The White House is facing intense pressure to categorically reject a Russian government request to interrogate Americans, including former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and financier Bill Browder, who equated the offer to a death sentence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a news conference with President Donald Trump on Monday, suggested that his government would allow the investigators from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller to interrogate the 12 Russian military intelligence officials it indicted last week if the U.S. would reciprocate by allowing the Russian government to interrogate certain Americans with ties to Bill Browder, an American-born financier who has lobbied heavily against the Russian government.
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Trump called the idea an “incredible offer” during the news conference. And on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the president would “meet with his team” on the Russian proposal.
McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow under former President Barack Obama, is among the 11 Americans who the Kremlin subsequently has said it would like to question in relation to financial crimes it says were committed by associates of Browder.
“Most shocking, and just lamentable, I think is my real reaction, when the White House was given the opportunity to categorically reject this moral equivalency between a legitimate indictment with lots of data and evidence to support it from Mr. Mueller with a crazy, cockamamie scheme with no relationship to facts and reality whatsoever, the White House refused to do that,” McFaul told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.
“I hope somebody asks them another question today and they’ll get it right today. We’ve seen a lot of that lately, that they want to have a take two and take three to get the message right,” the former ambassador continued, referencing the two notable reversals of Russia-related remarks from Trump the White House has made this week. “But this is not just about me. This is about American national interest. We cannot allow this kind of moral equivalency when dealing with Vladimir Putin.”
Browder also spoke out against the concept Thursday, telling CNN that it “is probably one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard coming out of [Trump’s] mouth.”
“What President Trump was saying is that he wants to take a bunch of loyal patriots, people who have given up money for government service to serve their nation, who have been protecting this nation against Russian interference, Russia organized crime, and he wants to hand them over to the Russian criminals,” Browder said. “To hand me over to Putin is basically to hand me over to my death.”
While the White House has publicly said it’s open to the idea of reciprocal interrogations, others, including the president’s own State Department, have cast aside Putin’s suggestion.
“What I can tell you is that the overall assertions 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. We do not stand by those assertions,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at her press briefing on Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech Thursday that he would soon introduce a resolution stating that the U.S. 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.”
“This body must agree on the importance of protecting our ambassadors,” the New York Democrat added.
Thomas Bossert, the president’s former homeland security adviser, said on “Good Morning America” on Thursday that accepting Putin’s suggestion would be “a significant mistake” and “galling.”
In the Senate, GOP lawmakers have also been quick to push the president towards rejecting Putin’s offer.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter that “Under no circumstances should #Putin officials ever be allowed to come into the U.S. & ‘question’ Americans on their list. I don’t believe this will ever be allowed to happen which is why the @WhiteHouse should publicly & unequivocally rule it out.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the Russian allegations “jokes” and “absurd” and told CNN “I challenge you to find one member of the house and senate that believe this is is a good idea.”
And former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also on Twitter, said the need for the White House to reject the Kremlin’s reciprocal interrogation offer is urgent. “The White House cannot let another day pass without unequivocally rejecting Russia’s absurd request to interrogate @McFaul and other officials. Merely entertaining this idea betrays our diplomats, undermines our interests, and hands Putin yet another propaganda victory,” she wrote.
John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter that “The administration needs to make it unequivocally clear that in a million years this wouldn’t be under consideration, period. Full stop,” adding that the proposal is “not something that should require a half second of consultation. Dangerous.”
Trump’s openness to Putin’s offer has set off outrage and disbelief in the larger diplomatic community as well.
Dana Shell Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, called out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not coming out against the idea. “The silence from Pompeo gives lie to his notion of ‘swagger,’” she said, referencing Pompeo’s pledge to boost the department’s morale.
“It’s retrograde whatabout-ism. The State Department was right to condemn it. The White House was either too dysfunctional, or too inexperienced to do the same,” David Wade, Kerry’s former chief of staff, said. “For American diplomats, this crosses a line from demoralizing to dangerous. To even hint that our Ambassador did something wrong by meeting with civil society leaders, you risk a chilling effect in diplomats doing their jobs in authoritarian countries… No administration should require a lesson or reminder in why that’s a mistake.”
McFaul also said Russia’s interest in interrogating him amounted to “classic whatabout-ism” from the Kremlin — matching Mueller’s indictment with allegations of its own — and an “act of intimidation” against him personally. The former ambassador, now a professor at Stanford University, predicted he could face harassment from Interpol when he travels internationally and said Russia’s interest in interrogating him will “create problems for me in the long run.”
He took particular issue with the president’s remark on Wednesday — that the White House later sought to walk back — that the U.S. was no longer the target of Russian activities. “When he just said last night, America is no longer under attack, I’m sorry, I’m an American and I’m under attack by Vladimir Putin right now,” McFaul said.
More broadly, the former ambassador said the president’s approach to Russia has weakened the U.S. in the eyes of the Kremlin and stoked concern within the diplomatic corps that their government might not protect them.
“It’s scary. Diplomats are supposed to have diplomatic immunity. And to now have to worry about this,” he said. “It’s the image of America. We look weak. We look like we won’t push back on outrageous, crazy ideas. That is not even good for President Trump. I hope if you guys are listening, you look weak in the eyes of Vladimir Putin.”
Eleanor Mueller, Elana Schor and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.