Senate Unites to Protect U.S. Officials from Russian Interrogation as White House Decides Against Putin Request

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul arrives at Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow on May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

WASHINGTON — Just before the Senate sent a 98-0 message that the U.S. government should not hand over officials for interrogation by the Russian government, the White House said it had decided against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand to have access to 11 Americans from the former U.S. ambassador to the congressional staffer who wrote Magnitsky Act human rights sanctions.

The Senate action came on the heels of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters Wednesday that President Trump was mulling the request.

At his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Trump mentioned an “incredible offer” made by Putin to allow special counsel Robert Mueller to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers indictedFriday for hacking the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and staff of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

Putin chimed in that Russia “can extend this cooperation but we should do it on a reciprocal basis, because we would await our Russian counterparts to provide us access to the persons of interest for us whom we believe can have something to do with intelligence services.”

The state-run TASS news agency reported that Russia is demanding that it be able to interrogate 11 U.S. intelligence officers, businessmen, and diplomats, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who is now a professor at Stanford. Prosecutors took issue with McFaul compiling information “on the progress of the investigation in the Magnitsky case” after the lawyer’s death in Russian custody in 2009.

“We’re ready to send another request to the competent U.S. authorities to allow us to interrogate these U.S. special services employees, a number of other U.S. civil servants and entrepreneurs in order to subsequently indict them for the crimes committed by Browder,” said the prosecutor’s office.

The list includes Kyle Parker, who as a congressional staffer wrote the Magnitsky Act. It also includes agents who have investigated Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s client.

“The president is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” Sanders said of Putin’s offer, which she said was made at the Helsinki summit. “There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States. And the president will work with his team, and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”

The State Department, meanwhile, blasted the notion as “absurd.”

By this morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) had a resolution ready “expressing the sense of Congress against the making available of current and former diplomats, officials, and members of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin.”

“Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that the United States should refuse to make available any current or former diplomat, civil servant, political appointee, law enforcement official, or member of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin,” states the text.

“Let this resolution be a warning to the administration that Congress will not allow this to happen. I call on President Trump to say, once and for all, not through his spokespeople, that the lopsided, disgraceful trade he called an ‘incredible offer’ is now off the table,” Schumer declared on the Senate floor before the 98-0 vote. “There should be no equivocation on the matter.”

About an hour before the vote, Sanders issued a statement on Putin’s offer: “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

Responded McFaul on Twitter, “I don’t consider it ‘sincerity’ to falsely accuse US government officials of being criminals.”

The ambassador also told lawmakers, “Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support.”