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Putin’s push to interrogate U.S. officials Russia accuses of crimes, explained

Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "there was some conversation" between Trump and Putin about Russia questioning U.S. officials, "but there wasn't a commitment." (Video: Reuters)

During the erroneously named daily press briefing Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fielded a question about the still-murky conversation between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

“Russian authorities yesterday named several Americans who they want to question, who they claim were involved in Bill Browder’s quote-unquote ‘crimes’ in their terms, including former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul,” the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman said. “Does President Trump support that idea? Is he open to having U.S. officials questioned by Russia?”

“The president’s going to meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” Sanders replied.

“Is that a topic that came up in their conversation?” Haberman followed up. “Did President Putin raise this with President Trump?”

“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” Sanders said, “and the president will work with his team and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that.”

To the casual observer, this exchange seems generally uncomplicated. Russia said something; the United States will at some point respond. But in fact, the subject of the conversation and the proposal at hand is central to both the relationship between the Trump administration and Putin’s government and, less directly, to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

At its heart is the man referred to by Haberman, Bill Browder.

Browder once ran a company called Hermitage Capital Management that had large investments in Russia until 2005. That year, Browder was prevented from entering the country by Russian authorities. Many of his assets were subsequently seized and, in 2007, ownership of several holding companies was transferred to a new owner — a tactic that the Times describes as having “flourished” under Putin. The new owner received a tax refund of $230 million from the government after new lawyers for the companies admitted, without Browder’s knowledge, to fraudulent activity that erased Hermitage’s profits. Fifteen such cases resulted in a total judgment of more than $1.2 billion against Hermitage.

Browder hired a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky to investigate what happened. Magnitsky uncovered the chain of events above, learning that it was perpetrated by government officials and members of the Russian mafia. Among those involved in taking over the company were corrupt police officials, subordinates of whom later arrested Magnitsky for tax fraud. Magnitsky was jailed. He died in prison after failing to receive adequate medical care for an illness.

Magnitsky’s death prompted Browder to push for some sort of accountability. In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, imposing new sanctions against those involved in the takeover of Browder’s business, including people close to Putin. President Barack Obama signed it into law.

This was not popular with Putin. In response, the Russian government posthumously convicted Magnitsky of the fraud charges, charged Browder with tax evasion in absentia and instituted a ban on U.S. parents’ adoption of Russian children.

You probably see where this is going.

Last month, the country’s prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, pledged not to let Browder “sleep peacefully,” saying that he thought “Russia and Russian citizens will make more powerful moves soon.” Chaika is the person apparently referred to in a June 3, 2016, email from music publicist Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump Jr. That message indicated that the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” — presumably Chaika — had met with Aras Agalarov, the father of Goldstone’s client Emin Agalarov. The elder Agalarov had been provided “with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia,” Goldstone promised.

“[If] it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied. Within a week, he, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner were meeting with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower. Veselnitskaya admitted this year that she had worked closely with Chaika’s office since 2013. Notes taken by Manafort during that meeting show that Veselnitskaya spoke in detail about Browder and Russia’s view of his case: that Hermitage and Browder had broken Russian laws. Further, a document obtained by Foreign Policy indicated, she claimed that the illegal transactions by Browder and others had ended up as contributions to Clinton, her presidential campaign or the Democratic National Committee.

That was the dirt on Clinton that Chaika had to offer, it seems: a tenuous link with the real focus of the Russian government’s animosity, Browder.

This brings us back to Monday. Standing next to Trump, Putin made an offer that Trump later described to Fox News’s Sean Hannity as “fascinating.”

If special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wanted to interview the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted last week for their role in the hacking of the DNC and Clinton’s campaign, they could do so.

“We can actually permit official representatives of the United States, including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller — we can let them into the country and they will be present at this questioning,” Putin said.

He continued:

“But in this case, there is a — there’s another condition. This kind of effort should be a mutual one. Then we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate, and that they would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia, and we have to — to request the presence of our law enforcement.”
“For instance, we can bring up  Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent a huge amount of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Well, that’s the personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal.”

In other words: To give Mueller the ability to interview suspects in Russia, all Putin wanted was to let his people interrogate Browder and “officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States.”

On Tuesday, those individuals were identified. They include McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia (and a prominent critic of Putin), and several federal agents whom Browder identified on Twitter as having been involved in a money laundering investigation into one of Veselnitskaya’s clients. (Browder also pointed out that the Russian government downgraded the alleged donation to Clinton and the Democrats from $400 million to $400,000 — though it’s still not clear where that number came from or where the money is alleged to have gone.)

In conversation with The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin this week, Browder was pleased to have been mentioned by the Russian president.

“This is an incredibly powerful tribute to the power of the Magnitsky Act,” Browder said. “This shows I’ve found Putin’s Achilles’ heel, that he’s very rattled by it.”

That the Trump administration didn’t quickly reject Putin’s quid pro quo offer was criticized by observers. At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert didn’t mince words.

“What I can tell you is that the overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd,” Nauert said. “The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens, and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens.”

Allowing an interview of American officials to take place would be of “grave concern to our former colleagues here,” she said, urging instead “Russian authorities to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue those in Russia who in fact perpetrated the fraudulent scheme that . . . targeted not only Mr. Browder but also his company and others and also the Russian people as a whole.”

During the news conference  Monday, though, Trump made a pitch for Putin’s proposal.

“What he did is an incredible offer,” Trump said of Putin. “He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. Okay?”