WASHINGTON — The White House said Wednesday that President Trump would mull over with advisers a Russian demand to interrogate American critics of the Putin regime and those involved in crafting human-rights sanctions, while the State Department said the Russian president’s quid pro quo offer is an “absurd” non-starter.
Bill Browder is a longtime Putin foe whose company, Hermitage, exposed information about Russian government corruption and fraud, for which Browder was banned from the country in 2005. Tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky was investigating a mysterious case brought against one of Browder’s firms and subsequently discovered massive tax fraud that tied together the Russian government and organized crime. Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and held for 11 months without trial, suffering beatings and being denied medical care when he refused to blame Browder’s company and absolve the government. He died behind bars on Nov. 16, 2009, at age 37.
Browder began championing human rights sanctions against Russia, known as the Magnitsky Act. It became law in the U.S. in 2012, and Congress expanded the bill to sanction officials beyond Russia with the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016; versions have also become law in the UK, Canada and Baltic states. The year after the Magnitsky Act first passed, Russia convicted Browder and the late Magnitsky in absentia of tax evasion. Russia then demanded an Interpol Red Notice be issued for his arrest; so far, Interpol and countries Browder visits have refused to honor Russia’s arrest warrant, though he had problems with his U.S. visa this past October.
“Red Notice” became the title of Browder’s 2015 tell-all bestseller. Browder reports regularly receiving death threats.
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 indicted Friday 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.”
Putin specifically mentioned Browder, claiming Browder illegally earned $400 million that he transferred to the U.S. “as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” He’s offered no evidence to support the claim.
Browder tweeted Tuesday, “After Putin accused me at the Helsinki Summit of donating $400m to the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Russian General Prosecutor clarified that Putin should have said $400k. The real answer is I donated ZERO. Total amateur hour.”
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 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.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked at Wednesday’s press briefing if Trump supports Putin’s request. “The president is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” she replied.
Sanders confirmed that Putin and Trump talked about the issue during their two-hour one-on-one meeting.
“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” she said. “And the president will work with his team, and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”
At the State Department briefing, press secretary Heather Nauert said “the overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd.”
“The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens, and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens,” Nauert said. “We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes. The Prosecutor General in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard. Those have been refuted by, among other things, the Southern District Court of New York in other cases that are somewhat related. Instead we continue to urge Russian authorities to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue those in Russia who in fact perpetrated the fraudulent scheme that Russia refers to that targeted not only Mr. Browder but also his company and others and also the Russian people as a whole.”
Nauert said she understood that the Putin demand “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues here.”
McFaul tweeted that he appreciated Nauert’s public support. “Trump has one policy towards Putin. Rest of administration has a second policy towards Russia,” he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tweeted that McFaul is “a patriot, a scholar, and a mensch. And of course he is my friend. But none of that matters. He could be a doofus and a jerk, but he is the former United States Ambassador to an adversary. It must be made clear that he is off-limits to Putin.”
Browder told Fox News that since he hasn’t been an American citizen for decades Trump can’t make a deal that includes him, as Prime Minister Theresa May wouldn’t “be too happy about turning me over to Putin.”
On Tuesday, Browder wrote for TIME that “Putin received some of the proceeds of this crime” uncovered by Magnitsky, “and he is terrified that the Magnitsky Act could be applied to his offshore fortune, which is probably one of the largest amassed in modern times.”
Putin’s claim about the Clinton donation, Browder reiterated, “is so ludicrous and untrue that it falls into delusion.”
“It’s in the same category as other Russian government allegations against me: they accused me of being a serial killer; they accused me of being a CIA/MI6 agent determined to destroy the Russian government; and they accused me of somehow stealing $4.8 billion of IMF money back in the 1990s that was destined for the Russian Treasury,” he added. “These guys have seriously lost their cool and are beginning to make mistakes.”