President Donald Trump disagrees with a Russian request to question U.S. officials including former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, the White House said in a statement minutes before the Senate was expected to rebuke Mr. Trump for considering the proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced plans for a vote Thursday afternoon on a nonbinding resolution offered by Democrats opposed to such a move. A day earlier, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump was “going to meet with his team” about the idea after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised it at a private meeting in Helsinki on Monday.
Sanders said in a statement on Thursday that the proposal “was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.”
McConnell’s decision to hold the vote, while also ordering Senate committees to review additional sanctions against Russia, is a sign of lawmakers’ bipartisan unease over Mr. Trump’s shifting statements on Russian election interference. Some administration officials have said they are concerned there may be no shaking a public perception that Mr. Trump is too cozy with Mr. Putin.
At the summit with Trump in Helsinki on Monday, Putin proposed letting Russians observe interrogations of 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 and disseminating those messages before the 2016 presidential election.
“Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt,” Mrs. Sanders said in her statement.
Allowing the interrogation of a former American ambassador would be an unprecedented breach in protections traditionally provided to the nation’s diplomats.
“That President Trump would even consider handing over a former U.S. ambassador to Putin and his cronies for interrogation is bewildering,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “If the president ever agreed to such a request, Congress must do everything in its power to block it.”
President Trump’s willingness to entertain the request from his Russian counterpart to question a former U.S. ambassador 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 Democrats’ 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, Mr. Trump described Mr. 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.”
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, Senate Republican leaders blocked a resolution offered by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware that would have backed the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and said that Russia must be held accountable.