MEMBERS ONLY: Putin’s Favorite Congressman, Julian Assange, and a Conspiracy of Fools

by Jeremy Fassler

A few months ago, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape joking, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” Although McCarthy apologized for the remarks later on, he wasn’t entirely wrong.

 Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has a long history of ties to Russian interests, and with yesterday’s meeting with Julian Assange, a story broken by The Daily Caller, he has only furthered his reputation as a Kremlin shill.

The meeting, according to reports, lasted three hours and was brokered by conservative journalist/Holocaust denier Charles Johnson. Rohrabacher, the first member of Congress to visit Assange in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, where he currently resides in exile, claimed that the three-hour meeting “covered a wide array of issues…including the WikiLeaks exposure of the DNC emails during last year’s presidential election…Julian emphatically stated that the Russians were not involved in the hacking or disclosure of these emails.”

Rohrabacher continued:

“Julian passionately argued the case that WikiLeaks was vital to informing the public about controversial though necessary issues. He hoped that Wikileaks — an award winning journalistic operation — might be granted a seat in the White House press corps. As a former newsman myself I can’t see a reason why they shouldn’t be granted news status for official press conferences…We left with the understanding that we would be going into further details in the near future. The rest of the message is for the president directly and I hope to convey it to him as more details come in.”

As a former newsman for the Pulitzer-winning Orange County Register, Rohrabacher should know better than to trust a man like Assange, and for WikiLeaks to be granted news status for WH press briefings would be another horrifying example of the Trump Administration’s collusion with right-wing outlets to flatter him and debase his opponents. And his use of the phrase “I can’t see a reason” is the kind of thing you would expect to hear on Fox News – or worse, RT, a state funded Russian media outlet – as a way to falsely equate one side to another. In fact, Congressman Gerald Connolly said of one Rohrabacher speech on the House floor last year, “I felt like…I was watching RT.”

But Julian Assange’s unsavoriness is not exactly breaking news, nor has it stopped other luminaries from meeting with him in the past. What’s alarming is that Rohrabacher appears to have no regrets over his recent status as a Kremlin lackey. His connections to Moscow have been well-documented, and publications such as The Los Angeles Times and Politico have given him the nickname, “Putin’s Favorite Congressman.” And given not only his new connection to WikiLeaks, but to Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalya Veselnitskaya, two of the eight people present at last year’s Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, he should be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into how Russia hacked into our election.

In 2012, the FBI warned Rohrabacher that the Russians were trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence.” We also know that in 2013, he had a dinner with Paul Manafort while Manafort was working with a pro-Russia Ukrainian party. While we cannot say for a fact that Rohrabacher has been flipped by pro-Russian forces, it is puzzling that a man who got his start working as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and whose credits include co-authoring the famous “Tear down this wall!” address from the Brandenburg Gate, would suddenly back up Donald Trump’s assessment to Bill O’Reilly that “we’re no better,” and also claim, in the same article, that “The American people are being fed information that would lead them to believe that we need to be in a war-like stance when it comes to Russia.” 

Meeting with Assange is hardly the worst thing Rohrabacher has done since he began this new leg of his career: in fact, it is dwarfed by what he did last year, when he, using Russian intelligence, attempted to weaken The Magnitsky Act, the 2012 act of Congress which punished Russia for their cruel and inhumane treatment of accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky, after revealing a tax fraud scheme involving $230 million dollars worth of laundered Russian money, was tortured and beaten to death in prison. The act banned those who partook in the fraud from entering the United States. As retaliation, Russia made it illegal for US citizens to adopt Russian children, and declared Magnitsky posthumously guilty. 

In 2016, as Congress deliberated on its National Defense Authorization Act, they inserted in the bill a Global Magnitsky Act (GMA), which would extend the provisions within the original Act to prevent human rights abusers from entering the US not just in Russia, but from places like China as well. The bill passed into law in December and was signed by President Obama – but not without a serious attempt on the part of Rohrabacher, working with the Kremlin, to stop the GMA. 

In April 2016, while on a trip to Europe, Rohrabacher, along with his aide Paul Behrends, received a document from Russian officials stating that the American public had been duped into thinking Magnitsky was a noble whistleblower, when in reality, he was a crook who orchestrated the tax fraud itself, and that the act Congress passed in his name led to the punishing of innocent Russians. The document does not lay out in detail what exactly the US would have to gain through this, but says that “Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in Congress…could have a very favorable response on the Russian side…[reconsidering it could help resolve] key controversial issues and disagreements with the United States.” Supposedly, one of the people in the room with Rohrabacher was Viktor Grin, whose foreign accounts had been frozen under the Magnitsky Act. 

The US Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Rohrabacher both sits and chairs the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, warned him that the document was contradictory and not to be trusted, but Rohrabacher went ahead anyway, saying of committee chair Ed Royce that “There are other people who have such an unrelenting hatred for Russia, they want to renew the Cold War…[Royce] and I have very serious differences of opinion in regards to Russia.” He expanded his circle of Kremlinites to include Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian lobbyist and former Soviet spy whom he took to his congressional offices in Washington D.C. – something that is far from the norm in acceptable behavior here. Also at the hearings was Natalya Veselnitskaya, whose firm, Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative, Akhmetshin works for. Even though Rohrabacher made a case for removing Magnitsky’s name from the act, citing the evidence he had received in the document as proof, it was a no-go. The committee voted it down and approved the bill as it was by a voice vote.

But this wasn’t the end of Rohrabacher’s attempts to discredit Magnitsky. In June of 2016, reporter Chris Cooper came to Washington to organize a screening of an anti-Magnitsky film called The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes. Directed by Andrei Nekrasov, the film is pure propaganda, retelling the story Rohrabacher received in the documents. Screenings of the film in Europe had been cancelled by Bill Browder, the American lawyer who had hired Magnitsky to investigate the tax fraud, and Ed Royce put a stop to Rohrabacher’s attempt to screen the film for the House. However, D.C.’s Newseum hosted a screening of the film instead, promoted by Rohrabacher, who then had dinner the next night with Nekrasov, where Behrends attempted to get him to testify before Congress in the Russia hearings that were opening the next day. He didn’t, but he did submit a statement to them discrediting Magnitsky and supporting his findings.

This year, Rohrabacher attempted to travel to Moscow to sit in on Parliament, but Royce put the kibosh on that right away. Currently he stands accused of violating the Magnitsky Act for taking the meeting last year with Viktor Grin. Paul Behrends has been fired for his subterfuge. Now, Rohrabacher has met with Assange, a despised charlatan who most likely helped sway this election to the Republicans with help from the Russians. I can’t know for certain what’s in Congressman Rohrabacher’s mind, but it seems to me that Moscow sees him as a useful idiot, a relatively unknown politician who’s been offered a chance to do something “important,” and now he’s jumping at the opportunity. 

Close to 240 years ago, another man whose ego had been wounded believed that his best chance to rise up was by aiding and abetting the enemy. Speaking with our biggest foe at that moment, Great Britain, he told them that he could deliver them the fort at West Point in exchange for paying off his debts. Due to the complicated manner of communication at that time, his plan was foiled when the Continental Army captured his go-between and confiscated the letters. The moment he learned of this, he fled the country. His name was Benedict Arnold.

Like Arnold, Rohrabacher is a small-minded man who believes in himself above all other things, and does not care who he hurts in the process. And like Arnold, his desire – to better his status, even if it means betraying his home team – is understandable. Many Americans don’t know what Benedict Arnold did, but they all know his name as synonymous with treason. If this Republic survives another 240 years, we may have to add another name to that list: Dana Rohrabacher.