On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about a bizarre colloquy between President Trump and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin regarding the possibility of the United States investigating anti-Putin American citizens. In their joint press conference on Monday, Putin stated:
This kind of effort should be a mutual one. Then we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate, and that they would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia, and we have to — to request the presence of our law enforcement. For instance, we can bring up the Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion 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. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Well, that’s the personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal. So we have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions. So we have a — an interest of questioning them. We can all — that — that could be a first step, and we can also extend it. Options abound, and they all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.
Trump called this offer “incredible.”
Today, Huckabee Sanders was asked about the “incredible offer,” and she responded thusly:
“The president’s going to meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that.” Asked whether this issue was raised between Putin and Trump, Huckabee Sanders said, “There was some conversation about it but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States, and the president will work with his team and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”
That’s an amazingly awful answer. First, Browder is a British citizen. Trump has no power over him, particularly given that there are no serious allegations of criminal activity against Browder. The fact that Trump has to “work with his team” on this question is troubling.
Browder, the target of Putin’s ire, is a human rights activist who has worked to get governments to levy sanctions on Putin’s regime. Russian front lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya tried to give the Trump campaign information on Browder and push for an end to the Browder-backed Magnitsky Act in their controversial June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. The New York Times describes Browder’s back story:
By Mr. Putin’s first term in office, Mr. Browder, who co-founded Hermitage Capital Management, had risen to become the largest portfolio investor in Russia, with more than $4 billion under management as of 2005. Along the way, he ran afoul of the Kremlin by becoming a fierce critic of weak corporate governing standards…. Russian authorities then raided his offices, seized Hermitage’s investment companies and used them to fraudulently obtain $230 million in tax rebates. When the firm’s tax lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky, investigated the crime, he was arrested by the same officers he had implicated and imprisoned. He died nearly a year later at age 37, the result, Mr. Browder claims, of months of torture. Since then, Mr. Browder has devoted much of his life to seeking justice for Mr. Magnitsky.
Now, Huckabee Sanders does say that Trump made no commitment on that score. So this is all likely wind. The most likely scenario, in fact, is that Huckabee Sanders wanted to simply dismiss the issue out of hand, but knows that if she said that the U.S. wouldn’t work with Russia on this, her boss might take to Twitter to undercut her. Better to defer and quietly put this idea to bed behind closed doors without Trump watching on TV and tweeting his thoughts.
That won’t work, however. The answer Huckabee Sanders gave has started another firestorm – and it’s unclear whether Trump will be willing to put it out by simply stating that we’re not turning over a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and an American anti-Putin citizen to the whims of a thug.
This may all end up being much ado about nothing. That’s why it’s so ridiculous for the White House to defer the answer to this question rather than just killing this idiotic rumor outright.
It isn’t that hard. In fact, the State Department, asked the same question, simply dismissed it: