Democrats’ narrative that that President Trump colluded with Russia during his campaign suffered a severe setback after a credible Russia critic gave sworn testimony in Congress last week that received little mainstream news media coverage.
William Browder, a U.S.-born investor who helped pass a U.S. sanctions law against Russia, testified under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that:
1) Fusion GPS — the firm hired by Trump’s political enemies to create the infamous Trump dossier — also ran a smear campaign against him on behalf of Russia;
2) Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s meeting with Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016 was only part of Russia’s larger efforts to get the sanctions law known as the Magnitsky Act repealed; and
3) The Russians were not necessarily acting in support of Trump, and were trying to reach out to everyone they could about repealing the Magnitsky Act — not just Trump Jr.
Browder detailed GPS Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson’s efforts to smear him, even though Simpson said he had just provided “litigation support”:
Glenn Simpson was calling a number of journalists pitching a story to the journalists pitching a story to the journalists … that [Magnitsky] had not been murdered but he died of natural causes, he wasn’t a whistleblower, that he was a criminal, the story I told was incorrect and therefore it should be repealed.
I know he was pitching that story because a number of journalists came to me to ask me about it. He was unsuccessful for the most part in getting that story written.
Browder’s testimony not only discredited Fusion GPS itself but raised questions as to whether the document used by the FBI to open an investigation on Trump’s campaign was Russian disinformation.
“What you need to understand about the Russians is there is no ideology at all,” Browder said. “Vladimir Putin is in the business of trying to create chaos everywhere.”
Trump on Saturday tweeted a Fox News story on the hearing, adding, “In other words, Russia was against Trump” in the election.
In other words, Russia was against Trump in the 2016 Election – and why not, I want strong military & low oil prices. Witch Hunt! https://t.co/mMSxj4Su5z
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
Notably, Fusion GPS has refused to reveal who first paid the firm to do the opposition research against Trump. Its co-founder Glenn Simpson was invited to testify at the hearing but has declined to do so in public.
Browder’s testimony also put Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting in the context of Russia’s years-long and wide-ranging lobbying efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act. Democrats have argued the meeting was really about dangling the prospect of collusion, despite any evidence there were follow-up meetings.
“The interest and the goal in that meeting was to repeal the Magnitsky Act,” Browder said. “That’s the one thing we can conclude with certainty about what happened in that meeting.”
Browder explained to senators exactly why repealing the Magnitsky Act is Putin’s “single most important foreign policy,” versus some gateway to collusion. He explained that Putin stood to personally lose money under the sanctions, as well as cronies he had promised to protect. Putin was “infuriated” by the sanctions, he said, prompting him to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
“He can no longer guarantee absolute impunity. All of a sudden we created consequences in the West I would not underestimate,” Browder said. “Targeted sanctions are a hundred times more upsetting to the Russian kleptocracy than broad sanctions.”
Browder also said that Veselnitskaya’s “main life project” was repealing the Magnitsky Act.
During the hearing, Democrats repeatedly tried to lead Browder into agreeing that Trump Jr. and other campaign representatives knew that when Veselnitskaya brought up “adoptions” during the meeting that they knew it meant lifting the sanctions and receiving something in return.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who asked Browder: “Adoption is in effect code for talking about lifting sanctions … is there any reason that anybody in the president’s circle should know that?”
Browder responded: “I can’t speak to their frame of mind.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) followed up, asserting that “adoptions” was a literal “code word” for lifting the Magnitsky Act and that the Trump campaign expected to receive something “of value” in exchange. He said:
When I was a federal prosecutor we sometimes did wiretaps, and we overheard mobsters using code words for dollars like “tomatoes” and “fish.” In this case, “adoption” was referring to the thing of value which for Vladimir Putin was lifting sanctions, which meant money to him. And for other participants in the meeting it was referring to something of value to them and the promise to them made in e-mails was that they would have damaging information.
Browder cautioned Blumenthal against believing that the Russians had actually promised anything in advance for lifting the sanctions and said that, even if they had, it wouldn’t be credible.
“The Russians are liars,” Browder said.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) called fellow Democratic Senator Blumenthal’s comments “extraordinary” and asked if there were any indications that the Trump campaign had more similar meetings.
Browder responded that he didn’t know of any more meetings and added that the Russians were all over Washington making similar pitches.
“The Russians were all over Capitol Hill and here in Congress trying to get meetings with members of Congress to try to make the same type of pitch. Unsuccessfully in the end, but they were here en masse,” he said.
Blumenthal then suggested Browder did not know of any more meetings because he didn’t have access to classified information that “might” be available to the special counsel. He also suggested that when Trump Jr. got the email about the meeting, it would be like Putin himself would be in the meeting, to which Browder said he would have assumed that, but he could only speak for himself.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is leading the Judiciary committee’s probe into Russian interference, pushed back against the Democrats’ suggestions.
“I’m 100 percent certain in the Trump world of June 2016, they didn’t know that adoptions meant Magnitsky Act. Trust me, I don’t think they knew that,” said Graham — no big fan of Trump.
During the hearing, Browder himself expressed doubt that Russia’s efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act had anything to do with the presidential election.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Browder “with regard to the Russian government’s continuing efforts and Ms. Veselnitskaya’s efforts to repeal or weaken the Magnitsky Act, how did that fit into their broader campaign to interfere in the 2016 election?”
Browder responded, “Well, it’s not clear to me how the two are exactly related.”
“We know what they wanted, which was to have the Magnitsky Act repealed. Whether there was any — perhaps they thought that the probability of that was higher with their preferred candidate than the less preferred candidate,” he said.
“I’m not 100 percent certain they wouldn’t have made the same attempt with the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. The Russians are nonpartisan when it comes to interference in foreign policy and U.S. affairs. They would gladly talk to — try to bribe and try to blackmail anybody,” he added.