A day after the White House suggested that President Donald Trump is considering allowing Russia to interrogate American officials, the administration changed course, saying that Trump “disagrees” with the Vladimir Putin offer he has previously called “incredible.”
“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 Thursday. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
It was just the latest reversal the Trump administration has had to make in the wake of the president’s meeting with Putin, which drew heavy blowback from both sides of the aisle. This most recent controversy related to the Helsinki summit erupted Wednesday when Sanders said in a daily press briefing Wednesday that the administration has been discussing the proposal Putin outlined in a joint press conference with Trump on Monday.
“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” Sanders said in a press briefing Wednesday. “And the president will work with his team, and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”
While the White House has now done an apparent about-face, critics say Putin’s proposal never should have been under consideration in the first place — and the administration shouldn’t have taken days to say no to it.
“It should have taken about 12 seconds,” Bill Browder, the American-born British investor who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act and was one of the individuals Putin wanted to have turned over, told Mic by phone Thursday. “It was a remarkable and unacceptable position to take.”
Putin had said during his Helsinki press conference with Trump that he would give special counsel Robert Mueller the dozen Russians indicted by a U.S. grand jury Friday in exchange for the administration allowing Russian investigators to interrogate American citizens he has accused of “crimes” — including Browder and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
“I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said in the press conference.
The remarks drew severe backlash, with McFaul — an Obama-era envoy to Moscow — calling on the White House to unequivocally deny Putin’s request.
“I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin,” McFaul tweeted Wednesday. “Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a [legitimate] U.S. indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”
McFaul has been a strong critic of Putin and supported the Magnitsky Act — the 2012 bill that sanctioned Russia over the 2009 prison death of a lawyer and auditor who’d uncovered evidence of fraud on the part of the Kremlin while representing Browder, according to the Washington Post.
Browder, who lobbied for the U.S. government to punish Russia over the death of Sergei Magnitsky, is another figure Putin had sought to interrogate, with the Russian strongman bringing up the businessman by name in his press conference with Trump — even though Browder is a British citizen.
“We can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case,” Putin said Monday. “Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over one and a half billion dollars 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.”
Browder called the allegations Putin has made against him “ludicrous” in a Time op-ed Tuesday.
Putin was also seeking to interview other U.S. officials, including former congressional aide Kyle Parker — one of the architects behind the Magnistky Act.
The Kremlin has been fighting those sanctions since then-President Barack Obama signed the legislation in 2012, and the act figured into one of the most eyebrow-raising interactions between Russia and members of the Trump’s team.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-connected attorney who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in 2016, is a prominent crusader against the law. According to the lawyer, Trump Jr. suggested during their meeting that his father may review the sanctions if elected in exchange for damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton.
According to Browder, being turned over to Russia would be tantamount to a “death sentence.”
“[Putin] would really like to get his hands on me,” Browder told CNN on Thursday. “He’d like to kill me like he killed Sergei Magnitsky, my lawyer, eight and a half years ago.”
In an interview with Mic later in the day, he said Trump’s reaction to Putin’s proposal was “probably the lowest point of his presidency.”
A bipartisan wave of outrage came Trump’s way after Sanders indicated he was considering Putin’s offer, with the Senate on Thursday unanimously passing a resolution introduced by Democrats demanding that the administration “refuse to make available any current or former diplomat, civil servant, political appointee, law enforcement official or member of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin.”
“It is outrageous that President Putin’s proposal was not met with immediate dismissal,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a statement. “With this vote, the Senate has sent a message that is free from all ambiguity. Americans will not be handed over to Putin on our watch. Those who serve our nation do not answer to the Russian president, and they have the support of a thankful nation.”
Though Trump had apparently been entertaining Putin’s idea, the White House reversed course, as it had been forced to do several times in the days after the Helsinki summit.
Trump already backtracked this week on remarks he made during his Helsinki press conference in which he sided with Putin over his own intelligence community, claiming that he simply misspoke when he said that he didn’t see “why it would be” Russia that hacked the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
“I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be’” Russia.
The White House also attempted to do an about-face on Trump’s suggestion that he does not believe Russia is still targeting the U.S.
“[Trump] was saying ‘no’ to answering questions,” Sanders told the press Wednesday. “He does believe that they would target, certainly, U.S. elections again.”
July 19, 2018, 6:45 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.