today,” Trump said.

The White House didn’t say whether Trump raised concerns over Russia’s backing of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. Vice President Mike Pence led a meeting last week with other White House officials to re-examine the administration’s push to empower Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader and Maduro opponent who declared himself interim president of Venezuela with American backing earlier this year.

But Guaido has failed to push out Maduro, and Trump is losing confidence that the opposition leader will ever topple the regime. The administration officials have instead discussed a possible partnership with Russia to ease the leader out of power.

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Nick Wadhams.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.