Why the Magnitsky Act — and Bill Browder — continues to be the biggest thorn in Putin’s side
Bill Browder’s name was once again on the lips of Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.
During his Helsinki summit with President Donald Trump, Putin offered limited access to the 12 Kremlin intelligence operatives indicted over their role in Moscow’s 2016 election interference if the United States turned over several individuals who had championed the Magnitsky Act, including an American ambassador and Browder.
It was a familiar position for the U.S.-born British investor — ever since he became the driving force behind the sanctions, named for his former lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after uncovering corruption in the Russian government, Browder has been one of the most prominent targets of Putin’s ire.
But there was one thing different this time: While most American officials would be expected to immediately turn down such an audacious proposal, Trump seemed open to it.
“I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said in a controversial joint press conference with Putin.
While the White House would later say that Trump “disagrees” with the proposed exchange, it was stunning that Trump and his administration had considered it at all. But according Browder, Putin’s proposal — and the controversy over Trump’s reaction — advertised just how effective the Magnitsky Act has been as he continues to push for other countries to adopt the sanctions targeting Putin and his inner circle.
“This actually helps me,” Browder said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of appetite for this right now. Putin is a global menace. People are looking for a way of stopping him and this is the most effective.”
Sergei Magnitsky was representing Browder when the tax lawyer was arrested after blowing the whistle on government corruption in Moscow.
He died in 2009, after almost one year in a Russian prison.
Seeking to avenge his late lawyer and hold Putin’s government accountable for its human rights abuses, Browder pushed the U.S. government to adopt the tough sanctions against Moscow.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) took up the cause, sponsoring the Magnitsky Act, which targeted numerous Russian officials believed to be responsible for the anti-corruption attorney’s death.
Former President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2012, and the Global Magnitsky Act was passed in 2016 sanctioning foreign government officials involved in human rights abuses. Several other countries have adopted similar sanctions since.
The Magnitsky Act has long been reviled by Putin, as it hits the wealthy Russian strongman’s government where it hurts. It could also imperil the money he’s believed to have overseas, according to Browder.
“The Magnitsky Act puts his entire wealth at risk,” Browder said. “It’s personal for him and that’s why he hates it.”
The law blocks the targeted Russians and other human rights abusers from entering the U.S., freezes their U.S. assets and prevents them from doing business with American banks. As Browder has explained, this hurts Russian government officials who have long stashed stolen money in Western bank accounts.
“In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents — the possibilities are endless,” the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe explained in 2017. “Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities?”
But it doesn’t only hurt Putin and his cronies economically. According to Nina Jankowicz, a D.C.-based writer and analyst who specializes in Russian politics, the sanctions also undercut Putin’s government on the world stage.
“What’s most important is that [the sanctions are] a blow to the image Russia wants to project as a great power,” Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said in an email. “Instead it is one being chastised by a growing number of countries for its human rights abuses.”
Fighting the sanctions have been a major focus of Putin’s government — including in some of its dealings with the Trump team that are currently being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller.
During a now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016, Donald Trump Jr. allegedly hinted to Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya that his father may review the sanctions if elected in exchange for dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump Jr. reportedly said, “Looking ahead, if we come to power, we can return to this issue and think what to do about it,’’ Veselnitskaya recalled in an interview last year.
The Russians may have followed up on the sanctions discussion after Trump was elected, Democrats said in a report in April.
The 2016 meeting, which was also attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, has been a significant part of Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The president’s actions after the public became aware of the rendezvous in 2017 has been scrutinized as part of the special counsel’s examination of potential obstruction of justice.
According to Browder, Putin’s proposal in Helsinki Monday echoed the talking points Veselnitskaya seemed to put forth in the Trump Tower meeting.
“There was no daylight between the two,” Browder said.
Versions of the Magnitsky Act have already been adopted by several other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Browder is currently working to get eight other nations — including U.S. allies like France and Germany — to take up the sanctions.
According to Cardin, the Democratic senator who helped get the Magnitsky Act enacted in the U.S., the law has been “one of the most effective ways to isolate Mr. Putin and to show the consequences of his hostile actions.”
“It’s not only had a direct effect through what the U.S. has done,” Cardin said in a phone interview. “It’s also led other countries to follow us.”
But Cardin said he’s worried that the Magnitsky Act may be in jeopardy as Trump cozies up to Putin.
“It came up very clearly in Helsinki,” Cardin said. “The president has the authority to end the sanctions. I am very concerned about it.”
The Maryland Democrat said he and some others in the Senate may attempt to push through legislation that would “put a speed bump” in the president’s way if he attempts to overturn the sanctions — something Jankowicz said Congress would likely back, given the “bipartisan support for the Magnitsky Act” on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t see the law going anywhere for the time being,” Jankowicz said.
“Congress has been quick to prevent any substantive change to policies like this,” she added, pointing to the Senate’s unanimous vote this week demanding Trump not turn over Browder or other American officials to Putin for questioning.
In addition to Browder, whom Putin called out by name during the Helsinki summit, Russia was seeking to question former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and former congressional aide Kyle Parker, who drafted the Magnitsky Act, among others.
Trump said it was an “interesting” idea and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders this week suggested the administration was considering the offer. On Thursday, Sanders said in a statement that while Putin’s proposal was “made in sincerity,” Trump “disagrees with it.”
Still, Trump was slammed for even thinking about the offer — and for taking several days to turn it down.
“It should have taken about 12 seconds,” Browder said Thursday. “It was a remarkable and unacceptable position to take.”
Still, he said that he had little concern that he would be turned over to Putin, whom he says wants him dead. For one thing, he’s a British citizen and he says the Kremlin would have to go through Prime Minister Theresa May to get at him. For another, he believes Trump’s hands are tied by the people who surround him in his administration and on Capitol Hill, most of whom don’t seem to have the warm feelings toward Russia and its leader that Trump apparently does.
“I’m not particularly exercised about my risk of being handed over,” Browder said. “But the fact that it took him three days to retract that statement does make me question his judgement.”
According to Jankowicz, that “poor judgement” and alignment with Putin can do plenty of damage on its own — even if he is unable to enact some of the Russian president’s proposals.
“The fact that Congress needs to so diligently and fervently protect these policies from the president’s whims ... is extremely worrisome and damaging to our relationships with allies and the perception of the U.S. and it’s commitment to its values abroad,” Jankowicz said.