White House national-security adviser John Bolton says he told top officials in Moscow that Russian meddling in U.S. elections had backfired and that should provide a lesson to the Kremlin: "Don't mess with American elections."
Speaking on October 23 after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials during a two-day visit, Bolton said there was no evidence that Russia's alleged influence operations, as detailed in U.S. indictments against at least two dozen Russians, had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. But he said they did create widespread mistrust toward Russia in Washington.
"The fact was that the outcome would have been the same by all the evidence we have," Bolton said.
"What the meddling did was create distrust and animosity within the United States, and particularly made it almost impossible for two years for the United States and Russia to make any progress. That's a huge loss for both countries, particularly for Russia," he said. "So, it's a lesson, I think: Don't mess with American elections."
Bolton stressed that Russia's alleged interference has been "particularly harmful for Russian-American relations without providing anything for them in return."
Russia has repeatedly denied any meddling in U.S. elections, although Putin has suggested some "patriotic" individual hackers might have been involved.
U.S. prosecutors have accused a group of agents with Russia's GRU military intelligence agency of hacking the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 election campaign and leaking internal Democratic communications to WikiLeaks, in an incident that Democrats have said damaged prospects for Trump's opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
In another indictment, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has accused 13 Russians of working for a so-called troll factory in St. Petersburg called the Internet Research Agency that allegedly spread disinformation and attempted to manipulate American voters on Facebook and other social media during the campaign.
As recently as October 19, U.S. prosecutors charged a Russian woman with playing a financial role in what they called a Kremlin-backed plan to conduct "information warfare" against the United States, including attempts to influence next month's congressional elections.
On October 22, Bolton told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy that election interference was "a major obstacle" to Washington and Moscow achieving agreement on issues where the two countries have a shared interest.
"The point I made to Russian colleagues today was that I didn't think, whatever they had done in terms of meddling in the 2016 election, that they had any effect on it, but what they have had an effect in the United States is to sow enormous distrust of Russia," he said, according to a transcript provided by the White House.
Bolton added that he told the Kremlin: "You shouldn't meddle in our elections because you're not advancing Russian interests."
Bolton's remarks came as The New York Times reported that the United States has launched a cybercampaign aimed at alleged Russian operatives in an effort to curb misinformation ahead of the November 6 congressional elections.
The New York Times, citing unnamed defense officials, said the U.S. Cyber Command, the military's cyberwarfare division, was using direct messages to target individuals behind influence campaigns in an effort to deter them from spreading propaganda and fake information.