Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) finally has his moment in the sun. With the election of Donald Trump and with building relations with Russia as a foreign policy priority, Rohrabacher's long-standing and often lonely efforts to do the same are suddenly bearing fruit, as our Robert Costa reports:
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican ally of President-elect Donald Trump and a longtime enthusiast of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday that he is planning to lead a congressional delegation to Russia next month and expects to meet with Russian officials to discuss “how we can work with the Duma.”
“We’re going to look at certain goals we can set with our Congress and the Duma,” the Russian legislature, Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said in an interview. “What could we actually set in the legislature of Russia and in Congress? Could we work together, for example, and cooperate on space activities?”
It's an effort with roots in a quarter-century-old arm-wrestling match in a bar near the Capitol in D.C. According to Rohrabacher's telling a few years back, the match pitted him against none other than Vladimir Putin himself (though Rohrabacher didn't know it at the time). The stakes: deciding the winner of the Cold War.
Rohrabacher told KPCC-FM in California that he invited Putin — who was then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg — and two other Russian politicians to play touch football, and they all later found themselves at a bar called Kelly's Irish Times.
Here's how Rohrabacher recounted it:
“He did have a huge bodyguard, so that did sort of give us a little hint that he’s more important than just St. Petersburg," Rohrabacher said. "So we went out and played touch football. And Scooter Libby was one of the players, and a bunch of my right-wing friends were there. And so we all went over to this pub afterwards, the Irish Times pub.
“We were having a little bit too much to drink, I guess. But anyways, we started arguing about who won the Cold War, etc. And so we decided to settle it like men do when they’ve had too much to drink in the pub. And so we got down to these arm wrestling matches. And I ended up being paired up with Putin. And he’s a little guy, but boy I tell you, he put me down in a millisecond. He is tough. … His muscles are just unbelievable.
“He’s a tough guy, and he’s supposed to be a tough guy. That’s what the Russian people want. But that’s not a reason we shouldn’t try to work with him.”
Rohrabacher had recently been elected to Congress at the time. And in the intervening years, he has been among the most forceful advocates for working with Russia.
Politico labeled him “Putin's favorite congressman,” noting his effort to end the U.S. blacklisting of Russians allegedly involved in the death of martyred Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Putin considers the “Magnitsky Act” to be an outrage and halted U.S. adoptions of Russian children in retaliation.
More recently, Rohrabacher has cast doubt on reports of Russia's human rights abuses, doing so in an interview with a reporter from a former Soviet republic, Yahoo's Bianna Golodryga.
Here's a sample:
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?
Rohrabacher has toiled in relative anonymity in Congress over the years, chairing a subcommittee on space and aeronautics in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But he got some play in recent weeks as a dark-horse pick for Trump's secretary of state.
That didn't happen, but his profile can only rise if Trump follows through on his oft-stated goal of building a closer relationship with Russia. And to think, it all began with Rohrabacher losing the Cold War.