Follow Thursday’s updates here: White House: Trump opposes Putin’s request to interview current and former American officials
At this week’s summit in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed what President Trump described as an “incredible offer” — the Kremlin would give special counsel Robert S. Mueller III access to interviews with Russians who were indicted after they allegedly hacked Democrats in 2016. In return, Russia would be allowed to question certain U.S. officials it suspects of interfering in Russian affairs.
One of those U.S. officials is a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, a nemesis of the Kremlin because of his criticisms of Russia’s human rights record.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out the Kremlin’s request to question McFaul and other Americans. Asked during the daily press briefing whether Trump is open to the idea of having McFaul questioned by Russia, Sanders said President Trump is “going to meet with his team” to discuss the offer.
“There was some conversation about it” between Trump and Putin, 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 front.”
The willingness of the White House to contemplate handing over a former U.S. ambassador for interrogation by the Kremlin drew ire and astonishment from current and former U.S. officials. Such a proposition is unheard of. So is the notion that the president may think he has the legal authority to turn anyone over to a foreign power on his own.
Former secretary of state John F. Kerry tweeted that the offer was “not something that should require a half second of consultation. Dangerous.”
“The administration needs to make it unequivocally clear that in a million years this wouldn’t be under consideration, period. Full stop,” Kerry tweeted.
Allowing such questioning of Americans, particularly of a former ambassador who had diplomatic protections while in Moscow, would be an extraordinary move on the part of the Trump administration, experts and officials said.
“The entire country should be aware of this,” tweeted Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School. “If Putin can single out” McFaul, Nichols said, “he can single out anyone. The President’s job is to protect us, not to even *consider* handing any of us over to an enemy government.”
Even the State Department considers the idea “absolutely absurd,” as department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said during a briefing when asked about the Russian government’s desire to question 11 U.S. citizens, including McFaul.
“We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes,” Nauert said, acknowledging that the interrogation of U.S. officials “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues here.”
Nauert added that a U.S. federal court rejected Russian allegations against the British businessman at the center of the Kremlin’s request, Bill Browder.
Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, Kremlin officials accused Browder of a tax fraud scheme involving investments in Russia. After the death in a Russian prison of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, Browder lobbied for the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russians accused of human rights violations. Russia later charged Browder with tax evasion in absentia.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray also weighed in on Putin’s proposal. Asked by NBC’s Lester Holt during the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday to address the offer to send U.S. investigators to Russia to interview the indicted suspects, Wray said, “I never want to say never, but it’s certainly not high on our list of investigative techniques.”
Regarding Putin’s quid pro quo to let Russian investigators come to the United States to interrogate Americans, Wray said, “That’s probably even lower on our list of investigative techniques.”
McFaul served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, a tumultuous period in relations between the two countries. President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law in 2012, prompting retaliation from Russia that included banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans. McFaul was often the target of anti-American attacks in the Russian media and said he ended up being Putin’s “personal foe.”
“Putin has been harassing me for a long time. That he now wants to arrest me, however, takes it to a new level,” tweeted McFaul, who is now a Hoover fellow at Stanford University and the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Even during the Stalin era, the Soviet government never had the audacity to try to arrest US government officials. Think about that.”
“I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin,” McFaul wrote. “Not doing so creates moral equivalency” between a legitimate “US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”
Many U.S. lawmakers and former diplomatic officials came to McFaul’s defense on Twitter, and the hashtag #ProtectMcFaul was trending late Wednesday.
“Let’s recall why Putin began making outrageous, false accusations against @McFaul,” tweeted Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Mike stood up for human rights and against Russian oppression. That terrified Putin. The fact that @realDonaldTrump won’t stand up for an American patriot is a travesty.”
Susan E. Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser, described the White House’s statement regarding Putin’s request as “beyond outrageous.”
“Amb. McFaul served our country honorably and with full diplomatic immunity,” Rice tweeted. “If the White House cannot defend and protect our diplomats, like our service members, they are serving a hostile foreign power not the American people.”
Speaking to CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday, James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, described the potential of such an exchange with Putin as “crazy.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Clapper said. “To turn over any U.S. citizen, particularly a former ambassador, for the Russians to interrogate him? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) suggested that turning over McFaul for questioning would be grounds for impeaching Trump.
“Take this to the bank, @realDonaldTrump: you turn over former U.S. Ambassador @McFaul to Putin, you can count on me and millions others to swiftly make you an ex-president,” Swalwell tweeted.
“There’s no reason we would open up our evidence files, send our investigators over there to let them review that,” Swalwell also told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “That would be like a victim allowing the burglar to set up the home security system. That’s ridiculous.”
“This is so ludicrous it staggers my mind,” tweeted Steven L. Hall, former CIA chief of Russian operations.
Harry Litman, a former federal prosecutor, challenged the president’s power to hand any U.S. citizen over to the Russians. “How exactly does the President figure he can go about turning over Michael McFaul, a private citizen, to the Russians? Just order him to go to Moscow? Talk about broad theories of executive power,” he tweeted.
McFaul was protected with full diplomatic immunity during his time as ambassador. If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waives this protection, “he’ll lose all support inside his building,” tweeted Brian P. McKeon, who served as acting undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department during the Obama administration.
Additionally, the United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia. Even if it did, a country seeking extradition of a U.S. citizen has to justify its request through the Justice Department and the U.S. courts.
The United States does have a mutual legal assistance treaty that “requires the offense to be a crime in both countries,” McKeon wrote. It also allows a party to decline requests that are deemed to involve political crimes, and “there is of course no comparison” between the Justice Department’s indictment of the Russian agents and any accusations against McFaul, McKeon argued.