At the now infamous US-Russia summit in Helsinki, Vladimir Putin made what President Trump characterized as “an incredible offer”: In exchange for allowing Special Counsel Bob Mueller to question Russian intelligence officers indicted in the collusion probe, Putin wants to question Americans he claims were involved in ‘crimes’ against Russia.
Putin accused American-born British financier Bill Browder and his partners of conspiring with US intelligence officials to launder $400 million out of Russia and into the campaign coffers of Hillary Clinton.
Total funds raised by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle amount to $563 million, so that would mean Browder and associates funded an astounding 71% of her campaign. Perhaps the sheer absurdity is what forced Putin to recant his statement.
Nevertheless, the Russians released a list of 11 Americans they want to question, including Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia under President Obama and a vociferous Putin critic. The list also names at least two other diplomats, as well as members of the intelligence community.
On Wednesday, New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman prodded press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to clarify President Trump’s position. Is he really willing to hand American officials over for questioning by Putin?
“There was some conversation about it,” Sanders said, “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.”
Let’s be clear: no president should have to “work with his team” on this. The immediate, obvious answer is “nyet!” What could possibly be more impolitic than subjecting American diplomats to interrogation by a hostile power without a whiff of evidence? And what could possibly make Trump look even more like a Putin stooge?
The common thread connecting the 11 Americans singled out by Putin seems their work on sanctions against Russia. This is really about Bill Browder and the Magnitsky Act.
Although Putin now treats Browder as a bête noire, they were once allies. Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005, when he was suddenly stripped of his visa and deported as a “national security threat.” The exact reason is unclear, but it’s worth noting Hermitage had made a habit of auditing corrupt Russian conglomerates with ties to the Kremlin.
In the wake of Browder’s expulsion, Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s Russian accountant, alleged that police helped organized crime groups to take over three of Hermitage’s businesses and claim fraudulent tax refunds on their behalf amounting to $230 million.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008. He was held for 11 months without trial, denied necessary medical attention, and then beaten to death seven days before the Russian government was legally required to release him.
The murder of this whistleblower triggered an international outcry. Browder reached out to his political contacts in the US, who responded by introducing the Magnitsky Act. Signed into law by President Obama in 2012, it barred Russians accused of human rights abuses from entering the US and froze their stateside assets. The Act was later expanded to include criminals from other countries as well.
Canada passed its own Magnitsky Act in 2017; the UK and the Baltic states have done likewise.
Putin has fought bitterly against this legislation. Repealing Magnitsky was apparently the big ask of Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-linked lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials at Trump Tower in 2016 after offering dirt on Hillary Clinton through intermediaries.
As fate would have it, Veselnitskaya also defended Prevezon Holdings Ltd in American court, a Russian firm accused of laundering $14 million of dirty money into the New York real estate market. About $600,000 of those funds came from the $230 million tax fraud that caused Magnitsky to be killed in the first place.
Trump’s ham-fisted overtures to Putin make less than no sense from a policy perspective.
The Russian Federation is a kleptocracy to rival Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines or Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire. It is a pirate state, run by a cabal of crooked bureaucrats, tycoons, and gangsters who have plundered their country’s natural wealth, depriving their own people.
Despite an official salary of US $302,000, Putin lives in a $1 billion palace and owns a $500 million yacht. He may, in fact, be the richest man in the world, and he didn’t get there by saving paycheques from his days as a middling KGB officer in East Germany.
Russia has invaded Crimea, shot down a passenger jet over Ukraine, and propped up the mass-murdering Assad regime in Syria. Russian intelligence operatives have hacked into American political institutions, interfered in an American election, bought influence with right-wing groups like the NRA, and waged an information war against the concept of democracy itself. They haven’t backed off, either; if anything, they’re doubling down.
Sanctions, combined with tepid world oil prices since 2014, have crippled Putin’s economy, and his popularity is in serious decline. Given his intransigence, the sensible course is to keep up the pressure until his people finally tire of him.
But Donald Trump continues to give succour to Putin, his cronies, and their corrosive conspiracy theories. That’s why the mainstream media is (finally, belatedly) asking: does Putin literally own Trump?
Trump doesn’t have the power to give Russia Bill Browder; Browder has been a citizen of the UK since 1998. He probably won’t hand over American diplomats like Ambassador McFaul either. Still, that he would even contemplate it can only be described as rock bottom, even for an administration that has hit rock bottom many times before and kept on drilling. They’re fracking for personal worsts.
If President Trump is a Russian asset, he’s certainly the most guileless in history. Yet he seems poised to get away with it by virtue of his position and his cult of personality.
Somewhere, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are clawing at the lids of their coffins.