Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov touted the indictment of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as a vindication of his denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Special counsel Robert Mueller brought money laundering charges against Manafort and business partner Rick Gates in the course of an investigation that arose out of the cyberattacks against the Democratic Party in 2016. The indictments accuse the pair of hiding income earned from working for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and failing to register as foreign agents.
Lavrov argued that Mueller has been “looking for a Russian trail” only to find Manafort involved with Ukrainian officials.
“They have now found a Ukrainian trail in connection with Mr. Manafort and one of his employees,” Lavrov told reporters, per RT, a Russian state-run media outlet. “I suppose a Ukrainian trail should be investigated through Ukraine.”
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a complex conflict since 2014, when the Ukrainian president, who employed Manafort, was impeached and removed following protests against his support for Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a covert military operation to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine. The Russians initially denied involvement in the conflict, but Lavrov eventually admitted their role.
Trump accused Ukraine of interfering in the election on behalf of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s team after a former Democratic National Committee staffer was reported to have sought information about Manafort’s alleged corruption from the Ukrainian government.
Ukrainian investigators also released “handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated” for Manafort by the former president, according to the New York Times. That report contributed to Manafort’s departure from the campaign in August. “[Ukrainian authorities] also have [things] to say about their standpoint during the U.S. presidential campaign,” Lavrov said.
Mueller’s investigation also resulted in another former Trump adviser pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with individuals who had “substantial connections to Russian government officials.” Specifically, former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied about a professor who informed him in April 2016 that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails” stolen from her team.
Lavrov maintained that there is no evidence of a Russian role in the cyberattacks and email leaks that dominated the news in the final weeks of the campaign. “Without any evidence, we have been blamed for interfering not only in elections in the U.S., but in European states too,” Lavrov said. “Fantasy has no limits.”
U.S. intelligence officials from both Trump's and former President Barack Obama’s administration have blamed Russia for the cyberattacks and ensuing document releases. "I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community," CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas Republican lawmaker, said in July.