Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is finding himself newly relevant, after nearly three decades in Washington, as Donald Trump’s presidential win provides his out-of-the-mainstream views on Russia a new foothold.
Last week, Rohrabacher praised the president-elect’s choice of ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, describing it as a victory in his lonely and oft-criticized struggle to relax Washington’s posture toward Russia.
Tillerson is facing criticism from Democrats and some Republicans over what they view as his too-close relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Rohrabacher sees the issue quite differently.
“[Tillerson is] a man who knows the players in Russia, obviously, and knows the nuances you need to make in order to have a successful relationship,” he said in an interview. “I’m happy [Trump] chose Tillerson.”
The representative from Orange County predicted that a softer attitude toward Russia and Putin will sweep into Washington under Trump’s administration — a prospect that is proving exhilarating for Rohrabacher, who was once described in a news account as “Vladimir Putin’s favorite congressman,” after years of having his views on Russia relegated to the fringe.
“This is what a number of [Trump’s] people are all about,” Rohrabacher said. “Now that we have a president who is going to try his best to bring a better, more cooperative relationship with Russia, I think you’ll find more people stepping up to the plate and trying to put out an open hand.”
Rohrabacher, a dark-horse candidate for secretary of state before Tillerson was picked, aggressively defends Trump’s most controversial statements about Russia.
Like Trump, he rejects the FBI’s and CIA’s assessments that Russia interfered in the election to help the Republican win, saying the conclusion reveals only the intelligence community’s inability to abandon Cold War attitudes.
“Most of the people who are so aggressively attacking Russia for everything it does basically have this image that Putin is the same as Stalin, and that is not the case,” Rohrabacher said.
He also has criticized NATO, a onetime Trump target that is considered one of the most successful military alliances in history, as “vilifying” Russia and “trying to get Americans frightened” to increase its own power.
“NATO is trying to justify itself by incredibly exaggerating a Russian threat to Europe,” he said. “The Soviet Union was a priority in the past; now we’ve got to look at radical Islam. The Soviet Union is not the enemy that it was.”
Rohrabacher, 69, declined to comment specifically on speculation that he might be appointed Trump’s ambassador to Russia, saying only that the transition has discussed several possibilities with him. He told Politico on Thursday that he has let Trump’s transition officials know that he would prefer to stay in Congress over serving in the new administration.
Already a frequent presence in the Russian media, Rohrabacher is increasingly a go-to source for U.S. journalists trying to sketch how Trump’s foreign policy might operate — or simply looking for a contrarian voice.
This can have explosive results, as two recent television interviews revealed.
Rohrabacher on Tuesday joined MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to discuss atrocities in Aleppo, Syria. The interview quickly devolved into a shouting match after host Joe Scarborough, a former House colleague of Rohrabacher’s, accused him of glossing over the Russian bombing campaign’s killing of Syrian women and children.
Rohrabacher argued that the United States needs to keep Russia on its side to fight the Islamic State. Other experts on the show argued that Russia is involved in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, not to fight terrorism.
“We allied with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler,” Rohrabacher said, undeterred. “Stalin was a horrible man, he murdered millions of people, but we knew Hitler was a bigger threat. Today, the biggest threat is radical Islam to our safety. If we keep trying to focus on all of the faults of Russia so that we can’t work with them to defeat this common enemy, you’re not doing any service to the people of the United States.”
Last Wednesday, Rohrabacher made further headlines after a Yahoo News anchor asked him about Russia’s history of violating citizens’ rights. “Oh, baloney,” he shot back at the anchor, Bianna Golodryga. “Where do you come from?”
Golodryga said she came from the former Soviet Union as a political refugee. “Oh, that’s good — then the audience know you’re biased,” he responded.
Most foreign-policy experts reject the notion that a blanket strategy of greater warmth toward Putin is in the interest of the United States.
“We should be very sober and pragmatic about him,” Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, said of Putin. “We won’t get any rewards just for being warm and fuzzy. He will see that as purely a sign of weakness.”
Rohrabacher has labored in obscurity for most of his career, but a closer look at the details reveals a colorful and unpredictable character.
A former White House aide to President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher was elected to the House in 1988 with help from his old friend Oliver North, a fellow former Reagan aide who was forced to resign after he was implicated in the Iran-contra scandal.
He is famous for having arm-wrestled Putin, then-deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, in the 1990s at a bar during a Russian delegation visit to Washington. Rohrabacher lost to Putin in an instant, the story goes.
Rohrabacher has been criticized for freelancing his own foreign policy. Around the time of his election, he briefly joined a mujahideen unit fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After he won his race, he illegally entered Burma to meet with pro-democracy students. Against advice from the State Department, he became the first congressman to visit Croatia, in August 1991, after fighting broke out between Croatian secessionists and Serbian militants that summer. Ten years later, the State Department reportedly rebuked him for meeting with Taliban officials at a Sheraton Hotel in Qatar.
Rohrabacher considers these kinds of actions an essential part of his persona, which in his mind lies somewhere between Indiana Jones and a California surf bum. In earlier years, he wrote a handful of adventure-driven movie scripts, including a World War II drama titled “The French Doctoresse.” “I’m going to stay here [in Congress] 10 or 12 years at the max,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “To me, the ultimate nirvana is to be a creative writer and live at the beach.”
Many of Rohrabacher’s relationships in Russia were originally shaped by his involvement in U.S. space policy. By 1992, Rohrabacher — a longtime member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — was advocating that the U.S. space program save money by purchasing rockets made by the former Soviet Union. He hosted several Russian delegations in Southern California, home to a number of aerospace companies.
Rohrabacher has a history of supporting Russian interests in Congress. Last month, Politico reported that he and his staff used information received from the Russian government to promote removing the name of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing Russian lawyer who died in jail, from a law barring the Russian officials blamed for his death from entering the United States, along other punishments. During a markup of the bill, Rohrabacher reportedly proposed an amendment to remove Magnitsky’s name from the bill’s title. The amendment did not pass, but critics still accused Rohrabacher of helping the Russians by muddying the waters.
Rohrabacher still chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats. He said he remains in contact with Trump’s transition team but is focused on shepherding what he described as a growing group of lawmakers sympathetic to Russia in the House. This may eventually involve ramping up the activities of the Russia Caucus, of which he is one of just a few members.
“You can expect there to be a number of members of Congress who are willing to step up and say that we should quit being hypercritical and attributing hostility and evil to every step the Russians make,” he said.