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Russian FM warned on election meddling but invited by Trump

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President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday warned Russia of reprisals if it meddles in next year’s election but drew new controversy by inviting its foreign minister to the White House.

On the very day that House Democrats unveiled impeachment charges against Trump related to election interference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Trump behind closed doors at the White House after saying he sought more cooperation.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while voicing hope for more productive ties, made clear that the two powers had plenty of disagreements and warned Lavrov about the 2020 election.

“The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections, period,” Pompeo told a joint news conference.

“Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response.”

US intelligence found that Russia, among other steps, manipulated social media to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

The mogul turned president has instead promoted a conspiracy theory, roundly rejected by US intelligence, that it was not Russia but its rival Ukraine that interfered in the US election.

Lavrov seized on the idea, saying that purported Ukrainian meddling “allows us to understand the absurdity of the accusations against us.”

“We have highlighted once again that all speculation about our alleged interference in domestic processes in the United States is baseless,” Lavrov said.

Pompeo, a stalwart ally of Trump who has entertained the president’s views on a Ukrainian plot, stood firm that “our Russian counterparts” interfered in 2016.

“We don’t think there’s any mistake about what really transpired there,” Pompeo said.

Trump is facing impeachment after the White House delayed nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, which is battling Russian-backed separatists, as he pressed Kiev to investigate the election theory and to dig up dirt on his domestic rival Joe Biden.

Despite the clash over interference, Lavrov headed from talks at the State Department to the White House at the invitation of Trump, who under traditional protocol would rarely see a foreign minister.

Trump also invited Lavrov during his last visit in May 2017, when The Washington Post reported that the US leader shared with Russia classified details on a plot involving the Islamic State extremist group.

Democrats responded angrily to the latest welcome to Lavrov, who was spotted leaving the Oval Office, an umbrella protecting him from the rain, but did not speak at the White House.

Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Trump of “cozying up to autocrats” and demanded a full account of the closed-door meeting.

“While dialogue with the Russians is important, especially for strategic stability and the future of arms control, I have no confidence in President Trump to defend our interests in these conversations,” Engel said.

Representative Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment hearings, recalled how Trump last time reportedly bonded with Lavrov over the US president’s firing of the FBI chief, who had investigated Russian election interference.

“Today, they can celebrate the success of Russian propaganda,” Schiff said, in apparent reference to the Ukrainian meddling theory.

AFP

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