WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump warned Russia not to interfere in U.S. elections in talks with Russia’s top diplomat on Tuesday, the White House said, after meetings where the two sides made no visible progress on nuclear arms control.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted to publish U.S.-Russian communications that he said cleared Russia of allegations it meddled in the 2016 U.S. election but that Washington had blocked their release.
Speaking at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lavrov said the contacts were with former President Barack Obama’s administration but did not provide details on them. He repeated Russian denials of interference.
Lavrov also renewed Moscow’s offer to extend the U.S.-Russia New START arms control treaty, while Trump and Pompeo stressed the need for a strategic dialogue that also included China.
The bilateral meetings took place as Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives announced impeachment charges against Trump that accuse him of abusing power by pressuring Ukraine to probe a political rival and obstructing the subsequent Congress investigation.
Lavrov’s visit revived questions about whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election that brought Trump to power, and whether it might do so again in 2020.
“President Trump warned against any Russian attempts to interfere in United States elections,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement on Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Lavrov.
Told about the White House statement, Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter at a solo evening news conference, said: “You know, we haven’t even actually discussed elections.”
Trump had also urged Russia to resolve the conflict with Ukraine, Deere said.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. A separate, more than five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people and left a large swathe of Ukraine de facto controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
“President Trump also emphasized his support for effective global arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China,” Deere added.
At the earlier joint news conference, Pompeo said the United States believed other parties, such as China, had to be brought in to a wider arms control discussion and said he would consider a Russian proposal to include nuclear powers Britain and France.
China, which is estimated to have far fewer nuclear weapons than the United States and Russia, has rejected trilateral talks, and some analysts view the U.S. stance as a poison pill designed to kill off the New START treaty.
The 2011 agreement, which requires both sides to cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, is scheduled to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for up to five years by mutual consent.
China is estimated to possess about 290 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association nonprofit group.
“There is real risk that there is a reduction in strategic stability just staying right where we are,” Pompeo said, arguing that delivery systems have evolved beyond the missiles, bombers and submarines covered by the New START treaty.
Noting Putin’s offer to extend that treaty immediately, Lavrov said: “The ball is in our American partners’ court.”
Lavrov’s last Oval Office meeting in May 2017 turned into a public relations disaster for Trump, who was accused by unnamed U.S. officials of divulging highly classified information during that meeting about a planned operation by the Islamic State militant group. The allegations were denied by the White House.
Trump was also blasted for media reports that he told Russian officials firing FBI Director James Comey had relieved him of “great pressure.” Comey’s dismissal ultimately led to a 22-month investigation by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The inquiry laid bare what Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, denigrate 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Ginger Gibson; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O'Brien