Bolton presses Russia about meddling in US election process
GENEVA (AP) — President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said Thursday he pressed top Russian officials about meddling in the U.S. election process, while saying Russians will face no new U.S. sanctions if they stop such interference.
John Bolton spoke to The Associated Press in an interview at the U.S. mission in Geneva between morning and afternoon meetings with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, a follow-up meeting to the summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month.
It marked the first top-level meeting in what could be a series between the two presidents’ national security teams, a result of what Bolton called the only “concrete” result from the summit in the Finnish capital. Such meetings were aimed toward “opening up channels” and “break through some of the difficulties we’ve had.”
Bolton wasted little time in mentioning he had brought up the election meddling.
“I raised that this morning,” he said, suggesting that the Russians reacted with stone faces: “They didn’t respond at all.”
“I’m going to make sure that they understand how strongly we feel about this,” he said, adding that he would “tell them how firm the position of the U.S. is that there is no election meddling.”
Bolton told reporters later: “I made it clear that we wouldn’t tolerate meddling in 2018, and we were prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening.”
Asked if there would be consequences for Russians who might do so, Bolton demurred, saying the “focus” was “to make sure that’s no repetition of 2016.” He said bilateral issues were on tap for his afternoon session.
But he appeared to offer a bit of an olive branch.
“There won’t be any new sanctions if there’s no further interference,” he said, before specifying that “how we resolve the interference in the past remains to be seen.”
Bolton cautioned that “people who are accused of having violated the sanctions could be indicted,” alluding to a possible follow-up of the U.S. indictments of 12 Russian officials as part of an investigation by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller.
Patrushev said after the meeting in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he and Bolton didn’t agree on a joint statement because the U.S. wanted to mention the alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
“The Americans wanted to mention what they see as our meddling in their elections, and we deny that,” he said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
He said that the meeting was constructive, adding that Russia will look at the U.S. proposals made during the meeting and expects the U.S. to consider Russian initiatives.
Patrushev said he invited Bolton to have the next meeting in Russia, but no specific time frame was set. He added that they also agreed to resume contacts between defense and foreign ministries.
Bolton said he and Patrushev had discussed nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, arms control, and Middle East issues including Syria and Afghanistan.
He said he had expressed the U.S. “priority of getting all Iranian forces out of Syria,” and reiterated that Putin had told Bolton in a recent meeting that the Russians too “would like to see the Iranians go home as well, we (the Russians) are just not sure we alone can accomplish it.”
Bolton said he and Patrushev had discussed “a number of ideas” about how to do that, without specifying.
“We’re not going to solve Syria here,” he said.
Iran and Russia are two leading backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Bolton is a fervent critic of Iran’s leadership, saying it supports terrorism, and has defended the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal involving Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain.
Bolton told reporters the U.S. was considering a number of possibilities for the future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, including whether it should be extended or renegotiated. He said the U.S. was “very, very early in the process” of considering the future of the new START or the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
Bolton insisted that recent U.S. political turmoil over guilty pleas and verdicts against by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen — “doesn’t have any effect” on his job.
He said there was “no weakening of my position, no weakening of the United States, and no weakening of the Trump administration” as a result of the developments that have arguably caused the greatest political crisis of Trump’s 19-month presidency.
Asked about whether the issue had been addressed Thursday, he said the Russian officials “haven’t brought it up” in Thursday morning — and suggested they shouldn’t at the later session either.
Bolton, a frequent critic of the United Nations who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush’s administration, also offered tough new language about the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council based in Geneva. The Trump administration pulled out of the 47-member body in June, accusing it of anti-Israel bias and of allowing countries with poor human rights records to be among its members.
In a new development, he also said the United States will cut funding for the U.N. human rights office, where former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is set to become the new High Commissioner for Human Rights next month.
“We are going to de-fund the Human Rights Council,” Bolton said, while warning that other U.N. agencies could also be up for cuts in U.S. funding.
Bolton rejected claims by some U.N. officials who insist the council gets its funding through the regular U.N. budget — meaning that its operating expenses can’t be specifically targeted.
The United States pays about 22 percent of the U.N. budget as part of what’s known as an “assessment” based on economic weight and other factors.
Bolton said “we’ll calculate 22 percent of the Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner’s budget, and our remittances to the U.N. for this budget year will be less 22 percent of those costs — and we’ll say specifically that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We expect that impact to occur on the Human Rights Council.”
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.