- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a face-to-face warning to his Russian counterpart on Tuesday, vowing that the Trump administration “will take action” if Moscow seeks to interfere in the looming 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Mr. Pompeo issued the direct warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon at the State Department. Moments later, Mr. Lavrov vehemently denied the U.S. intelligence consensus that Russia and its affiliates actively tried to influence the 2016 American elections to help candidate Donald Trump, and the chief Russian diplomat also blamed the U.S. for allegedly concealing Obama-era documents that would prove Moscow wasn’t involved.

Mr. Lavrov then met with President Trump at the White House just hours after House Democrats formally introduced articles of impeachment against the president, accusing him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. While the charges center on whether Mr. Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joseph Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, past accusations of alleged Trump campaign collusion with Russia in 2016 loom large over the Democrat-led impeachment push.

Russian meddling also took a central role at Tuesday’s State Department press conference, overshadowing the two diplomats’ discussions around the soon-to-expire New START nuclear arms treaty, instability in Syria, efforts to achieve denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, the two nations’ competing political interests in Venezuela, and a host of other major issues confronting the two nations.

Mr. Lavrov flatly declared that it’s difficult to work with Mr. Pompeo on anything when the U.S. continues to make such allegations.

“Our joint work was hindered and continues to be hindered by the wave of suspicion that has overcome Washington,” he said. “We have highlighted once again that all speculation about our alleged interference in domestic processes in the United States [is] baseless. There are no facts that would support that.”

He then called for the release of private correspondence from late 2016 and early 2017 between U.S. and Russian officials that he said will show Moscow wasn’t involved with any election meddling.

Mr. Pompeo, of course, brushed off those denials and issued his warning.

“On the question of interference in our domestic affairs, I was clear: It’s unacceptable and I made our expectations of Russia clear,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections, period.”

“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 happened there,” he added.

Following the press conference, Mr. Lavrov met with Mr. Trump at the White House. The meeting lasted about an hour and was closed to the press, though the White House did say that the president brought up election meddling and a host of other issues.

“President Trump warned against any Russian attempts to interfere in United States elections and urged Russia to resolve the conflict with Ukraine,” the White House said in a brief readout of the meeting.

The president’s previous White House meeting with Mr. Lavrov sparked controversy when the two men — along with Sergey Kislyak, former Russian ambassador to the U.S. — were photographed smiling and laughing together. The May 2017 meeting came as initial investigations into Russia’s election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign were just beginning.

Beyond the 2020 election, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Lavrov also agreed on the need to strike a new arms reduction deal but seemed to differ on whether extending the current New START treaty is a viable option.

The agreement, which applies only to the U.S. and Russia, is set to expire in February 2021. The Trump administration has argued that such agreements must now include China, given the country’s status as a rising world power with military might that matches or in many cases exceeds that of Russia. Mr. Trump also stressed that any future deal must include China, the White House said.

Mr. Pompeo said simply continuing the current deal may not be enough, but Mr. Lavrov noted Beijing has firmly ruled out joining the pact for now.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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