In an extraordinary development, it has emerged that President Trump, during the shameful spectacle that was his summit in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, has indicated a willingness to allow, or at least to consider handing over a former US diplomat to Russian authorities for questioning – a jaw-dropping decision which shreds the entire concept of diplomatic immunity.
The idea was reportedly raised with Trump personally by Putin at the summit as a sort of quid pro quo for the indictment on the previous Friday of twelve Russian operatives on charges of attempting to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
Russian authorities nominally want to question Michael McFaul – who previously served as the US ambassador to Russia – as part of their investigation of an American-born hedge fund manager, Bill Browder, who is now a British citizen. Browder was banned from Russia in 2005 and convicted in absentia of tax fraud. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died mysteriously and suspiciously in Russian custody in 2009.
According to Russia’s state-run news agency TASS, Alexander Kurennoy, a spokesperson for the Russian prosecutor-general, said they needed to question McFaul because “it was under his 2009-10 leadership in Russia that the State Department memos from Moscow were compiled on the progress of the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” McFaul was appointed to Barack Obama’s administration in 2009, but did not serve in Moscow until 2012.
Asked whether the US would allow the questioning of its former ambassador, White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, hedged on Wednesday: “The president is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” she told reporters. “There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States.”
In a tweet, McFaul said “When Trump says Russia is no longer targeting America, that’s not how this American feels. Putin is most certainly targeting and intimidating me. And I’m an American.” On MSNBC, he expanded on his bafflement: “Vladimir Putin has been after me for a long time even when I was ambassador,” McFaul told presenter Rachel Maddow. “You can’t establish this precedent. You just have to push back on crazy stuff like that.” He continued:
I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin. Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin https://t.co/K1ZvrNwTu3
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 18, 2018
McFaul, during his ambassadorship, became a favoured target of the Putin regime. In an article from May in the Washington Post, McFaul described how:
To rally his supporters and undermine the protesters, Putin would need an enemy, and he turned to the most reliable one in Russia’s recent history: the United States and then, by extension, me. As soon as I became the new proxy for Washington, Moscow launched a full-scale disinformation campaign alleging that, under my direction, the United States was funding the opposition and attempting to overthrow Putin. State propagandists and their surrogates crudely photoshopped me into pictures, spliced my speeches to make me say things I never uttered and even accused me of pedophilia.
Of course, the Browder investigation is nothing more than a weak cover for a nakedly transparent attempt by Putin to create a false equivalency between American diplomacy – as Obama’s ambassador for Moscow, McFaul stood up for human rights, embarrassing the Putin regime – and the protracted campaign by the Russian government to interfere in US democracy and democratic processes around the world.
Even in the age of Trump, it is absolutely extraordinary that such a proposal for America to hand over a diplomat to a geopolitical foe for questioning would be even entertained by the White House.
For Trump’s team the distinction seems not to be America and its allies vs America’s enemies, but instead Team Trump and its allies vs US Democrats and everyone who’s ever worked for or with them. The conventions of international relations can go hang, as far as Trump is concerned, as long as he is seen to beat Obama-era policies and figures, no matter what the cost to America’s standing in the world.