President Donald Trump entertained a proposal from Vladimir Putin to let Russian authorities pose questions for the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.
Trump made no commitments to the Russian leader when Putin raised the idea at a private meeting in Helsinki on Monday and is “going to meet with his team,” Sanders said.
Allowing the interrogation of a former American ambassador, who held diplomatic immunity while in Moscow, would be an unprecedented breach in protections traditionally provided to the nation’s foreign service.
In exchange for the opportunity to have McFaul and a number of other Americans questioned, the Russian president offered to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller observe interrogations of 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted by a U.S. grand jury last week for hacking Democratic Party email accounts.
Sanders said “there was some conversation about” Putin’s proposed exchange during Trump’s summit with the Russian leader in Helsinki on Monday, where the two leaders spent about two hours together accompanied only by translators.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday that such a grilling of a former diplomat “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues.” She said the Russians are making “absolutely absurd” assertions about 11 American citizens they want to question, although she declined to rule out the Russian proposal when asked about it repeatedly.
McFaul, who served under President Barack Obama and now teaches at Stanford University, wrote on Twitter that he hopes “the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin.” Otherwise, he said, it creates a “moral equivalency” between a legitimate U.S. “indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”
Putin outlined his proposal at a news conference following the summit, and said that his government would like to question Hermitage Capital Chief Executive Officer William Browder, a longtime Kremlin antagonist who lobbied the U.S. government to adopt a law authorizing sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. Putin didn’t mention McFaul to reporters, although his government often criticized him when he was the U.S. envoy in Moscow.
Trump called Putin’s proposal to allow Russian questioning of Americans and reciprocal questioning an “interesting idea” and an “incredible offer” at the news conference.
“He wants to work with his team and determine if there’s any validity that would be helpful to the process,” Sanders said. “But again, we’ve committed to nothing. It was an idea that they threw out.”
“Putin has been harassing me for a long time,” McFaul said on Twitter earlier Wednesday. “That he now wants to arrest me, however, takes it to a new level. I expect my government to defend me and my colleagues in public and private.”
In 2012, Russian state television and pro-government lawmakers accused McFaul of stirring up unrest by meeting opposition activists days after taking up his post in Moscow. Later that year, he was forced to apologize for calling Russia a “wild country” after journalists from state-run NTV channel followed him to a meeting with a human-rights activist in Moscow.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Wednesday evening, dismissed Putin’s offers of cooperation. Asked about allowing Russians to be involved in the questioning of Americans, Wray said, “That’s probably even lower on our list of investigative techniques.”
SOURCE: Toluse Olorunnipa