By John Solomon and Jonathan Easley - 07-13-17 19:00 PM EDT
Two months before Donald Trump Jr.'s encounter with a Russian figure, a key House subcommittee chairman received a similar overture in Moscow offering derogatory information about a U.S. policy that was upsetting Vladimir Putin.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican with a reputation as a Moscow ally in Congress, told The Hill the information he received in April 2016 came from the chief prosecutor in Moscow and painted an alternative picture of the Russian fraud case that led to the passage of anti-Russia legislation in Congress known as the Magnitsky Act.
"I had a meeting with some people, government officials, and they were saying, 'Would you be willing to accept material on the Magnitsky case from the prosecutors in Moscow? 'And I said, 'Sure, I'd be willing to look at it,'" Rohrabacher recalled in an interview.
The congressman's account provides the latest evidence that the overture to President Trump's eldest son in June 2016 by a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya was part of a larger campaign by Moscow that predated the Trump Tower encounter and continued afterwards.
The focus was to sow distrust among American leaders about the Magnitsky Act, and influence far more than Trump's inner circle. It included lobbying overtures to journalists, State Department officials and lawmakers and congressional staff from both parties, according to interviews with participants and recipients of the campaign.
Congress passed the law and President Barack Obama signed it in 2012, punishing Russia with sanctions for alleged human rights violations in connection with the prison death of a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky who claimed to have uncovered a massive money laundering scheme based in Moscow.
U.S. officials argued the fraud was perpetrated by Russian government leaders and hurt American companies. But Russians have countered the fraud was actually committed by Magnitsky and his clients. Prosecutors in Russia eventually won a posthumous conviction against the dead lawyer, and retaliated against the U.S. for passing the law by suspending Americans' ability to adopt Russian children.
Rohrabacher's account mirrors several aspects of Donald Trump Jr., who said he accepted the June 9, 2016 meeting with Veselnitskaya because he thought he was getting political dirt on his father's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton from a prosecutor in Moscow.
But when the dirt was delivered it was about the Magnitsky law and the adoption dispute, not Clinton, the Trump son said.
The congressman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging threats and is openly friendly with Russia, said he was on an official congressional fact-finding trip to Moscow when he was told to expect the delivery of derogatory information important to America and that the source was going to be the chief prosecutor in Moscow.
Rohrabacher said he received a package of documents as he was ending a meeting in the Russian legislative body known as the Duma.
"At the end of the meeting simply as I was walking out, they said this gentleman has some documents for you. And he handed them to me. And that was as far as my meeting with the prosecutors went," he said. "We got the information, we looked at it and we asked various people about the issue."
Rohrabacher, a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter who has held his seat in Orange County since 1988, said he shared the derogatory information with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the U.S. Treasury Department.
He said he believed both he and Trump's son did the right thing by accepting the meetings and the Russian information,
"I always had a policy that we should listen to everybody who wants to talk to you, especially if they think they have something that is important and determine if it is important and if it is, to follow up on it," the 70-year-old lawmaker said.
"I think it would be a dereliction of duty not to give it an honest look," he added. "And for anybody on Trump's team to turn it down, and wouldn't even look at information provided them that they said would be important for our country. That would have been the wrong thing to do. It was the right thing for him (Trump Jr.) to see if there was some important information."
Rohrabacher's arguments echo those of the Trump administration, but contrast with officials from Democratic and Republican campaigns who have said it would be very unusual for a U.S. campaign to accept the meeting proposed to Trump Jr.
When Rohrabacher got back to Washington from his official trip from Moscow, he circulated to fellow lawmakers a memo summarizing what the Russians provided, much of it suggesting U.S. officials had the wrong theory about the Magnitsky case.
"There is not a jot of truth" to the Magnitsky story circulating in America, the Russian document argued, and the 2012 passage of the law "caused the most severe damage to the US-Russian relations in recent years."
"Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in the Congress, obtaining reliable knowledge about real events and personal motives of those behind the lobbying of this destructive Act, taking into account the pre-election political situation may change the current climate in the interstate relations," the document added. "Such a situation could have a very favorable response from the Russian side."
Rohrabacher said the document changed some of his perceptions of the Magnitsky Act, opening his mind to the possibility that Russians were victims instead of perpetrators in the whole case.
"I have not decided whether or not the Magnitsky Act itself is wrong," he said. "After looking at all the evidence I think there are two sides to the argument as to whether or not the Russian officials involved with the Magnitsky case were the villains or the victims. I think that could be decided either way."
The Magnitsky Act had broad support in Congress. Paired with legislation granting Russia and Moldova most favored nation trade status, it was approved in the Senate by a vote of 92-4. The House vote was 365-43. Rohrabacher voted in favor of it.
Rohrabacher did take one action favorable to Russia after the trip, proposing an amendment to 2016 global human rights legislation working its way through Congress that would strip Magnitsky's name from the bill.
Rohrabacher said he took that action not because he was picking sides in the Russia matter but rather because the legislation was designed to be far larger than Russia and using the Russian lawyer's name sent the wrong signal that the bill was more narrowly focused on Moscow.
In the end, he recalled several instances in 2016 in which he was lobbied by Russian figures or their American counterparts on Magnitsky, including once in Berlin by a Russian-American businessman and another time at a dinner in Washington that Veselnetskaya attended.
The former Democratic congressman Ron Dellums also pitched him on the subject last year, and Rohrabacher believes other lawmakers got similar pitches.
"They (the Russians) are going to want to have their say if they can find anyone who will listen," he said.