James Risen weighs the evidence for accusations of Russian election interference, collusion, and obstruction of justice.
In 2008, a Russian tax law expert named Sergei Magnitsky accused Russian officials and organized crime figures of a $230 million tax fraud as part of a scheme to seize assets belonging to his client, the American-born investor William Browder.
Instead of investigating Magnitsky’s allegations, Russian officials arrested him and accused him of being involved in the fraud himself. The following year, Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. He was denied medical care while suffering from acute pancreatitis and had reportedly been chained to a bed and beaten by prison guards with rubber batons.
Strange and terrible things have been happening to people who get too close to the Magnitsky case in Moscow and beyond ever since. In 2010, Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian who had conspired with the Russian officials involved in the massive tax fraud, fled to Britain; he later gave incriminating banking documents to Swiss officials. In 2012, while jogging in his posh gated community in Britain, he dropped dead. Suspicions persist that he was poisoned, and an inquest into his death is still underway.
Last year, Nikolai Gorokhov, a Russian lawyer representing Magnitsky’s family, was scheduled to appear in a Moscow court to try to force an investigation into new evidence in the Magnitsky case. Just before he was due in court, Gorokhov fell from the fourth floor of his Moscow apartment building. He barely survived the 50-foot fall, suffering a fractured skull and other injuries that sent him to intensive care. He said he couldn’t remember anything about what had happened.
“I am still afraid for my life,” Gorokhov told NBC News last year.
Browder, Magnitsky’s client and once the biggest foreign investor in Russia, has become a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In May, Browder was detained in Spain on an Interpol warrant instigated by Russia. The Russians have accused him of being complicit with Magnitsky in the massive tax fraud that Magnitsky actually uncovered.
Spanish authorities quickly released Browder, but the fact that he was detained in the first place shows the Putin government’s international reach in its bid to punish anyone associated with the Magnitsky case.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials believed to have been complicit in Magnitsky’s killing. The Putin government has been trying to get them lifted for the last six years. But in Washington, no one has been poisoned or fallen out a window. Instead, the Russians have found Republican allies in Congress willing to help ease the Magnitsky Act restrictions.
Indeed, the Magnitsky case now serves as the backstory to the way in which some congressional Republicans have also sought to impede any serious investigation into evidence that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
This is my fourth column for The Intercept about the Trump-Russia case. It is easy to get lost in the daily, incremental stories about Trump and Russia; these columns are my attempt to step back and look at the big picture.
This piece is a companion to my previous column about whether Trump has tried to impede efforts — first by the FBI under then-Director James Comey and later by Special Counsel Robert Mueller — to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to win the White House. I concluded that the answer is absolutely yes.
The question I’m addressing in this fourth column is whether Republicans in Congress have been aiding Trump’s efforts to obstruct and impede the Russia investigation. I believe the answer to that question is yes as well. Their actions may not meet the legal definition of obstruction of justice, but they are clearly collaborating with Trump to interfere with Mueller’s investigation. They are laying the groundwork to discredit Mueller’s inquiry if Congress is eventually asked to weigh impeachment charges against Trump.
But before the Trump-Russia story, there was the Magnitsky case. In fact, by the time the inquiry into evidence of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia got going, some Republicans in Congress were already aiding and abetting Russian operatives who were seeking support in their efforts to get the Magnitsky Act repealed.
In some cases, these Russian operatives were the same ones who later became enmeshed in the Mueller investigation. Moreover, California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of Russia’s chief congressional allies in its attempts to repeal the Magnitsky Act, is now also caught up in Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia case. I believe the Magnitsky case shows how the Russians were already working Capitol Hill to find important allies among congressional Republicans before the Mueller investigation even began.
Like any good Russian story, the Magnitsky-Browder tale has lots of layers. Some outside observers have been skeptical of Browder and his accusations against the Russian government in the Magnitsky case, and some in the West have accused him of engaging in the same kind of tax evasion that he has accused Russian officials of committing. The skepticism of Browder’s claims comes in part because before he became one of Putin’s loudest critics, he was widely perceived as a vocal Putin supporter.
“I originally met William Browder back when I was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal when I was doing stories about corruption in Russia,” Glenn Simpson, the former journalist who now runs an investigative firm that is caught up in the Trump-Russia case, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. While testifying before the committee about his work investigating Trump’s ties to Russia for both Republican and Democratic clients before the election, Simpson was also asked about his separate but overlapping work in a legal case related Browder and Magnitsky.
“I think the first time I met him he lectured me about – I was working on a story about Vladimir Putin corruption and he lectured me about how Vladimir Putin was not corrupt and how he was the best thing that ever happened to Russia.”
Browder and his investment fund, Hermitage Capital Management, thrived in the early Putin years. But even as his investments grew, Browder became well-known in Moscow for speaking out about corruption in Russia. Because he continued to do well financially, however, some surmised that he had a special relationship with Putin.
In his 2015 memoir, “Red Notice,” Browder argues that when Putin first became president in 2000, he needed to gain control over the oligarchs and consolidate his own power. At the time, Browder’s attacks on the oligarchs’ corruption were in Putin’s political interest. The perception that he was allied with Putin helped protect Browder from the oligarchs and allowed him to flourish.
“Because everyone thought I was Putin’s guy, no one touched me,” he wrote.
But as Putin consolidated his power and gained control over corrupt deals throughout Russia, Browder lost his protection, leading to the $230 million tax fraud scheme in 2007, and Magnitsky’s death in 2009.
Rohrabacher has a long history of close ties to Russia and has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for being pro-Putin. In 2012, the FBI warned Rohrabacher that Russian intelligence was trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence,” the New York Times reported last year.
On a congressional delegation’s trip to Moscow in April 2016, Rohrabacher and his longtime aide Paul Behrends met with Veselnitskaya, one of the key Russian advocates for repealing the Magnitsky Act. Veselnitskaya gave Rohrabacher a memo alleging that major Clinton campaign donors had evaded Russian taxes while investing with Browder. She gave a similar memo to Rep. French Hill, an Arkansas Republican who was also on the trip to Moscow, after Behrends reportedly suggested he meet with Veselnitskaya.
Veselnitskaya turned over a memo with the same accusations to Trump Jr. during their June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
After he returned from the Moscow trip, Rohrabacher planned a carefully staged congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, which he chairs, in which Browder would testify while also being confronted with an anti-Magnitsky documentary, which was to be screened during the hearing. Veselnitskaya was also supposed to testify.
The hearing was canceled because top Republicans in the House objected to such an overtly pro-Russian bit of political theater. Undaunted, Rohrabacher continued his association with Veselnitskaya, who attended a party hosted by Rohrabacher’s campaign committee during Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported.
Behrends, who Politico described as Veselnitskaya’s “chief Capitol Hill contact,” was removed from his post as staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe last summer, even though Rohrabacher continued to chair the panel. Rep. Edward Royce, the chair of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly had concerns about Behrends’s Russian contacts. Behrends is now deputy staff director in Rohrabacher’s personal congressional office.
Ken Grubbs, a spokesperson for Rohrabacher, said in an email response to questions, that while Behrends is not doing interviews, “he did want you to know that he met with Russians only as part of his job on the subcommittee.” Behrends’s ouster came despite his deep ties to Rohrabacher as well as to Trumpworld: He first worked for Rohrabacher in the 1990s, when he helped arrange an internship in Rohrabacher’s office for a young Erik Prince, the scion of an auto parts fortune. Prince went on to found the private security firm Blackwater and hired Behrends as a lobbyist. Today, Prince is close to the Trump White House – his sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s secretary of education – and he has also been caught up in the Trump-Russia story.
In addition to his contacts with the Russians on the Magnitsky case, Rohrabacher is also now more directly linked to the Trump-Russia case.
In February, Richard Gates, a former Trump campaign operative and close associate of former campaign chair Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI. He is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. As part of his plea deal, Gates revealed that a 2013 meeting between Rohrabacher, Manafort, and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressperson and now a lobbyist, included a discussion about Ukraine. Mueller’s team has accused Manafort and Gates of engaging in a secret and lucrative lobbying campaign for the pro-Russian Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
I believe that Veselnitskaya and other Russians found willing partners among congressional Republicans in part because Russia is increasingly popular among Republican voters, who seem to approve of Putin’s authoritarianism.
A May 2017 Morning Consult poll found that 49 percent of Republican voters – and half of Americans who voted for Trump – viewed Russia as either friendly to the United States or as an ally. Republican approval for Putin himself has also been rising. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that Republican approval for Putin rose to 34 percent last year, up from 17 percent in 2015. Right-wing pundit Christopher Caldwell captured that attitude in a 2017 speech when he said that “Vladimir Putin is a powerful ideological symbol and a highly effective ideological litmus test. He is a hero to populist conservatives around the world and anathema to progressives. I don’t want to compare him to our own president, but if you know enough about what a given American thinks of Putin, you can probably tell what he thinks of Donald Trump.”
This represents a stark change in the Republican Party from 40 or 50 years ago, and I think helps explain why congressional Republicans today are not particularly bothered by allegations that Trump colluded with Russia to win the presidency.
Moreover, Republican fortunes are now so tightly tied to Trump himself that Republicans in Congress will never act in a bipartisan manner and turn on him. They will not follow the honorable precedent set by Howard Baker during Watergate.
In 1973, Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee who was considered a loyal supporter of President Richard Nixon, was named the ranking minority member of the new Senate committee investigating the growing Watergate scandal. When he joined the committee, Baker thought that Watergate was nothing more than a “political ploy” by the Democrats designed to damage Nixon just as he began his second term following a landslide re-election victory.
At the time, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and in the early months of Watergate, many Americans still believed the scandal was being blown out of proportion because of partisan politics. But as the committee started investigating, Baker gradually began to recognize the seriousness and scope of the accusations. He and Sen. Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the committee, worked closely to ensure that their investigation was bipartisan. And by the summer of 1973, when the nation’s attitudes toward Watergate began to change and the public was so gripped by the televised hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee that celebrities like John Lennon and Yoko Ono had sat in the hearing room audience, Baker was transformed into a star with his piercing questioning of witnesses. He went down in history for asking the most famous question of the Watergate hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Unfortunately, Devin Nunes is no Howard Baker.
Nunes, the Republican representative from California who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has turned himself into Trump’s fawning creature when it comes to congressional efforts to investigate the Trump-Russia case. Rather than lead a bipartisan investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Nunes has become a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist in Congress and has been using his power as Intelligence Committee chair to repeatedly badger the FBI and Justice Department to try to discredit Mueller’s inquiry. He has proven time and again that he is eager to take orders from the White House to hunt down purported evidence to support the latest bits of right-wing conspiracy garbage being spewed on Fox News and other right-wing outlets about the Mueller investigation.
Sadly, Nunes is not alone. He is part of a cadre of congressional Republicans who are eagerly helping to impede the Trump-Russia investigation. Like Nunes, almost all of them represent solidly Republican districts.
They have helped block any legislation to protect Mueller from Trump’s threats to fire him, and they have shown no interest in investigating evidence that Trump has obstructed justice in the Russia inquiry. They have threatened to impeach the head of the FBI and the deputy attorney general for their reluctance to turn over a classified document about how the Trump-Russia inquiry began. They have leaked to Fox News text messages from the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to embarrass him for trying to get in contact with Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who authored the so-called Steele dossier. Two Senate Republicans even sent a letter to the Justice Department urging Steele’s prosecution, despite the lack of evidence that he has broken any laws.
Congressional Republicans have been demanding information from the FBI and the Justice Department about the Russia investigation, and critics believe their only goal is to impede the inquiry. “It infuriates me to observe (and cover) a months-long charade by the House GOP to demand more and more details about those who have shared information with the government, at least some of whom were only trying to prevent real damage to innocent people, all in an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation,” Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who focuses on national security, wrote earlier this month, while disclosing that she has provided information to the FBI in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation.
Congressional Republicans have also consistently pushed for Mueller to quit his post as special prosecutor or to bring his investigation to an abrupt end. (Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has tried to present himself as a break on Trump’s desire to fire Mueller, has said that Mueller should start winding down his investigation.) They used the release last month of the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report on the way the FBI handled the Clinton email case as a vehicle to repeat their claims that during the 2016 campaign, the FBI and the Justice Department were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Trump. A group of eight Senate Republicans drew criticism for spending the Fourth of July in Russia, where they downplayed the significance of the investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 election. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who led the delegation, said the point of the visit was to improve relations, not to “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.
Congressional Republicans have also have become obsessed with the roles played in both the Clinton email investigation and the FBI’s Trump-Russia inquiry by two FBI officials who were having an affair. Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI official Peter Strzok exchanged anti-Trump text messages, and now Republicans have seized on their relationship and their texts to try to undermine the entire Trump-Russia investigation.
On Thursday, Strzok testified before a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, which Republicans used as yet another way to attack the Russia investigation. The hearing was bitter from the start, as Republicans demanded Strzok provide details about his role in the early days of the investigation and then angrily threatened to hold him in contempt of Congress when he said the FBI had directed him not to answer such questions. Strzok, in turn, accused the Republicans of purposefully trying to sabotage the Trump-Russia inquiry, saying: “I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
Politico recently published a list of the four House Republicans (besides Nunes) who are both Trump’s most ardent defenders and Mueller’s fiercest critics. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida are all hungry and ambitious conservatives from strongly Republican districts and have all worked assiduously to block Mueller’s investigation.
Gaetz is perhaps Trump’s most visible backer in the House. He is a 35-year-old freshman Republican from Florida’s 1st Congressional District, which hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
The son of a former president of the Florida state Senate, Gaetz has turned himself into a constant presence in the media – any media. Earlier this year, he appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars radio program to discuss Nunes’s infamous intelligence memo, which made a series of misleading claims about the Trump-Russia investigation.
Gaetz has introduced a resolution in the House urging Mueller to quit and has called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to undo his recusal from overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation.
In May, Meadows, chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called for a financial audit of Muller’s investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Meadows wants to put public pressure on Mueller by criticizing the spending patterns of the Special Counsel’s Office.
Jordan, like Meadows, is a member of the Freedom Caucus and has called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the Justice Department and the FBI for going too hard on Trump and too easy on Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Jordan is now caught up in a growing scandal over accusations that, while he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State in the 1980s and 1990s, he failed to act on evidence that a team doctor, who has since died, molested wrestling team members.
Jordan has denied the allegations made by a growing list of former Ohio State wrestlers, and Trump has come out strongly in support of Jordan – almost certainly because Jordan has worked so hard to try to block Mueller’s investigation.
For his part, DeSantis has proposed legislation that would halt funding for Mueller’s investigation within six months and bar the special counsel from looking into anything that happened before Trump launched his presidential campaign. DeSantis is now running for governor in Florida. In return for his efforts to curb the Mueller inquiry, Trump tweeted favorably about his gubernatorial campaign.
These representatives’ slavish support for Trump and their attacks on Mueller translate into constant appearances on Fox News as well as controversy and criticism from the mainstream media. But they have all learned that attacking Mueller is good politics for them. Only Rohrabacher, who represents Orange County in California, is in political danger this year.
Nunes, for example, was the target of intense Democratic attacks before the California primary in early June, when a Democratic group put up a series of three billboards in his district, including one that read, “Why is Devin Nunes hot on Russia…” The anti-Nunes campaign was modeled after the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
But the billboards and other attacks had no effect. Nunes easily won his primary and is expected to win re-election in November.
The blindly loyal conservative Republican support for Trump in Congress means that he will very likely never be impeached, no matter what Mueller uncovers. Even if the Democrats win control of both the House and the Senate in the 2018 midterms, they will not be able to gain the two-thirds Senate majority they needed for impeachment without any Republican votes.
More troubling is the fact that the Republican eagerness to discredit Mueller and protect Trump at all costs means that Congress is forfeiting its oversight role. Once abandoned, that oversight power may be lost forever.
James Risen weighs the evidence for accusations of Russian election interference, collusion, and obstruction of justice.