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National security adviser sees proof of Russian hacking as ‘incontrovertible,’ prompting rebuke from Trump

U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said evidence of Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential campaign is 'incontrovertible' on Feb. 17. (Video: Reuters)

MUNICH — U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster acknowledged Saturday that evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is “incontrovertible” but said Moscow’s campaign to divide the West through subterfuge was failing.

“It’s just not working,” he said.

The comments, a day after the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians on charges of interference in the election that catapulted Donald Trump to the White House, follow months of efforts by the president to cast doubt on assertions of Moscow’s interference.

In a late-night tweet Saturday, President Trump hit out at McMaster, saying he “forgot” to mention that the Russians had not impacted the results of the election and that there had been no collusion with his campaign. Both are frequent Trump talking points that have not been substantiated by intelligence agency conclusions or investigators.

McMaster’s comments came as he used a high-profile address at a global security conference to try to rally Western allies against common enemies, offering an olive branch to U.S. partners that have often felt battered and neglected in the age of Trump.

The United States, McMaster said, is committed to working with Europe to combat nuclear proliferation, choke off funds for terrorist groups and thwart Russian ambitions.

Russian troll farm, 13 suspects indicted in 2016 election interference

But the appeal to solidarity could not hide the deep fissures among Western allies. Examples of those divisions abounded Saturday. On the second day of a conference dedicated to averting conflict, speeches by European leaders reflected the myriad strains afflicting decades-old alliances, including mistrust between Europe and the United States, anxiety over Britain’s looming exit from the European Union, and a growing chasm between the continent’s east and west.

Most glaring was the gap between the United States and its European allies. A day after Germany’s defense minister slammed the United States for cutting funds for diplomacy and other instruments of soft power, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel amplified the criticism, suggesting that the United States had abandoned core values. 

The United States, Gabriel said, had for decades been Germany’s protector and inspiration as it emerged from the rubble of the World War II and embraced democracy, multilateralism, the rule of law and free trade.

But Trump, Gabriel implied, had thrown the relationship into doubt.

“We are no longer sure whether we recognize our America,” he said. 

Germans did not understand, Gabriel added, which signals to watch to understand the direction of the United States under Trump: “Is it deeds? Is it words? Is it tweets?”

McMaster’s speech may have added to the confusion. 

Unlike the president, who frequently castigates NATO allies for not hitting the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, McMaster made no direct mention of the issue. 

NATO allies boost defense spending in the wake of Trump criticism

Instead of the competition with allies over trade that Trump often cites, McMaster emphasized the need for Western democracies to bind together in competition against autocratic adversaries.

And although Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the notion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race, McMaster was unambiguous. The evidence, he said, was “now really incontrovertible.”

U.S. authorities had been reluctant in the past to detail what they knew about the interference because, he said, “you didn’t want to divulge your intelligence capabilities.” But now, he said, it was in the public domain — and the United States was determined to fight future subterfuge.

“The United States will expose and act against those who use cyberspace, social media and other means to advance campaigns of disinformation, subversion and espionage,” McMaster said. “We are already improving our ability to defeat these pernicious threats.”

When the chair of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, suggested that Russian and U.S. cybersecurity experts meet for a dialogue, McMaster responded tartly.

“I’m surprised there are any Russian cyber experts available, based on how active they have been in undermining our democracies across the West,” he said. 

In a separate appearance, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said the indictment represents “the culmination of a gathering of a mass amount of facts” that were used to support last year’s intelligence assessment concluding that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump.

Coats said everything that had been learned since the assessment was issued in January 2017 had “verified that assessment.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who spoke immediately before McMaster, declined to comment on the indictments. “Until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber,” he said.

But Lavrov welcomed the evident divisions in the West, using his remarks to encourage European unity — against the policy priorities of the United States on Russian sanctions and energy security.

“I would hope that they would be responsible and, I would like to highlight, autonomous in their international affairs,” Lavrov said of E.U. countries, reflecting Russian language that frequently paints E.U. nations as lackeys of Washington.

The call for more autonomy was echoed among Europeans, many of whom used their conference speeches to argue that although the continent could not afford to abandon its close alliance with the United States, it would need to do more to stand on its own. 

Citing uncertainty in its alliance with the United States and a growing challenge from Russia and China, Gabriel said Europe must take on an expanded military role.

“As the only vegetarian, we will have a difficult position in a world of carnivores,” he said.

But the German foreign minister, whose center-left party is weighing whether to sign up for another coalition deal with the center-right party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said he opposes a dramatic rise in German defense spending. Germany spends the equivalent of 1.2 percent of GDP on defense, well below the 2 percent NATO target. 

That stance was attacked minutes later by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who called out “free-riders who live under pax Americana but pretend to be self-sufficient.”

“I would like to live under pax Europaea,” Morawiecki said. “But this is not the case. If we want to be more self-reliant, we really have to cater to our own security in a much better way.”

A year of Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda has radically changed the U.S. role in the world

Poland is one of just four E.U. countries to hit NATO’s target. About 75 percent of defense spending in the 28-member alliance comes from the United States. 

With the second-biggest spender in NATO, Britain, on track to leave the E.U., Prime Minister Theresa May sought to assure allies Saturday that the British commitment to European security would remain “unconditional.” 

But she then proceeded to warn her fellow European leaders that without a tailor-made deal to maintain British cooperation in areas such as extradition treaties and intelligence gathering, there would be “damaging real-world consequences.” 

The fissures extended southward as well, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim chastising the Syria policy of his largest NATO ally, the United States. Yildirim complained that Washington is working with Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq that Ankara views as terrorists but that the United States sees as valuable allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Europe’s east-west tensions were also on display. Morawiecki batted down suggestions that Poland and other Eastern European nations are straying from the liberal democratic traditions of Western Europe, while chastising authorities in Brussels as not doing enough to secure Europe’s external borders. 

Sitting beside Morawiecki, Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old chancellor of Austria, echoed that complaint. 

Kurz, who was elected last year on an anti-immigration platform and has joined with a far-right party to form his government, said Europe needs to emphasize its “Christian and Jewish mentality.”

The E.U., he said, had “taken a wrong turn. Very often, my feeling is that we’re paralyzing ourselves.”

The criticism added to the general mood of discord at the conference, which is held annually at one of Munich’s swankiest hotels. But Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador who convenes the gathering, praised Kurz and Morawiecki for doing something that he said many E.U. and NATO allies refused to do: appear on stage together.

 “That,” he said, “does not convey a good image.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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