The White House and the U.S. State Department are at odds over an offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow U.S. prosecutors access to 12 Russians accused of hacking the 2016 election if Russian prosecutors who are pursuing Kremlin critic William Browder are allowed to interrogate several Americans.
The White House said late on July 18 that it is considering the offer, made by Putin to President Donald Trump at their summit in Helsinki on July 16, but the State Department and FBI dismissed Russia's request, with the department calling it "absolutely absurd."
Russia has accused Browder of tax evasion and fraud, with Putin claiming at the summit that the British financier had spirited $1.5 billion out of Russia illegally without paying taxes.
Browder, who as the head of Heritage Capital was once the West's largest investor in Russia, has been called "Putin's nemesis" for his role in successfully pushing through so-called Magnitsky laws in a number of Western nations that impose sanctions on human rights abusers in Russia and other countries.
Among several Americans who the Russian Prosecutor's Office has said it wants to interrogate in connection with its case against Browder is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who on July 17 called on the State Department to "push back" against the Russian interrogation requests.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on July 18 appeared to do that, saying: "The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd -- the fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens."
Nauert said a U.S. court has already rejected Russia's charges against Browder and Russian authorities already know the U.S. position on the matter.
"The prosecutor-general in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard... We continue to urge Russian authorities to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue those in Russia who in fact perpetrated the fraudulent scheme that Russia refers to that targeted not only Mr. Browder, but also his company and...the Russian people as a whole."
FBI Director Christopher Wray was also dismissive. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado late on July 18, he said Putin's offer was "not high on our list of investigative techniques."
But the agencies' responses were contradicted by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who said the president's "team" is considering the Russian request, which Trump at the summit had called "an incredible offer."
Sanders said that Trump has described Putin's offer as "an interesting idea" and "he wants to work with his team and determine if there is any validity that would be helpful to the process."
"The president's going to meet with his team, and we'll let you know when we have an announcement on that," she said. "We've committed to nothing."
Browder told Fox Business Network that it was "just shocking" that the White House is considering granting Putin's request.
McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, and is now at Stanford University, told Reuters he was "deeply concerned" that the White House did not defend him against what he called "crazy" Russian charges.
McFaul called on the White House to "denounce in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin."
"Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimate U.S. indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin," he said.