Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Vladimir Putin in Russia for talks Tuesday – with the Kremlin leader crowing in language that echoed Donald Trump’s that the Robert Mueller probe showed there was ‘no collusion’ between the sitting president and Moscow.
The Russian president hosted Pompeo in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the highest-level, face-to-face talks between the two countries this year.
And he used an opening statement to boast that a telephone call he had earlier this month with Trump showed there was a chance of better relations between the two countries – and made no mention of 2016 election interference.
Putin said his May 3 phone call with Trump ‘created the impression that the president intends to restore Russian-American connections and contacts to resolve joint issues that present mutual interests.’
He did not say whether he and Trump had discussed the Mueller report, as Trump claimed they did.
He did say, ‘However exotic the work of special counsel Mueller was, I have to say that on the whole he has had a very objective investigation and he confirmed that there were no traces whatsoever of collusion between Russia and the incumbent administration, which we said was absolutely fake.’
Putin went on: ‘As we said before there was no collusion from our government officials and it could not be there.
‘Still, that was one of the reasons for the certain break in our inter-state ties. I’m hoping today that the situation is changing.’
Pompeo did not specifically mention election meddling in his brief reply to Putin, although he did say the Trump administration would ‘protect our nation’s interest.’
After the meeting Putin’s foreign affairs adviser said the Kremlin is prepared to agree to any format for a meeting of Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, which is expected at June’s G20 meeting in Japan.
Yuri Ushakov, who took part in the talks with Pompeo said: ‘We are prepared for any kind of contact. We can talk with President Trump “on foot” (on the sidelines), we can sit down for more detailed talks. It all depends on the attitude of our American partners.’
He offered no hint on whether election interference had been raised.
The top U.S. diplomat had said before the talks that he told Russia’s foreign minister ‘that interference in American elections is unacceptable’ as they sat for talks on Tuesday.
Pompeo and Sergey Lavrov openly quarreled about the topic at a joint news conference in between their meeting and the talks with Putin, with the U.S. diplomat saying that they ‘have some disagreements’ on the issue.
‘If the Russians were to engage in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been, and encourage them not to do that, that we would not tolerate that,’ he said.
‘We’ve said this not only about the Russians but about other countries as well. Our elections are important and sacred, and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering in those elections.’
It was Pompeo’s first visit to Russia as America’s chief diplomat, and he said ahead of the trip that he would confront Putin about election interference.
Lavrov was prepared for the inquiry and told a reporter at a news conference that the U.S. has been claiming since at least 1987 that Russia, then the Soviet Union, is meddling in its presidential elections.
He said he gave Pompeo an article on election meddling in the 1988 contest that mentioned a businessman that would go on to lead the U.S. His name was Donald Trump.
‘So 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 who are trying to hype up this topic,’ he said. ‘Attacks against our internet resources, they – the lion’s share of those attacks come from the United States soil.’
He referred to ‘alleged interference’ in elections and said his country offered to publish dialogue between Russian and America special centers that handle cybersecurity threats.
‘We suggested to publish that, and I mentioned that to Mike. Administration refused to do so. I don’t know who made this decision. However, the publication of this data was blocked by the American side, but we believe that making them public would alleviate a lot of those deliberations that have been spread right now,’ he contended.
Lavrov said Russia will not publish private communications between the the nations, unless the U.S. provides its approval.
‘We want to deal with our American colleagues with the issues that appear in the cyberspace through professional dialogue,’ he claimed, ‘with no emotions, no political jaundice, with no ideology, with no attempts to make this topic the main one in the domestic policy in the U.S.’
Attempting to turn the tables on the U.S. in the discussion, Lavrov said he gave Pompeo a white paper laying out ‘the actual information of U.S. interference in the domestic policy of the Russian Federation’ through its support for the Ukraine.
He claimed that the bad blood between Washington and Moscow is an ‘accumulation of mutual negative actions, which was initiated by the United States that we had to reciprocate’ and must be alleviated ‘without equating perception from the other side that someone is trying to influence a domestic political process.’
‘By the way, once again, we gave an example of 1933, when the United States spearheaded through – President Roosevelt and People’s Commissioner Mr. Litvinov exchanged notes where they committed to non-interference in each other’s processes,’ he added. ‘I’d like to highlight once again, this action was initiated by the U.S. for several years now, starting with the Obama administration.’
He said, ‘We suggested to our partners to reconfirm that commitment. Right now, they are not prepared for that, so draw your own conclusions.’
Pompeo told him he would prefer not to re-litigate 1930s history, as he responded to the question after Lavrov.
‘You can see we have some disagreements on this issue,’ he said. ‘I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, as we’ve made clear for the past months, that interference in American elections is unacceptable.’
Iran was also expected to be a top topic in his talks with the Kremlin’s most senior figures.
Pompeo said at the news conference, ‘We spoke a bit about the activities that are taking place in the Middle East today, with particular focus on the actions that Iran is taking.
‘I made clear that the United States will continue to apply pressure to the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbors or spread instability or terror,’ he said.
The State Departments said Monday that ‘attacks’ by Iranian proxies and Tehran’s ‘destabilizing’ actions in Syria would be on the agenda.
The U.S. is accusing Iran of sabotaging four oil tankers anchored in the Middle East, and President Trump warned Iran on Monday that ‘it’s going to be a bad problem’ for the nation if the behavior worsens.
‘They’re not going to be happy. They are not going to be happy people,’ he said in the Oval Office.
Allegations over the oil tankers, two of which belonged to the Saudis, one the UAE, and one of which was a Norwegian vessel, further strained relations between Iran and the U.S.
The White House was said to be considering a proposal to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East on Tuesday, in case escalated tensions evolved into a military conflict with Iran.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan developed the plan at National Security Advisor John Bolton’s request, the New York Times reported.
Last week, the U.S. sent a group of nuclear-capable, aircraft carriers to the Middle East, as it claimed it had evidence of a ‘credible threat’ from Iran that required the urgent deployment.
Tehran announced days later that it would no longer abide by certain provisions of the international nuclear agreement that Donald Trump left last year but Europe and Russia remain party to, unless it gets the sanctions relief it was initially promised.
Trump’s administration responded to the threat by introducing sanctions on Iran’s medal industry.
Russia has said that U.S. sanctions on Iran are ‘illegitimate’ and in violation of a United National Security Council resolution.
Pompeo insisted Saturday in an interview with CNBC that the U.S. is right to take action to contain Iran.
‘What we’ve seen from the Iranians is increased threats, and we’ve seen this reporting. It’s real. It appears to be something that is current,’ he said. ‘So we’ve done all of our things to increase our security posture to the best of our ability.’
He added, ‘But we also wanted to make sure that we had deterrent forces in place, so in the event that Iran decided to come after an American interest, whether that be in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Yemen or any place in the Middle East, we were prepared to respond in an appropriate way.’
Pressure from the new dispute with Iran could derail Trump’s attempt to reset relations with Russia, now that the special counsel investigation into election meddling and alleged collusion has concluded.
He spoke to Putin by phone before Pompeo’s trip and announced plans on Monday to hold talks with the Russian leader next month at the G20.
After confirming he’d meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Osaka at the June conference, Trump said, ‘Yes, I’ll be meeting with President Putin also.’
He said he’s sending Pompeo to meet with Putin first to make clear that ‘there has never been anybody that’s been so tough on Russia but, at the same time, we’re going to end up getting along with Russia’ because it makes sense for the nations to work with one another.
‘Nobody has sanctioned Russia like I have. Nobody has talked about the pipeline going to Germany and various other places like I have. I said it’s very unfair — having to do with the United States and NATO. There has been nobody that’s ever done — and if you really look at something big, our energy business — we’re now the biggest in the world.
He said, ‘We’re bigger than Russia. We’re bigger than Saudi Arabia. We’re bigger than anybody. That it all happened since I’ve become President because I’ve made it so that you can do that. And we’re taking in a lot of money.’
If Trump’s meeting with Putin is the carrot, Pompeo planned to arrived on Tuesday with a stick, the State Department signaled on Friday.
‘The starting point we have to have when we discuss our policy toward Russia, and this is part of what diplomacy does, and the secretary’s trip, is to acknowledge frankly that Russia has taken a series of aggressive and destabilizing actions on the global stage,’ a senior official said Friday.
Conflicts in Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Ukraine and North Korea were expected to come up. So were the cases of U.S. citizens who are detained in Russia.
‘The secretary will also talk about the challenges in our bilateral relationship with Russia,’ the official said. ‘It is no secret that we have many areas of disagreement with the Russian Government, and the secretary will have a very candid conversation about concerns in our bilateral relationship.’
Those challenges include Russia’s alleged violation of arms control agreement and ‘Kremlin-backed attempts to meddle in U.S. and other foreign elections,’ the State Department said.
‘These are issues he’s raised before, and he will continue to raise. No administration has been tougher than the Trump administration in imposing costs on Russia for its malign activities,’ the official said of Pompeo’s visit.
The official said that trip is an ‘opportunity to take the conversation’ on key issues ‘to a higher level’ by meeting directly with Putin.
‘This trip is an opportunity to make those points clear to the Russian government and what are expectations are and see how to forge a path forward,’ the person said.
State announced Friday morning that Pompeo, who rushed back to the U.S. this week from Europe as hostilities with with Iran and North Korea, would travel to Moscow and Sochi, Russia, this week, leaving on Sunday.
An advisory said he would ‘meet with his team at U.S. Embassy Moscow before meeting with U.S. business leaders and U.S. exchange alumni’ on Monday, May 13.
‘Secretary Pompeo will travel to Sochi, Russia on May 14 to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin to discuss the full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges,’ the statement said.
Pompeo nixed a day in Moscow on Monday to make a stop in Brussels to meet with U.S. allies, instead. He arrived on Tuesday for his meetings with Lavrov and Putin.
Trump’s call with Putin signaled a willingness by the U.S. president to engage with Russia, despite added tension after a U.S.-backed uprising in Caracas failed to displace the country’s dictatorial leader Nicolas Maduro.
President Trump has repeatedly asserted his preference of having a good relationship with traditional foes like Russia rather than a bad one, a sentiment the State Department reiterated in advance of the trip by Pompeo.
‘We’ve been clear all along that part of our Russia policy is it is in our interest to have a better relationship with Russia. The president has been clear, the secretary has been clear on that,and so where we have concerns we’re going to raise them directly, narrow those differences, and find areas where we can cooperate to protect and advance our interests,’ the person said.
Trump claims to have taken the fiercest stance against Russia of any modern president, but his refusal to address intelligence community concerns about Putin’s election interference generated new clams last week that he’s not acting tough enough.
He said last Friday that Putin ‘smiled’ as they talked about the 2016 election.
‘He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that ‘it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse,’ ‘Trump said. ‘But he knew that because he knew there was to no collusion whatsoever.’
The U.S. president admitted that he did not tell Putin not to meddle in the next election, despite a claim from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders earlier in the day that Trump is ‘looking at ways to actually prevent it’ unlike predecessor Barack Obama.
‘We didn’t discuss that,’ he told a reporter who asked about the next election twice.
At the White House later, DailyMail.com asked Sanders to explain why Trump declined to tell his Russian counterpart to not interfere in the next election.
‘The president’s made clear to everybody: every person that’s not an American person has no business in our election. We’ve said it a lot, and we’re actually doing things to prevent everybody from meddling in our election. Something the other administration failed to do,’ she claimed.
Sanders said, ‘Let’s not forget that any interference in any election didn’t take place under this president, it took place under President Obama. We’re actually taking steps to stop it and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.’
Pressed to say why he did not tell Putin that during the call, she replied, before walking away, ‘The president’s been clear that no one needs to meddle in our election. He doesn’t need to do that every two seconds.’
Sanders told press earlier in the day that Trump and Putin discussed the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference ‘very briefly’ in an early morning call she told reporters about as she walked back from a TV hit on the White House lawn.
She would not say who initiated the contact that came amid the uprising in Venezuela but confirmed that the two leaders spoke for ‘a little over an hour’ on Friday and the special counsel investigation was among the topics.
‘Very, very, briefly it was discussed, essentially in the context of its over, and there was no collusion, which I’m pretty sure both leaders were well aware of long before this call,’ she told White House press who happened to be present.
President Trump described it as a ‘long and very good conversation’ in a tweet later in the day.
‘As I have always said, long before the Witch Hunt started, getting along with Russia, China, and everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing,’ he announced.
He said they discussed the ”Russian Hoax’ ‘ during the call, using a nickname he gave the probe over allegations he participated in election interference.
It was the rival presidents’ first conversation since the conclusion of the special counsel investigation. Mueller’s report found that no one in the Trump campaign was involved in the Kremlin’s plot to disrupt the American presidential election in 2016.
Mueller did not arrive a verdict on whether Trump obstructed justice in 10 instances outlined in the report. A meeting he had with Russian officials at the White House the day after he fired James Comey as FBI director was described in one of them.
‘The day after firing Comey, the president told Russian officials that he had ‘Faced great pressure because of Russia,’ which had been ‘taken off’ by Comey’s firing,’ the report says.
The Mueller probe came up during the Trump-Putin call, Sanders admitted, providing little additional detail on the nature of the discussion.
The White House spokeswoman insisted to press that the Trump administration is taking aggressive steps to prevent future election meddling by Russia.
‘This administration, unlike the previous one, takes election meddling seriously,’ she charged, ‘and we’re going to do everything that we can to prevent that from happening.’
She said Trump is ‘looking at ways to actually prevent it from taking place, instead of what they did in 2016, just letting it happen, knowing about it and doing nothing, and then trying to blame it on the incoming administration.’
She had no future summit to preview between Trump and Putin, after the U.S. president cancelled the last one abruptly.
‘I’m not aware of any plan upcoming for the two presidents,’ she said.
Trump confirmed on Monday that he would meet with Putin, however.