Well, you’d hope not, but then again you’d hope that the White House would have made the absurdity of the request clear immediately, too. Instead, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press yesterday that “there was some conversation about” exchanging access to suspected Russian intelligence officers behind the 2016 influence campaign and providing access to former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. At the time, Donald Trump called it an “incredible offer,” one Sanders said was still on the table:
At this week’s summit in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed what President Trump described as an “incredible offer” — the Kremlin would give special counsel Robert S. Mueller III access to interviews with Russians indicted after allegedly hacking Democrats in 2016. In return, Russia would be allowed to question certain U.S. officials it suspects of interfering in Russian affairs.
One of those U.S. officials is a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, a nemesis of the Kremlin because of his criticisms of Russia’s human rights record.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out the Kremlin’s request to question McFaul and other Americans. Asked during the daily press briefing whether President Trump is open to the idea of having McFaul questioned by Russia, Sanders said President Trump is “going to meet with his team” to discuss the offer.
“There was some conversation about it,” between Trump and Putin, Sanders said, “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.”
The State Department issued a stronger pushback yesterday, with spokesperson Heather Nauert seemingly non-plussed at the recitation of Sanders’ comment:
In a separate briefing Wednesday afternoon, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was asked about Ms. Sanders’s comments. She said she hadn’t seen the remarks and couldn’t address them, but dismissed as “absurd” the allegations that Russia was making about U.S. citizens.
“We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes,” said Ms. Nauert. “I will be sure to look into it and understand that it would be a grave concern to our former colleagues here.”
Nauert wasn’t the only person mystified by the seemingly serious consideration given the proposition. Senate Intel ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) asserted that the US would not be “turning @McFaul or any other American public servant over to Russia to be prosecuted for nonexistent crimes.” Warner’s not alone either. Senator James Lankford (R-OK), a member of both the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said “no way” should the US even be entertaining this demand, let alone mulling it over in any way:
.@SenatorLankford says that he's "adamantly opposed" to the idea of the U.S. turning over any diplomat to Russian officials after the White House said President Trump would discuss a Russian proposal to question American citizens: https://t.co/uQtOsng0HK pic.twitter.com/s5t7gUmjlS
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 19, 2018
Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, says that President Trump is “certainly not careful in his words” amid confusion over the president’s views on Russian interference in the 2016 election and his apparent support of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit. Lankford told “CBS This Morning” that the president’s misunderstandings can “affect the world.”
“He’s not careful in how he says things and that sometimes gets misunderstood and when you’re president of the United States, everyone watches every single word and how you say it, which is important because it does affect the world,” Lankford said. …
Meanwhile, Lankford, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that he’s “adamantly opposed” to the idea of the U.S. turning over any diplomat to Russian officials after the White House said Mr. Trump would discuss a Russian proposal to question American citizens, including former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, whom the Kremlin accuses of committing crimes in Russia.
“There’s no way I would turn over a former diplomat to Russia’s foreign investigation for conversation on that. They were acting in the official duties, we need to continue to stand by our folks,” Lankford said.
Well … hell, yeah. McFaul was an American diplomat in the service of the US. Just on the basis of that, let alone diplomatic immunity, the US shouldn’t be treating him as a bargaining chip. Given that McFaul has been a sharp critic of the Trump administration, one has to wonder whether the dangling of this possibility isn’t a form of payback. If it is, it’s not likely to be well received among the diplomatic corps, or for that matter in Congress, where one Democrat on the House Intel Committee suggested that it could become grounds for you-know-what. “If he were to do that,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told CNN, “I think that would absolutely be grounds for impeachment.”
Just how dumb of an idea is this? Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) explains:
Lindsey Graham: "I don't think there is one member of Congress on either side of the aisle that believes it is remotely smart to allow our former ambassador, Mr. Browder or any other person to submit to interviews by Putin's government." https://t.co/32cnQaPyLi
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) July 19, 2018
Let’s put it this way: how smart is it to allow an American diplomat to fall into the hands of a hostile intelligence service? We spend lots of time and effort to prevent that. And that’s not even mentioning just how offensive it should be to Americans that we’d allow someone who served the country to endure that, regardless of whether we agree with his politics or not.
Putin seems to be serious about targeting McFaul, however, rather than just making him a convenient bargaining chip. NPR reports this morning that Putin thinks McFaul was running intelligence ops designed to destroy his grip on power, and he wants some payback:
Putin, as international observers often say, believes there is a web of plots directed against him by the West. For whatever intelligence work the United States and its allies might be doing against Russia, McFaul said he was not there to support Putin’s opposition.
It has become commonplace, however, for Putin’s supporters to say that, in so many words, “everyone does it” — all nations interfere in all other nations’ affairs. …
However Putin got the impression that McFaul was running a counter-revolution against him, he has evidently believed it for years. McFaul told NPR’s Terry Gross about two occasions on which he and just one other American went in for a meeting with Putin in Moscow — one time with then-Secretary of State John Kerry and another with then-national security adviser Tom Donilon.
“He looked straight at me in the eye,” McFaul remembered. “And he said, ‘We know what you’re doing. We know that you’re, you know, trying to support the opposition. And we’re going to stop you.’ “
Is the deal that Trump thinks is so “incredible” good enough to set a precedent of delivering our diplomats to the security apparatuses of our geopolitical foes? Supposedly Putin not only offered access to the twelve Russians indicted by Robert Mueller, he also offered to partner up with the FBI on the Russian probe. Color Christopher Wray less than impressed:
Speaking late Wednesday at a security conference in Aspen, Colo., Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray was dismissive of Mr. Putin’s suggestion that Russia and U.S investigators could jointly look into allegations that Moscow meddled in the U.S. election.
Mr. Wray said as far as the FBI is concerned, “I never want to say never, but it’s certainly not high on our list of investigative techniques.”
Wait a moment — the FBI doesn’t want competing intelligence agencies to get observer status on their counter-intelligence operations? Go figure.
This “incredible deal” is a bad idea on many levels. It shouldn’t take “work with his team” to figure that out. The only proper response to that offer should have been outright laughter.
Update: It took a few hours, but the White House finally caught on:
President Donald Trump now disagrees with a proposal raised by his Russian counterpart to interrogate Americans in exchange for assistance in the US-Russia probe, the White House said on Thursday, another reversal in a week of cleanup following a maligned summit with Vladimir Putin.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” press secretary Sarah 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.”
Trump’s disagreement came just as Mitch McConnell scheduled a vote on a Senate resolution condemning the proposal. No word as of yet whether that vote will still take place.