Updated 3:19 p.m. | Facing an intense backlash, including from Congress, the White House on Thursday announced it does not plan to have allow any current or former U.S. officials to be questioned by the Russian government, part of an ongoing — and often clumsy — effort to recover from President Donald Trump’s Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
The White House announcement, which came amid bipartisan cries to reject Putin’s proposal, came ahead of an expected Thursday vote in the Senate reject the idea of allowing former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to be interrogated by Russian authorities.
The Senate ultimately voted, 98-0, in support of a resolution stating the U.S. should refuse to make available any current or former diplomat or other public official for questioning by the Russian government.
“At the very least, we’re protecting the integrity of men and women who serve us, because if today it is the ambassador, tomorrow it could be somebody in the military or somebody in the intelligence agencies or elsewhere,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor before the vote. “So this resolution is very clear. What it says is when President Trump called Putin’s offer, ‘an incredible offer,’ he was incredibly wrong.”
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Putin had suggested letting Russian officials recently indicted in the United States in connection with the ongoing special counsel probe of interference in the 2016 elections be questioned in exchange for the Russians getting access to McFaul and businessman and longtime Putin opponent Bill Browder. Both McFaul and Browder have written bestselling books about their experiences in standing up to Putin: McFaul’s “From Cold War to Hot Peace” and Browder’s “Red Notice.”
“It’s no surprise that Russians want to interrogate Americans, but it’s shocking that President Trump didn’t reject the request outright. It’s just one more example of Russia trying to exploit President’s Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement backing the resolution.
“I strongly support the resolution introduced today that condemns this idea and says in no uncertain terms that Russia should not be allowed to interrogate McFaul,” the California senator said. “If the president won’t protect Americans, Congress must act.”
The rejection of Putin’s idea came a day after Sanders told reporters Trump was considering it. “He said it was an interesting idea. He didn’t commit to anything,” she said during a Wednesday briefing. “He wants to work with his team and determine if there’s any validity that would be helpful to the process…It was an idea they threw out.”
But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Wednesday dismissed it, just the latest example of an administration that often struggles to do damage control or get its officials and spokespersons on the same page.
“The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens, and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens — we do not stand by those assertions,” Nauert said.
Trump earlier this week called the proposal “incredible.”