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Rohrabacher's brushes with Russia probe complicate his reelection bid

Rohrabacher's brushes with Russia probe complicate his reelection bid
Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) has held office nearly 30 years and his district remains home to more registered Republicans than Democrats. Yet polls show him virtually tied with his Democratic challenger. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to assorted federal crimes in mid-September, court papers cited his lobbying of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican, as part of the illicit scheme.

The prosecutors did not say Rohrabacher is suspected of wrongdoing. And Rohrabacher’s spokesman said the congressman has not been interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team and “does not believe he’s under investigation.”

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But Rohrabacher’s dealings with Manafort, his public defenses of Russia’s authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin, and his efforts with advocates pushing Moscow’s agenda in Washington remain a puzzle — and a potential problem — as he fights for his political survival in the Nov. 6 election.

Rohrabacher, 71, has held office nearly 30 years, and his coastal district, stretching from Seal Beach south to Laguna Niguel, remains home to more registered Republicans than Democrats. Yet polls, including one conducted for The Times late last month by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, show him virtually tied with his Democratic challenger, real estate executive Harley Rouda, who has hammered the incumbent over Russia.

“It looks like a toss-up seat,” said Bruce E. Cain, a Stanford University political scientist who has led statewide polling of likely California voters. “The question is, has he been hurt by the Russia stuff?”

Rohrabacher declined to be interviewed for this article. In written responses to questions, a spokesman, Andrew Eisenberger, noted the lawmaker is chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that has Russia in its purview. Rohrabacher, he said, has acted in line with his official duties.

“He has consistently and openly stated that he believes we should cooperate with Russia only in those areas where we have mutual interest, and that open hostility to them does not serve the interests of the United States,” Eisenberger said.

A review of Rohrabacher’s record and his brushes with the Russia-focused investigations led by Mueller and two congressional committees, as well as interviews with dozens of his acquaintances and others familiar with his career, finds a lawmaker who has taken provocative political stances but has secured few legislative achievements.

In May 2016, for example, when Rohrabacher sought to change a U.S. law that Putin opposed, the congressman proposed an amendment that mirrored talking points given to him by a Russia-affiliated lobbyist, The Times found. Rohrabacher failed to persuade his colleagues to make the change.

Rohrabacher has not gotten wealthy as a politician. His annual financial disclosures show credit card debts in several recent years, ranging from at least $25,000 to $100,000.

Among his successes in Congress, he steered to passage a 2004 law that helped the emerging commercial space-launch industry, which holds promise for his district. In 2014, Rohrabacher successfully cosponsored an amendment that has discouraged the Justice Department from interfering with marijuana-legalization laws passed by California and more than 30 other states.

More than any other member of Congress, he has vehemently rejected U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that a Kremlin-backed operation hacked digital files from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and funneled much of the material to WikiLeaks. The anti-secrecy website posted thousands of the stolen emails online before the 2016 election, wreaking havoc on the Democrats.

Rohrabacher also sought, unsuccessfully, to broker a deal to shield Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, from potential U.S. prosecution for posting the stolen emails.

Rohrabacher was questioned in December by the Senate and House intelligence committees, which are probing the Russian operation. On Dec. 19, after a closed-door session with the Senate panel, Rohrabacher declared himself “an open book.”

Last month, the House committee held back Rohrabacher’s 186-page interview transcript while voting to release 53 other transcripts. Rouda promptly challenged Rohrabacher on Twitter “to do what’s right for the United States and demand” release of his own testimony.

Some of Rohrabacher’s backers say media coverage has distorted his intentions toward Russia. He’s driven, they say, by principle and perhaps his freewheeling personality, but not impropriety.

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“Sometimes his opinion gets him into a little bit of trouble,” said Edwin Laird, a manufacturer of plastic coatings in Huntington Beach who has raised money for Rohrabacher since 1988. “I think it’s good to have the experience of Dana Rohrabacher commenting on Russia.… He deserves a break.”

Early in his career, Rohrabacher called himself “viciously anti-communist” and against “authoritarian governments.”

He worked for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and joined the White House speech-writing staff in 1981 at the outset of Reagan’s presidency. In 2013, he told C-SPAN that he worked with Reagan “on most if not many of his very hard-core speeches concerning the Soviet Union.”

Colleagues say privately they are mystified at how Rohrabacher, the declared anti-authoritarian, could now voice support for Putin, a former KGB operative turned strongman, and Viktor Yanukovych, the repressive former president of Ukraine who was aligned with Moscow.

Rohrabacher began advocating for Yanukovych in 2013 when the Ukrainian leader came under fire in Washington for pushing his government closer to Moscow. Manafort was then lobbying for Yanukovych and his party, and on March 13 that year he met Rohrabacher at the Capitol Hill Club, along with another lobbyist, Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.

After the dinner, Manafort “prepared a report for President Yanukovych that the meeting ‘went well’ and reported a series of positive developments for Ukraine from the meeting,” according to court papers. Manafort also made a $1,000 contribution to Rohrabacher’s campaign fund.

On April 18, 2013, the congressman issued a news release titled “Rep. Rohrabacher Congratulates Ukraine on Release of Jailed Former Ministers,” praising Yanukovych. The statement did not mention that the autocrat had refused to free his predecessor, who was imprisoned on what human rights groups said were bogus corruption charges.

Yanukovych “took an important step towards securing the rule of law and improving the democratic spirit of his country,” Rohrabacher said.

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In response to questions from The Times, Rohrabacher’s spokesman, Eisenberger, said the congressman “does not recall ever speaking with or reading opinions of Manafort or his colleagues on the issue before drafting this press release.” Another spokesman, Dale Neugebauer, said Rohrabacher’s campaign sent a check for $1,000 this summer to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s Children Foundation, offsetting Manafort’s contribution.

In February 2014, after a series of deadly anti-government protests, Yanukovych went into exile in southern Russia. The Parliament in Kiev issued an arrest warrant, accusing him of “mass killing of civilians.” Soon after, Putin ordered political, economic and military actions to destabilize the new government, and sent troops to annex Crimea, which was an autonomous republic of Ukraine.

That December, Rohrabacher was one of the few members of Congress to oppose a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. It passed the House by a vote of 411-10.

Several days later, Rohrabacher wrote in a blog post that the House resolution “was nothing more than gratuitous, needlessly provocative, and shortsighted … tantamount to a declaration that Russia is America’s enemy.”

Compared with Islamic terrorism and China’s ambitious economic agenda, he added, “The perils posed by Putin, if any, are not close.”

Colleagues similarly are mystified by Rohrabacher’s connections to several Russians who have faced scrutiny in the Mueller investigation.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher listens during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing concerning the genocide against the Burmese Rohingya, on Capitol Hill, September 26, 2018.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher listens during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing concerning the genocide against the Burmese Rohingya, on Capitol Hill, September 26, 2018. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In April 2016, Rohrabacher flew to Moscow with a policy aide and others on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee he chairs. While there, he met at a Ritz-Carlton hotel with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist who holds dual Russian-U.S. citizenship, about a matter of pointed interest to Putin.

They sought Rohrabacher’s help fighting the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law named for Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who died in Russian custody after he had identified $230 million in tax fraud involving government officials. The law, enacted in 2012, barred Russians allegedly involved in Magnitsky’s death from traveling to America or using U.S. banks.

By early 2016, momentum was building in Congress and in the Obama administration for a Global Magnitsky Act, which would keep the original sanctions on Russia but expand visa restrictions and financial penalties around the globe against those who violate human rights or commit major corruption.

Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin insisted the dead accountant was a false hero, and they urged Rohrabacher to overturn the law or strip Magnitsky’s name from it, according to people familiar with the matter. Akhmetshin also gave Rohrabacher a copy of an anti-Magnitsky documentary, made by a Russian director, and arranged a phone conversation between the director and the congressman.

After returning to Washington, Rohrabacher sought to hold a subcommittee hearing to raise doubts about Magnitsky and the U.S. law. Rohrabacher also sought to screen the film for lawmakers in a congressional hearing room, according to a senior congressional aide.

But the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), privately rebuffed both of Rohrabacher’s requests. Royce believed the film inaccurately depicted Magnitsky’s whistle-blowing and death, the aide said.

Rohrabacher persisted. On May 17, 2016, he wrote to colleagues on the committee saying he would offer an amendment to “strike ‘Magnitsky’ from the title’’ of the law and rename it the “Global Human Rights Accountability Act.”

The proposal mirrored a one-page list of “Talking Points” distributed by Akhmetshin, copies of the two documents show. Akhmetshin had delivered the list to Rohrabacher, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. One of the talking points said the U.S. law “should be called the Global Human Rights Accountability Act.” The amendment failed.

On June 14, Royce led a committee hearing that focused on U.S. policy toward Russia — but included no mention of the Magnitsky Act. Rohrabacher later attached to the official hearing record a two-page, written statement from Andrei Nekrasov, the Russian director, who said Magnitsky “was not a whistleblower.’’

President Obama signed the Global Magnitsky Act into law in late 2016.

When the House Intelligence Committee questioned Rohrabacher about his interactions with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, the lawmaker testified that he “encountered them by chance at the hotel lobby” in Russia, according to a footnote in a report made public on March 26, 2018, by committee Democrats.

“He acknowledged that they were probably spies and probably knew the Congressman would be there,” the footnote states.

Asked for comment, Rohrabacher’s spokesman, Eisenberg, termed the dealings with the two Russians “inconsequential.” He said Akhmetshin “did not play a role” in shaping Rohrabacher’s desire to change the Magnitsky Act. Veselnitskaya could not be reached for comment; Akhmetshin declined to speak for the record.

Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin were also key players in one of the most puzzling incidents of the 2016 presidential campaign.

On June 9, 2016, they met at Trump Tower in Manhattan with three of Trump’s top lieutenants: Manafort, then the campaign manager; Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law; and Donald Trump Jr., who scheduled the meeting after an intermediary wrote to him that the Russians had “information that would incriminate Hillary.”

The White House later said the two Russians talked mostly about the Magnitsky Act, and Putin’s retaliatory ban on Americans adopting Russian children. But the meeting has been a focus of the special counsel investigation into whether Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russian efforts to interfere in the election.

After Trump took office, Rohrabacher sought to lead another congressional delegation to Moscow — but Royce, his fellow Orange County Republican — refused to provide Foreign Affairs Committee funds.

Privately, Royce told colleagues that Rohrabacher’s proposal was out of line because the new administration needed time to form its own relations with Moscow, according to aides familiar with the matter. Rohrabacher stayed home.

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A few months later, Royce again said no when Rohrabacher sought committee funds for a trip to London to meet with Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Rohrabacher spent his own money instead, and on Aug. 18, 2017, he met Assange for about three hours inside London’s Ecuadorean Embassy, where the Australian had sought asylum in 2012.

Assange insisted the Russians had neither hacked the Democratic Party emails nor funneled the material to WikiLeaks. He “was very adamant,” said Charles C. Johnson, a conservative activist who joined Rohrabacher and Assange’s attorney at the meeting.

Assange said he was willing to reveal his evidence to U.S. authorities and “testify under oath” in exchange for presidential pardons for himself and “eight or nine” colleagues, according to Johnson. Rohrabacher voiced his support, calling Assange “a journalist,” and promised to seek a meeting with Trump to discuss the issue, Johnson recalled.

This year, in a July 3 interview with FOX 11 in Los Angeles, Rohrabacher again declared that the Russians “didn’t hack” the Democratic Party’s emails or feed them to WikiLeaks. He said he believes Moscow did “in some way try to interfere,” in the U.S. election. “Just like we do it — enormously, all over.”

Ten days later, a 29-page federal indictment filed by the special counsel characterized matters differently. It accused 12 Russian military intelligence operatives of the illegal hacking — and of using online personas to feed the material to WikiLeaks.

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