World News

Putin Singles Out Critic In an Offer to Mueller

LONDON — President Vladimir Putin of Russia made a surprise offer to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, at the news conference Monday concluding the summit meeting between him and President Donald Trump.

Posted Updated

Michael Schwirtz
Kenneth P. Vogel, New York Times

LONDON — President Vladimir Putin of Russia made a surprise offer to Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, at the news conference Monday concluding the summit meeting between him and President Donald Trump.

The Kremlin, Putin said, would allow Mueller and his team to travel to Russia and be present at the questioning of 12 Russian military intelligence officers the special counsel indicted last week for hacking into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In exchange, however, the United States would have to permit Russian law enforcement officials to take part in interrogations of people “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” He singled out one man: Bill Browder.

A London-based financier who led a global human rights crusade against the Kremlin that has resulted in sanctions being leveled against numerous Russian officials, Browder, 54, is a source of deep frustration for the Kremlin, which has gone to great lengths to shut him down. In May, he was arrested and briefly detained in Spain by officers acting on a Moscow-issued Interpol red notice, the sixth the Russians have filed against him.

During the presidential campaign, a Kremlin-linked lawyer tried to interest the Trump campaign in allegations against Browder during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York with members of the Trump campaign, who had been promised damaging information about the Clinton campaign. That meeting has become a focus of Mueller’s investigation.

Putin on Monday detailed on television a variation of some of the allegations that the lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, brought to the Trump Tower meeting — namely that some of Browder’s associates had funneled $400 million to the Clinton campaign with money illegally moved out of Russia.

“Business associates of his have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia,” Putin said. “They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

Additionally, Putin declared, “we have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions.”

Putin offered no evidence to support his claims about money moving to the Clinton campaign, let alone with assistance from intelligence officers.

Yet his claims in some ways echoed allegations that have been leveled by Trump and his supporters about financial corruption by Clinton and her campaign, as well as the contention that sinister forces within a bureaucratic “deep state” had sought to thwart his election victory.

Trump later called Putin’s suggestion of an investigative quid pro quo “an incredible offer,” though how such reciprocity would work was unclear. Browder long ago gave up his U.S. passport in favor of British citizenship.

In a phone interview Monday, Browder said that Putin’s denunciation was just another sign of the Kremlin’s unhappiness with the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that Browder championed, in which the United States imposed sanctions against Russia.

“It’s a true affirmation of the fact that we’ve found Putin’s Achilles’ heel with the Magnitsky Act,” Browder said. “He’s basically lost it, emotionally, because his own money in the West is now being seized under that Magnitsky Act.” Out of safety concerns, Browder, who holds a British passport, would not say where he was located. But he said he did not believe Putin’s remarks put him in any greater danger.

“America is a rule-of-law country, and I think that the rule of law will protect me,” he said.

Browder expressed puzzlement over what Putin might have been referring to Monday when he claimed that Browder’s associates steered $400 million to Clinton’s campaign.

“This is just part of their weird, non-fact-based emotional reaction,” Browder said. “He has become unhinged.”

By Putin’s first term in office, Browder, who co-founded Hermitage Capital Management, had risen to become the largest portfolio investor in Russia, with more than $4 billion under management as of 2005. Along the way, he ran afoul of the Kremlin by becoming a fierce critic of weak corporate governing standards.

In November 2005, Browder was turned back after arriving in Moscow for a business trip, and was later declared a “threat to national security” as a result of his battle against corporate corruption.

Russian authorities then raided his offices, seized Hermitage’s investment companies and used them to fraudulently obtain $230 million in tax rebates. When the firm’s tax lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky, investigated the crime, he was arrested by the same officers he had implicated and imprisoned. He died nearly a year later at age 37, the result, Browder claims, of months of torture.

Since then, Browder has devoted much of his life to seeking justice for Magnitsky. His campaigning led Congress to adopt the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012, which imposed visa sanctions on and froze the assets of those involved in Magnitsky’s detention. The legislation was the first time the United States had sanctioned Russia in 35 years; Browder has urged the European Union to adopt similar legislation.

Browder’s efforts have infuriated the Kremlin, which has sought out different avenue to thwart him. In 2013, Browder was convicted of tax fraud in absentia by a Russian court.

He then faced a new fight, as Russia sought to get British courts to find and freeze his assets and enforce a civil judgment against him in Russia.

Russia has pushed several times to get Interpol to issue arrest orders against Browder, and it announced this summer that it would try yet again.

In the summer of 2016, though, the Kremlin tried another approach. Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with ties to the country’s powerful prosecutor general, approached the Trump campaign with an offer of help. At a meeting at Trump Tower, attended by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and the campaign’s chairman, Paul Manafort, Veselnitskaya presented a memo that detailed the claims against Browder, and alleged that his lobbying in the United States had gained traction because of the political connections of the principals in one of the firms that invested with him, Ziff Brothers Investments.

“According to information we have, the Ziff brothers took part in financing both Obama election campaigns,” stated the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “It cannot be ruled out that they took part in financing the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

The memo does not offer any specific data to support those conclusions, and public records do not support the notion that any of the Ziffs, or their firm, were among the leading financial supporters of Clinton’s campaign.

Federal Election Commission records indicate that the Ziffs and their immediate family had donated only about $35,000 to Clinton’s various committees over the years. And federal election laws limit the amount that individuals can donate directly to campaigns to $2,700 per election.

Taken together, the brothers behind the firm — Daniel, Dirk and Robert Ziff — combined with their spouses and parents have donated nearly $5 million to Democratic and Republican campaigns and committees since the 1980s, including $1.1 million to the Democratic National Committee.

The Ziff Brothers firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was not clear from where Putin derived the $400 million figure, or whether he was referring to the Ziffs or possibly other donors as well. Former Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment. Members of the Trump campaign team said they struggled to understand the significance of the information offered by Veselnitskaya, and the meeting wrapped up quickly. Veselnitskaya initially denied any ties to the Russian government, but has since said she has worked as an “informant” for Russian prosecutors.

In June, Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, seemed to foreshadow Putin’s move in Helsinki.

“I think in the near future, stronger efforts will be taken by Russia in the international arena,” he said. Chaika added that the Russian government would not allow Browder “to sleep soundly.”

In Helsinki, Putin said that Mueller would be welcome to come to Russia. But the price would be Bill Browder.

“We can meet you halfway,” he said.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.