The White House says President Trump opposes a proposal floated by Russian President Vladimir Putin that would allow Russia to interview American officials in exchange for making Russian authorities indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe available for questioning.
The White House announced Trump’s opposition Thursday moments before the Senate voted 98 to 0 to approve a resolution telling the president not to honor Putin’s request, which would have exposed former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, among others, to Russian questioning.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
The 12 Russians is a reference to those indicted last week by Mueller for their role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.
Putin first proposed swapping officials for questioning at a Monday summit with Trump in Helsinki, offering to make Russian authorities indicted in Mueller’s probe available for questioning — but only if the United States also granted Russian officials similar access to current and former American officials.
Trump called it “an incredible offer.”
The Senate resolution — which expresses the sense of Congress that no current or former diplomat, civil servant, law enforcement official, member of the Armed Forces or political appointee should be made available to Putin’s government for an interrogation — is not binding on the president. The White House said earlier this week that it is considering the Kremlin’s request, prompting a backlash from both Republicans and Democrats, and even members of the Trump administration.
In a news conference this week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the idea of allowing the Russian government to interview American officials “absolutely absurd,” adding that allowing such a precedent “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues here.”
McFaul also tweeted his thanks to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who, along with Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii.), drafted the resolution to insist that the United States reject Putin’s request.
The resolution is expected to pass with strong bipartisan support, but it is unclear whether the vote will influence the president, who has spent the week shocking members of both parties with his varying comments about Russian interference in the 2016 election, indicating at times that he might take the denials of Putin over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
Before McConnell announced Thursday’s vote on the Schumer-Menendez-Schatz resolution, Senate Republicans blocked two efforts to bring up resolutions affirming lawmakers’ support for the intelligence community’s assessment, the special counsel’s probe into alleged ties between Trump and the Kremlin, and urge the president to take a harder stand against Russia.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has spent the week mounting a fierce defense of Trump’s outreach to Putin, objected to a proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), charging it was an affront to diplomatic efforts and a sign that “Trump derangement syndrome has officially come to the Senate.” Sanders shot back that his resolution had nothing to do with diplomacy and didn’t even call for sanctions — but failed to secure a vote on the measure to affirm the intelligence community’s determinations about Russian interference.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip, also shot down a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) to insist the president fully implement sanctions against Russia that Congress passed almost a year ago, arguing that it would be better to consider sanctions than an unnecessarily “symbolic” resolution.
“Symbolism is important, our agencies of government need to know that we stand behind them,” Flake retorted on the floor, promising to raise the resolution again and predicting that “ultimately it will pass.”
Neither resolution would have been binding.