Putin’s Ploy to Interrogate Americans Was a Bad-Faith Trick That Almost Worked

But there still could be an upside for Putin.

President Vladimir Putin Visits USA House
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Marianna Massey/Getty Images for USOC

The “incredible offer,” it turns out, wasn’t that great of a deal.

On Monday, President Donald Trump sat down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an unprecedented, off-the-record, one-on-one summit in Helsinki, Finland, the full results of which, well, we still don’t really know. At some point in the proceedings, Trump says Putin made him an “incredible offer” that could help normalize relations in the West’s new Cold War with Russia. But a former State Department lawyer says that Putin’s promises in Helsinki were less of an offer than a “parlor trick,” that left much of the American foreign policy establishment at a loss for words.

The “incredible offer’s” details materialized slowly over a three-day news cycle, but it ended up being simple enough. Putin offered to make the 12 defendants recently indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller available for questioning, perhaps even with American officials present. At first, it seemed like an empty gesture, or a mild attempt to pay lip service to the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian state forces meddling in the 2016 election.

Philip Bobbitt, a former State Department and NSC legal officer who now teaches national security law at Columbia University, told Observer that at the worst, a Q&A session with the 12 indictees could be a ploy to get American officials—likely from the DOJ or legal counsel from the U.S. Embassy to Moscow—to tip their hand and reveal information about the status of the Mueller investigation.

“The Americans are pros at this and they know it’s kind of a trap,” Bobbitt said. “I don’t see any harm in it. But let’s just be straight about what this is: it’s not an impartial fact-finding mission in front of a judge or magistrate, it is an intelligence operation. [The Russians] are fishing for whatever information the Americans have on these officials.”

But then the other shoe dropped: In return, the Russians wanted to talk to a few people connected to Bill Browder, an American investor who worked in Russia and a personal enemy of Putin’s. Browder was the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that slapped financial penalties on certain Russian business people and officials (the law was named for Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died suspiciously in a Russian jail in 2009). Handing over Browder, a private citizen, would have been bad enough, but on Wednesday, Russian prosecutors announced that one of the Americans they wanted was Michael McFaul, a longtime civil servant and the former ambassador to Moscow (and yes, also a personal enemy of Putin).

The deal was a brazen, bad-faith trap, and by conventional diplomatic wisdom should have been rejected outright.

Ambassadors to other countries and their staff enjoy varying degrees of diplomatic immunity, and even still, McFaul is now a private citizen teaching political science at Stanford, who Bobbitt says has a “fine reputation” in the international community. In pretty much every other presidential administration, it’s been assumed that the government will always go to bat for its diplomats. Putin must have known it was a gigantic long-shot, but then again, so was Donald Trump actually getting elected president.

However, on Wednesday, it looked for a brief moment like the Trump administration was going to fall for it.

“The president is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a press briefing on Wednesday, adding that Trump “said it was an interesting idea… He wants to work with his team and determine if there is any validity that would be helpful to the process.”

In other words, Trump wasn’t saying no.

The U.S. diplomatic corps reacted with immediate and downright profane outrage. Hillary Clinton weighed in to support McFaul. Former White House photographer Pete Souza, known for lightly trolling Trump on Instagram, posted a photo of Obama and McFaul together captioned “two patriots.”

Legally speaking, Bobbitt said, the entire premise of the deal was bunk.

“With respect to McFaul or Browder, the American government has no authority to turn over American citizens for questioning,” Bobbitt said. “I’m sort of at a loss for words because you just can’t hand over people to be questioned or to be detained, or to detain them to be questioned.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a rare, unanimous, bipartisan resolution that expressed their opposition to letting Russian prosecutors interview any current or former U.S. officials.

For now, it appears that the chances of Browder or McFaul taking an unplanned trip to Moscow are slim. But Bobbitt says the whole charade might have an upside for Putin.

“It may also have some propaganda value for the Russians,” Bobbitt said, referring to the quid pro quo nature of Putin’s “incredible offer.” “If you don’t follow these things closely, if you’re not a lawyer, you may say ‘yeah that sounds fair, what’s the Americans’ problem?’ For a gullible audience, it might get you some propaganda points.”

And right now, America’s main audience of one is looking pretty gullible. Putin’s Ploy to Interrogate Americans Was a Bad-Faith Trick That Almost Worked