Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to U.S. President Donald Trump for a joint investigation of former U.S. officials sought by the Kremlin for “illegal activities,” including a U.S. ambassador to Russia, is just the latest effort in a years-long campaign to undermine a U.S. law that imposes financial sanctions on Putin’s officials.
Putin and advocates for the Kremlin’s position had had no success with the campaign – until Trump became president. The Magnitsky Act of 2012 is the backdrop of Putin’s proposal to Trump at the Helsinki meeting earlier this week that the United States give Russian officials access to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in exchange for allowing the FBI to question 12 Russian agents recently indicted for interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump was receptive to the suggestion, calling it “an interesting idea.” That created a fire storm of criticism among Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. But on Thursday, the White House reversed course with spokeswoman Sarah Sanders saying, “It is a proposal made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.”
By then the Russian Prosecutor-General’s office had informally proposed that the United States turn over a U.S. National Security Agency employee, a CIA agent and State Department officials, among others.
The Magnitsky Act was the reaction to the 2009 suspicious death in prison of a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for Bill Browder, a British hedge fund manager who invested in Russian companies. Magnitsky was arrested after accusing Russian law enforcement officials of a $230 million tax hoax.
U.S. government officials have long contended that Magnitsky’s arrest and prison death were retaliation against Browder for revealing state theft conducted by Kremlin officials.
The financier drew Putin’s ire after he successfully advocated in 2012 for the economic sanctions. The law freezes the bank accounts and bars entry to the United States of Russian officials who U.S. authorities said were responsible for the Russian lawyer’s suspicious death. Browder has repeatedly dismissed the Kremlin’s claims as propaganda intended to punish him for speaking out against Putin.
The law outraged Putin, who barred American adoptions of Russian children as retaliation.