Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., penned a letter on Sunday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ahead of the Cabinet member’s planned trip to Russia in which he urged Pompeo to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin that any attempts to interfere with the 2020 presidential election “will be met with an immediate and robust response.”
Pompeo's meeting with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi will be the highest-level face-to-face talks between the former Cold War foes since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Schumer and other Democrats are concerned about Trump’s handling of Russian interference and said that it must change.
“During your meeting with Vladimir Putin, it is critical that you warn him that any action to interfere in our elections will be met with an immediate and robust response,” Schumer said in his letter to Pompeo. “President Trump’s approach to dealing with President Putin, especially on this vital issue, must change. I urge you to make absolutely clear to President Putin that interference in U.S. elections will not be tolerated.”
The trip will be Pompeo's first to Russia as secretary of state and, as he prepared for his weekend departure, administration critics, including congressional Democrats, noted that a statement highly critical of alleged Russian involvement in an attempted coup in Montenegro had been removed from the State Department's website.
The statement, which had been released on Thursday, said a Montenegrin court's conviction in absentia of two Russian intelligence officers for plotting to overthrow the Balkan country's government and prevent it from joining NATO was "a clear victory for the rule of law, laying bare Russia's brazen attempt to undermine the sovereignty of an independent European nation."
After Pompeo's office objected to the release, the statement was taken down from the website, according to officials, who stressed that it had not been formally recalled and still reflected U.S. government policy. Its removal, first reported by Foreign Policy, however, appeared to amuse Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who tweeted a screenshot of the statement, saying "Good news, @StateDept: we saved a copy."
The State Department said Pompeo and Putin and Lavrov would discuss "the full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges" facing the two countries. A senior department official said in addition to Venezuela and Iran, the talks would include arms control, stalled U.S. nuclear negotiations with North Korea, Syria, Russia's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and Washington's concerns about Russian election interference efforts.
Despite the focus of the talks centering on bilateral issues facing both nations, Democrats in Washington want Pompeo to focus on the Russian meddling detailed in the Mueller report.
“In recent weeks, the American people have heard yet again that Vladimir Putin directed a “sweeping and systematic” attack on our democracy,” Schumer wrote. “Special Counsel Mueller’s report documented an insidious disinformation campaign against the wellspring of our democracy — our elections.”
He added: "Even more recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the American people that the Russian efforts in the 2018 elections were just a dress rehearsal for 2020 and that we should be prepared for another active measures campaign to attack our election systems. Director Wray’s remarks should send a chill down all of our spines."
While Trump has downplayed significance of Russian interference and rejected allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia to win in 2016, Pompeo recently said he had told Lavrov during a meeting in Finland that "it's not appropriate and that we're going to do everything we can to deter it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.