MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Tuesday that U.S. charges against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and another aide showed Moscow had been unfairly maligned in accusations that it meddled in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
Federal investigators probing alleged Russian interference in the election, something Moscow denies, charged Manafort and Rick Gates with money laundering on Monday.
But despite being brought as part of a five-month-old investigation into alleged Russian efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s favor and into potential collusion by Trump aides, the charges, some going back over a decade, centered on Manafort’s work for Ukraine’s former government, not Russia‘s.
That was welcomed in Russia, where officials are watching the investigation closely since public evidence of Russian meddling, something that has not so far been presented, would be sure to translate into tougher U.S. sanctions against Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov highlighted the absence of allegations against Russia in the indictment against Manafort and Gates, saying on Tuesday that Moscow had always said it had never interfered in the U.S. election.
That assertion is challenged by U.S. intelligence agencies who say unequivocally that Moscow did interfere in the November 2016 vote.
“…Russia does not feature in the charges that were leveled in any way. Other countries and other people feature (in the charges),” Peskov told a conference call with reporters.
“Moscow never felt itself guilty so it doesn’t feel exonerated now,” he said, when asked whether the Kremlin interpreted the indictment as proof that its repeated denials about meddling election were true.
Peskov also brushed aside any suggestion that someone with links to the Russian Foreign Ministry might have tried to set up a meeting with the Trump campaign through a third ex-aide, George Papadopoulos, who it was announced on Monday pleaded guilty in early October to lying to the FBI.
Russia’s flagship TV news show took a similar line on Monday evening, saying it was “now clear that there was nothing” to allegations about Manafort being in touch with Russian officials to try to sway the election.
The U.S. investigation was an internal matter for the United States, said Peskov, but Moscow was following it with interest.
Peskov laughed off the purported role of Papadopoulos, who told investigators he had tried to set up a meeting between the Trump campaign and the Russian leadership.
In his unsuccessful quest to broker such a meeting, Papadopoulos said he had met a London-based professor boasting of contacts with Russian officials and an unnamed Russian woman. He also mentioned being in touch with someone linked to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Peskov, when asked what the Kremlin made of someone linked to the Foreign Ministry allegedly trying to set up a Putin-Trump meeting, said: “It’s an absolutely laughable allegation.”
Media reports have suggested the individual linked to the ministry is Ivan Timofeev, who works for a Moscow-based think-tank called the Russian International Relations Council (RIAC).
Timofeev did not respond to a request for comment, but told the gazeta.ru online news portal in August that Papadopoulos had emailed him in the spring of 2016 and spoken about the possibility of organizing a Trump trip to Russia.
Timofeev said Papadopoulos had never made a formal request to either RIAC or the Russian Foreign Ministry for such a visit, however, and that he had got the impression that he had been “acting on his own initiative” and was “an enthusiast with little experience.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Tuesday that there was nothing “illegal” about Papadopoulos contacting someone at RIAC.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov, Katya Golubkova and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Catherine Evans/Mark Heinrich