Senate Rebuffs Russia Interviews of Americans in Rebuke to Trump

(Bloomberg) -- The Republican-led Senate effectively rebuked President Donald Trump for considering Russia’s request to question U.S. officials, giving voice to growing unease over the president’s shifting policies toward his country’s biggest adversary after his summit with Vladimir Putin.

In a resolution adopted 98-0 on Thursday, senators called on the U.S. to refuse to make any officials available for interrogation by Putin’s government. Minutes before the vote was scheduled to begin, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement rejecting the Russian proposal.

"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it," Sanders said. A day earlier she didn’t shoot down the idea, instead saying Trump was “going to meet with his team” about it.

The measure that forced the White House’s hand is nonbinding. But the vote marked a rare decision by Republican leader Mitch McConnell to take up a resolution written by top Democrat Chuck Schumer undercutting the GOP president.

"Let this resolution be a warning to the administration that Congress will not allow this to happen," Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor just before the vote. “I call on President Trump to say once and for all, not through his spokespeople, that the lopsided, disgraceful trade he called an ‘incredible offer’ is off the table.”

Some administration officials have said they are concerned there may be no shaking a public perception that Trump is too cozy with Putin. It was only three days ago that Trump stood next to the Russian president in Helsinki and questioned U.S. intelligence findings that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 election.

Since then Trump issued a belated clarification, undercut the reversal with qualifiers, made new comments contradicting U.S. intelligence and then sent his spokeswoman out to deny it happened. Further, the lack of a public explanation of what Trump and Putin may have agreed to during more than two hours in private has left the entire U.S. policy toward Russia unclear.

“What did you agree to in that room?” Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said on the Senate floor before the vote, saying the only accounts so far have come from Russian officials.

‘Meet With His Team’

At the summit with Trump in Helsinki, Putin proposed letting Russians observe interrogations of former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and other Americans. In exchange, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller could send members of his team to watch Russian questioning of 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted by a U.S. grand jury last week in connection with hacking Democratic Party email accounts before the 2016 election.

After the Senate’s unanimous vote, McFaul wrote on Twitter, "98-0. Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support."

Allowing the interrogation of a former American ambassador would be an unprecedented breach in protections traditionally provided to the nation’s diplomats.

‘Look Weak’

Trump’s willingness to entertain the request makes him “look weak in the eyes of Vladimir Putin,” McFaul said Thursday. “We look like we won’t push back on outrageous, crazy ideas,” McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, said on MSNBC. “That is not even good for President Trump.”

The Democratic resolution, S.Res. 584, says, “It is the sense of Congress that the United States should refuse to make available any current or former diplomat, civil servant, political appointee, law enforcement official, or member of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin.”

While McFaul’s name wasn’t mentioned at the news conference held by the U.S. and Russian leaders in Helsinki, Trump described Putin’s proposed reciprocal interrogations as an “incredible” deal.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the Aspen Security Conference on Wednesday that listening in as Russia interrogates suspects wanted by the U.S. is “certainly not high on our list of investigative techniques.” And letting Russians come to the U.S. to observe questioning, he said wryly, is “probably even lower on our list.”

‘Grave Concern’

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday that a Russian grilling of a former diplomat “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues.” She said the Russians are making “absolutely absurd” assertions about 11 American citizens they want to question, although she declined to rule out the Russian proposal when asked about it repeatedly.

Also on Thursday, McConnell ordered Senate committees to review additional sanctions and “additional measures that could respond to or deter Russian malign behavior.”

A number of senators have signed on to a bill offered by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland that would impose stiff sanctions on Russia’s energy and banking sectors if the Director of National Intelligence -- not Trump -- certifies that Russia interfered in any future election.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.