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‘Baloney’: GOP congressman’s striking defense of Russia’s human rights record could preview what lies ahead

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who has emerged as a dark-horse pick for Donald Trump's secretary of state, tangled with a Yahoo News host Wednesday over whether Russia is a major human rights abuser. Rohrabacher's verdict: It's "baloney."

The exchange is pretty remarkable — in part because he was debating a Yahoo host who just happens to be from the former Soviet Union, but mostly because Rohrabacher seemed to dismiss long-standing and documented evidence of abuses in Russia. Rohrabacher seemed to take exception to Russia being mentioned in the same breath as China when it comes to human rights abuses.

Here's a transcript:

BIANNA GOLODRYGA: You talk about human rights abusers in China. Much could be said about Russia as well on that count.
ROHRABACHER: Oh, baloney. Where do you come from? How can you say that?
GOLODRYGA: I come from the former Soviet Union. That's where I came from. I came here as a political refugee. That's where I came from.
ROHRABACHER: What country did you say you came from again?
GOLODRYGA: I come from the former Soviet Union — from Moldova.
ROHRABACHER: Oh, and that's good. Then the audience knows you're biased.
GOLODRYGA: I'm biased as an American citizen who was born in a foreign country?
ROHRABACHER: Yeah, when you start saying that Russia should be — do you know that there have been no political reforms in China? None?
GOLODRYGA: I'm not advocating that China be our best friend. I'm talking about Russia right now.
ROHRABACHER: No, you just said that Russia and China are the same, and I'm sorry, they are not.
GOLODRYGA: I said that they're both human rights abusers. How am I wrong?
ROHRABACHER: How are you wrong? In China, they don't have an opposition party. They have ...
GOLODRYGA: Russia isn't accused of murdering journalists?
ROHRABACHER: Okay, look, I'll let the public decide on that last comment where you're coming from. The bottom line is what's good for America is to prioritize, as I did when I worked with Ronald Reagan — I wrote most of his speeches on this issue ...
GOLODRYGA: And what would Ronald Reagan think about your thoughts about Vladimir Putin?
ROHRABACHER: He would love it. Maybe you forgot that Ronald Reagan was the one who reached out to Gorbachev ...
GOLODRYGA: Are you comparing Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin?
ROHRABACHER: Absolutely, I am. The fact is they were both leaders of a very powerful country that we need to be friends with if we’re going to have peace in the world.

First off, these comments aren't hugely surprising from Rohrabacher. If there's one member of Congress who has been perceived as being friendly to Russia, it's the California Republican. Politico recently labeled Rohrabacher "Putin's favorite congressman" in a story that detailed his efforts to remove the name of slain Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky from a U.S. anti-corruption law. Russian officials have been blamed for Magnitsky's death after he allegedly unearthed evidence of corruption in Putin's government, and those accused of being involved have been banned from the United States and its banking system. Rohrabacher has argued that nothing has been proven and that the law unnecessarily demonizes Russia.

This also isn't the first time Rohrabacher has suggested that Russia's record as a human rights abuser is overblown. In fact, he did it earlier this week in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

I asked about the political prisoners in Russia. I asked for a list of all the [inaudible]. For years I could not get that list, because everyone wants to portray Russia as having thousands of political prisoners.
Well, I got the list, and there were a couple hundred people on the list, but about — a large percentage of them were on the list because they were part of Greenpeace. But they were all not just part of Greenpeace; they were part of groups [of] people who went onto drilling platforms in the Arctic to try to prevent Russia from having Arctic drilling.

But it's also worth noting here the uneasy position in which Trump's election has put Republicans. While Rohrabacher might stand out for his record on this issue, Republicans are now faced with whether to probe Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. election — all while Trump continues to emphasize his own reservations about demonizing Russia and his desire for a better relationship.

Trump, of course, regularly praised Putin during the campaign and continues to question the intelligence community's verdict that Russia very likely meddled in the 2016 election. The U.S. government has officially accused Russia of doing so.

These senators want to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

"I don’t believe they interfered," Trump told Time magazine in his "Person of the Year" interview. "That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say ‘oh, Russia interfered.’"

Trump added: "It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."

For perhaps the best example of this from Wednesday, though, here's an exchange between Fox News's Tucker Carlson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is joining fellow Democrats in pressing for a House review of Russia's alleged meddling. Carlson presses Schiff hard, arguing that nothing has been proven and dismissing the intelligence community's allegations as its opinion. Eventually, Schiff accuses Carlson of "carrying water for the Kremlin."

Republicans have a vested interest in not calling into question the legitimacy of their president-elect. But for now, that means downplaying evidence that Russia affected the results of the 2016 election — contrary to the party's long-standing, more hawkish position on Russia.

These questions will come up frequently in the days and weeks ahead. And Republicans — like their president-elect — will potentially be put in the position of defending Russia more than they might like to.