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Yes, the Russian government asked Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to push back against sanctions on Russians, and he doesn't see what the big deal is.
Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) dismissed fresh reports on Wednesday detailing how the Russian government asked him to change his colleagues' opinions about Russian sanctions as a "nothing burger trying to distract the American people from real issues."
Many of the details in a Daily Beast article published Wednesday had been previously reported in a lengthy Politico article in November. The Politico story gave Rohrabacher, who has long been known for encouraging improved Russian relations, the nickname "Putin's favorite congressman."
But the story is getting new life amid an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the effort's potential ties to the Trump campaign. And it's a pretty complicated story.
Rohrabacher has had multiple interactions with several of the people with Russian ties who attended a Trump Tower meeting with Trump's eldest son Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials in June 2016.
About the same time as the Trump Tower meeting, two of the attendees were working with Rohrabacher to remove Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s name from an anti-corruption law opposed by the Russian government. Magnitsky was a whistle-blower who alleged officials in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government stole $230 million. He died in prison under suspicious circumstances, and the act named after him banned officials accused of involvement in his death from visiting the U.S. and using American banks. In response, Putin banned adoptions of Russian children by Americans. People with connections to the Russian government have been lobbying against the Magnitsky Act ever since.
During a trip to Russia in April 2016 and amid discussions in Congress about expanding the act, Rohrabacher received a document outlining the Russian government's case against it.
“Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in the Congress… could have a very favorable response from the Russian side,” the document said, according to the Daily Beast.
Months later, Rohrabacher tried to hold a subcommittee hearing to discuss the act and challenge the assertions that led to the sanctions, but he was waylaid by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who instead arranged for the full committee to discuss it. At the hearing, Rohrabacher expressed skepticism about the expanded Magnitsky Act and advocated for removing Magnitsky's name from it.
Rohrabacher, who has previously said he accepted Russian documents on the case during the spring 2016 trip, acknowledged it again on Wednesday in an interview.
"The criminal justice department in Moscow had done a study of the Magnitsky case and had investigated it, and I was asked if I would look at it, and I said sure," said Rohrabacher, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. "I'm the chairman of the subcommittee that's supposed to focus on Russia. It's absolutely appropriate, and I think anybody that doesn't spend that time focusing on their responsibility is derelict in their duty."
Rohrabacher said he's gotten similar documents from other countries' governments when they want something from Congress.
"Whenever there is some controversy, you get information from those people all the time, whatever government you are talking to has all the information you need right here to prove their case," Rohrabacher said.
Rohrabacher had scheduled a similar trip to Moscow to meet with the Russian parliament this spring, but he said Wednesday that he didn't end up going because he was worried the current focus on Russia would make it difficult to have serious conversations with Russian officials.
"In the middle of a chaotic, public brouhaha, you're not going to be able to get the serious job done that you need to get done," he said.