White House equivocation endangers American diplomacy

By | July 18, 2018

The Daily Beast reports:

Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.

One serving diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was “at a fucking loss” over comments that can be expected to chill American diplomacy in hostile or authoritarian countries – a comment echoed by former State Department officials as well.

“It’s beyond disgraceful. It’s fundamentally ignorant with regard to how we conduct diplomacy or what that means. It really puts in jeopardy the professional independence of diplomats anywhere in the world, if the consequence of their actions is going to be potentially being turned over to a foreign government,” the U.S. diplomat told The Daily Beast.

During President Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Putin pivoted a question about extraditing the 12 Russian intelligence officers whom Robert Mueller has indicted into a quid pro quo for going after longtime betes noire currently beyond his reach.

Putin singled out Bill Browder, whose exposure of widespread Russian tax fraud led to the passage of a U.S. human rights sanctions law Putin hates. Standing next to Trump, the Russian president accused Browder of masterminding an illegal campaign contribution to Hillary Clinton and alleging vaguely that he had “solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers guided these transactions.” Should Trump permit the Russians to question people around Browder, Putin hinted, he will let Mueller’s people be “present at questioning” of the intelligence officers.

On Wednesday, Russian prosecutors escalated the stakes. The prosecutor-general’s office said it wanted to interview Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, another Putin bete noire. McFaul—the Obama-era ambassador to Moscow—replied on Twitter that the Russians know well that he wasn’t even in Russia during the relevant time frame for any case against Browder.

At the White House, however, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out permitting the Russians to question McFaul. Sanders said that there had been “some conversation” in Helsinki about the issue, though Trump made no “commitment.”

“The president is gonna meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” Sanders said.

By contrast, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian request for McFaul “absolutely absurd”—which was closer in line with how former U.S. diplomats viewed Putin’s gambit.

“If the U.S. would make a former diplomat avail for questioning by a foreign government without evidence of wrongdoing, then that would be quite horrifying,” said Ron Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that the lack of commitment to protecting McFaul was “beyond outrageous. Amb. McFaul served our country honorably and with full diplomatic immunity. If the White House cannot defend and protect our diplomats, like our service members, they are serving a hostile foreign power not the American people.” [Continue reading…]

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