Members of the team of Russians who secured a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner also attempted to stage a show trial of anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder on Capitol Hill.
The trial, which would have come in the form of a congressional hearing, was scheduled for mid-June 2016 by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a long-standing Russia ally who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. During the hearing, Rohrabacher had planned to confront Browder with a feature-length pro-Kremlin propaganda movie that viciously attacks him—as well as at least two witnesses linked to the Russian authorities, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Ultimately, the hearing was canceled when senior Republicans intervened and agreed to allow a hearing on Russia at the full committee level with a Moscow-sympathetic witness, according to multiple congressional aides.
An email reviewed by The Daily Beast shows that before that June 14 hearing, Rohrabacher’s staff received pro-Kremlin briefings against Browder, once Russia’s biggest foreign investor, and his tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky from a lawyer who was working with Veselnitskaya.
Although House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) had prohibited Rohrabacher from showing the Russian propaganda film in Congress, Rohrabacher’s Capitol Hill office still actively promoted a screening of the movie that was held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2016. Veselnitskaya was one of those handling the movie’s worldwide promotion.
Invitations to attend the movie screening were sent from the subcommittee office by Catharine O’Neill, a Republican intern on Rohrabacher’s committee. Her email promised that the movie would convince viewers that Magnitsky, who was murdered in a Russian prison cell, was no hero.
The invite, reviewed by The Daily Beast, claimed that the film “explodes the common view that Mr. Magnitsky was a whistleblower” and lavishes praise on the “rebel director” Andrei Nekrasov.
“That invitation was not from our office. O’Neill was an unpaid intern on the committee staff. Paul denies asking her to send the invitations,” said Ken Grubbs, Rohrabacher’s press secretary, referring to the congressman’s staff director, Paul Behrends.
O’Neill went on to secure a job on the Trump transition team and then in the State Department’s Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. She did not return a call for comment.
Rohrabacher’s office was given the film by the Prosecutor General’s office in Moscow, which is run by Yuri Chaika, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin who is accused of widespread corruption, and Viktor Grin, the deputy general prosecutor who has been sanctioned by the United States as part of the Magnitsky Act.
That same Prosecutor General’s office also was listed as being behind the “very high level and sensitive information” that was offered to Donald Trump Jr. in an email prior to his now infamous meeting with Russian officials at Trump Tower on June 9—just days before the congressional hearing. Veselnitskaya attended that meeting with Trump Jr. She also happens to have worked as a prosecutor in the Moscow region and is a close personal friend of Chaika.
The Daily Beast reviewed a copy of a document that was passed to Rohrabacher in Moscow in April 2016. The document, marked “confidential,” was given to Rohrabacher and Behrends. It lays out an alternate reality in which the U.S.—and the rest of the world—has been duped by a fake $230 million scandal that resulted in sanctions being imposed on 44 Russians linked to murder, corruption, or cover-ups.
The document, which was handed over by an official from the Prosecutor General’s office to Rohrabacher along with means of viewing the Russian propaganda movie, suggested that U.S. “political situation may change the current climate” and claimed that it was the ideal moment to foment a challenge to the Western narrative on Putin’s kleptocracy. A subcommittee hearing that would re-examine the sanctions placed on Russia, the paper claimed, would be appreciated in Moscow.
“Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in the Congress… could have a very favorable response from the Russian side,” the document said.
What the U.S. would get in exchange for holding a subcommittee hearing was not laid out in detail. But the document promised to help iron out “key controversial issues and disagreements with the United States.”
Grubbs said Rohrabacher had accepted the document but said the conversation with officials from the Prosecutor General’s office during the congressman’s April 2016 Moscow visit was “brief and formal.”
When Rohrabacher returned to the United States, he delayed the passage of the Global Magnitsky Act by holding it up in committee and tabled an amendment to remove Magnitsky’s name from its title, citing several of the claims found in the Russian document.
Next, Rohrabacher and Behrends, with the help of Rinat Akhmetshin, a Soviet army veteran and lobbyist who was also present at the June 9 Trump Tower meeting, put together a subcommittee event with witnesses including Veselnitskaya and Nekrasov, the director of the movie.
When Royce, the chair of the foreign relations committee, got wind of the hearing, he nixed Rohrabacher’s plan and offered instead to hold a full committee hearing on Russia relations. House aides conceded that he did so, in part, to avoid Rohrabacher staging an event that could have embarrassed the Republican Party—and Congress.
Rohrabacher was apparently still allowed to propose a witness for the full committee hearing who shared some of his pro-Russia views. Jack Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union who appeared, confirmed to The Daily Beast that he had been first approached by Rohrabacher.
A spokesman for Royce said that while Matlock and Rohrabacher did know each other from their days in the Ronald Reagan administration, his appearance at the hearing was ultimately cleared by the full committee’s Republican staff.
During Royce’s hearing, Rohrabacher approvingly compared Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin. The congressman also submitted, for the congressional record, testimony that claimed Russia had not been behind the radioactive poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London.
Rohrabacher, Behrends, Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya, and Matlock had dinner together later that night at the Capitol Hill Club, a private members’ establishment for Republicans. The evening was organized by Lanny Wiles, a veteran GOP operative.
The following day, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape telling Republican colleagues: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” When some of the lawmakers laughed, he replied: “Swear to God.”
McCarthy later said the comment was meant as a joke. A close associate told The Daily Beast that McCarthy was, indeed, referencing Rohrabacher’s well known affinity for Russia, which, over the years, has been treated as an odd spectacle by fellow lawmakers on the Hill.
Whether they should take the spectacle more soberly is another matter.
Four years prior to the hearing, Rohrabacher was taken into a quiet room in Congress and warned by FBI agents that Russian intelligence operatives were trying to recruit him as an asset.
If he took the warning seriously, it certainly didn’t stop him from spending time with figures linked closely to the Russian state apparatus.
Earlier this year, Rohrabacher, who says he once arm-wrestled Putin, met Akhmetshin in Berlin. The congressman acknowledged to CNN that he suspected the former member of a Soviet counterintelligence unit might have links to the current Russian security service.
“I would certainly not rule that out,” Rohrabacher said. “[He has] an ulterior motive.”
That meeting in Germany apparently came about through sheer happenstance.
The same cannot be said of Rohrabacher’s congressional delegation trip to Moscow in the spring of 2016.
The itinerary for that three-day trip, reviewed by The Daily Beast, shows that Rohrabacher and Behrends attended a side meeting—without the other members of the delegation—with one of Putin’s closest confidants, Vladimir Yakunin.
A former head of the Russian Railways who has been sanctioned by the U.S., Yakunin has routinely accompanied Putin on domestic and international trips over the years. He owns a dacha near the president in an exclusive enclave on the shore of Lake Komsomolskoye.
Rohrabacher said at the time that he had agreed to the meeting at the request of Sergey Kislyak. “The Russian ambassador asked me if I would meet with him in Moscow,” he told BuzzFeed.
Kislyak has since gained notoriety in the U.S. after a series of Trump campaign associates failed to disclose their conversations with a man who has been described as “a top spy and recruiter of spies.”
There were no other meetings with Russian officials scheduled for Rohrabacher and Behrends alone. But after a delegation meeting with Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of Russia’s foreign affairs committee, at the Duma the two of them were asked to stay behind.
Once the other members of the delegation had left the room, Viktor Grin, a top Chaika deputy in the Prosecutor General’s office and one of the 44 Russians enduring a travel ban and asset freezes under U.S. sanctions, appeared with the document outlining Russia’s position on the Magnitsky sanctions. Rohrabacher and Behrends were also given access to the anti-Magnitsky movie.
‘He Wants to Pursue It’
A month after returning from Moscow with the Russian document, which is just over a page long, the congressman had already delayed the Global Magnitsky Act. His spokesman told National Review at the time: “The congressman came across some information that puts the Magnitsky narrative as we know it into some question, and he wants to pursue it.”
He refused to say where this new information had suddenly come from.
Two weeks later, Rohrabacher explained to colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee why he had tabled an amendment to take Magnitsky’s name off the bill.
He did not say he was using the Russian document as the basis for his argument, but he did repeat five claims from the Moscow paper. He said Magnitsky was a financial adviser, not a lawyer; that Browder may have been trying to avoid millions in taxes, and that Browder had renounced his U.S. citizenship as a tax-saving measure.
Rohrabacher also advocated for an end to sanctions against Russia as a means of ending the ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans—which Putin had put into effect in as a response to the original Magnitsky Act.
In reality, Magnitsky reported the $230 million tax fraud to the authorities in 2008 shortly before he was detained. According to an investigation ordered by the former president Dmitry Medvedev, Magnitsky was then held illegally, beaten, and left to die in his pretrial jail cell in 2009.
As Rohrabacher pitched for support in the weeks after returning from Russia, Rinat Akhmetshin set to work on lobbying House members. A U.S. congressional staffer told The Daily Beast that former California Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA) and Akhmetshin showed up at their office without an appointment.
“They said they were lobbying on behalf of a Russian company called Prevezon and asked us to delay the Global Magnitsky Act or at least remove Magnitsky from the name,” the staffer said. “Mr. Dellums said it was a shame that this bill has made it so Russian orphans cannot be adopted by Americans.”
Prevezon’s lawyer at the time was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was working to defend the Cyprus-based company against U.S. money laundering allegations related to the massive fraud uncovered by Magnitsky.
Several people on the Hill reported seeing Akhmetshin and Dellums being given highly unusual personal introductions to lawmakers. The man leading them around was Paul Behrends.
Ken Grubbs insisted that Behrends often escorted people around Congress.
Behrends first worked in Rohrabacher’s office more than 25 years ago. In 1990, when he was a foreign policy adviser, he met a disaffected former Naval Academy student named Erik Prince at a series of conservative functions. They got on well, and Prince was invited to come and work in their office as an intern.
After leaving Rohrabacher’s office, Prince joined the Navy SEALS before setting up a private military company called Blackwater in 1997. At the height of Blackwater’s notoriety—after 14 civilians were unlawfully killed in Iraq—Behrends, who was by then a lobbyist, did work for the company, for which his firm was reportedly paid $300,000 a year.
Rohrabacher also did his share of advocacy for his former intern. “Prince is on his way to being an American hero just like Ollie North was,” he said in 2007 after a House investigation raised concerns about Blackwater’s conduct.
Behrends, who would later return to the more modestly remunerated world of public service, Prince, and Rohrabacher have remained close for years, in part because their paths continue to cross.
More recently, Prince has been described as an informal adviser to the Trump team. He was a regular guest on Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart satellite radio show before Bannon joined the White House as chief strategist to the president.
Prince also donated $250,000 in total to the Trump campaign and one of the pro-Trump super PACs. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary.
In April, The Washington Post reported that Prince had arranged to meet a Russian official in the Seychelles. The newspaper reported that the FBI was probing allegations that the meeting was part of an effort to establish a direct communications back channel between Trump and Moscow.
Like his old boss had done with his hearing gambit six months earlier, Prince stood accused of privately doing Russia’s bidding.
As Rohrabacher’s plan to hold that extraordinary June hearing with strong pro-Russian views developed, Andrei Nekrasov, who directed the anti-Magnitsky movie, said Behrends reached out to him to testify. Veselnitskaya was also approached.
It was Rohrabacher who put in the call to his old friend Matlock. “He and I share a view on the importance of getting along with the other nuclear power,” Matlock told The Daily Beast. “He asked me if I was willing to come to Washington and he was going to set up hearings at his subcommittee.”
“Rohrabacher did have a number of Russians who had done a film about the case in Moscow that had inspired the Magnitsky Act in Congress, and they had found that the story that was being pervaded here by Browder and his people was not the accurate one,” Matlock added. “I don’t know who’s right about that, but I do believe it’s wrong to suppress evidence.”
Matlock didn’t need to worry. Rohrabacher’s staff promoted the movie’s screening at the Newseum, which was attended by Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya, and the congressman from California entered a detailed statement from the director into the congressional record.
For Rohrabacher’s proposed hearing to be a success, Magnitsky skeptics needed the opportunity to challenge Browder directly. And on May 27, 2016, Behrends emailed Browder inviting him to be a witness.
Two weeks earlier, Behrends had been briefed on evidence gathered by the Russian authorities to tarnish Browder’s reputation, according to an email reviewed by The Daily Beast. The email was from Mark Cymrot to Behrends, a lawyer who was working for Prevezon at the time—just like Veselnitskaya.
Prevezon was facing a money-laundering trial in New York that alleged the company’s Russian owner had profited from the fraud Magnitsky had uncovered.
The email from Cymrot refers to a telephone call the day before and includes evidence and court papers to back up the Kremlin’s story that Browder was the one breaking financial laws in Russia.
When the Royce hearing did roll around, on June 14, one of the members of Congress on the committee was appalled by the litany of Kremlin lines being repeated by Rohrabacher and his friend Ambassador Matlock.
“I thought I’d just heard a presentation from RT,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The Daily Beast, referring to the Kremlin-funded English-language TV network.
Connolly said the rest of the committee had come to believe that evidence from a Russian source should be treated with considerable skepticism, as the country’s operatives are experts at disinformation and falsification of evidence.
He was alarmed to discover that Behrends had been taking briefings direct from Russia’s anti-Magnitsky operation.
“If that is corroborated, it is deeply disturbing,” Connolly said. “We are United States congressmen. Our job is to protect the interests of our country and our allies. It is not to collude with, excuse, dismiss, or, even worse, collaborate with a foreign adversary and its minions.”
Sam Stein contributed additional reporting.