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Democrats say they'll release sealed Rohrabacher testimony if they gain a House majority

Democrats say they'll release sealed Rohrabacher testimony if they gain a House majority
Rohrabacher’s embrace of Moscow’s agenda in Washington has been an issue in his race. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

If Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in next month’s midterm election, they plan to quickly unseal sworn congressional testimony from Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher regarding his dealings with two Russian operatives in 2016 whom he presumed to be spies.

“We would move very quickly,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “All that needs to be done is to excise any personal information,” such as phone contacts, from the transcript of Rohrabacher’s testimony to the committee.

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Another Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin, said opening the transcript would shed light on Rohrabacher’s rationale for meeting with the Russian operatives in Moscow in April 2016 and for taking subsequent action in Washington that they had sought.

“I think the transcript would help people understand that,” said Swalwell, who helped lead the committee’s questioning of Rohrabacher on Dec. 21, 2017.

In the hotly contested midterm election, Rohrabacher’s public defenses of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his embrace of Moscow’s agenda in Washington have been an issue in his race against Democratic challenger Harley Rouda. The Democrats’ pledge to release the sealed testimony fits with the party’s strategy of focusing attention on that aspect of Rohrabacher’s record.

Rohrabacher, whose coastal Orange County district stretches from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel, declined to be interviewed on the issue. In response to written questions, his spokesman, Andrew Eisenberger, would not say whether Rohrabacher favors or opposes the release of his testimony.

“He believes the Intelligence Committee should treat his testimony like they do that of any other member of Congress,” Eisenberger said by email.

On Sept. 28, the Intelligence Committee’s Republican majority voted to release 53 transcripts while withholding the testimony of Rohrabacher, three agency directors and one other member of Congress: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the former head of the Democratic National Committee. A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, David Damron, said by email that she “has no objections” to her transcript being released.

Schiff said “none” of Rohrabacher’s Intelligence Committee testimony was classified — and that “no national security grounds” exist to block the release of the transcript. Schiff said he believes House Republican leaders, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of Tulare, are “clearly playing political games with this.”

Aides to Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.

In his testimony, Rohrabacher is known to have answered questions about two Russians: Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Moscow lawyer, and Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship.

The pair sought — and gained — Rohrabacher’s help in challenging a U.S. human rights law called the Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian custody after identifying what he said was a $230-million tax fraud that implicated Russian government officials.

Although the transcript of Rohrabacher’s testimony remains blocked from public view, a footnote in a report issued in March by the panel’s Democrats says the congressman testified he met the two Russians “by chance” in the lobby of a Ritz-Carlton hotel while visiting Moscow.

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

As reported this month by The Times, Rohrabacher — after receiving a one-page list of talking points from Akhmetshin — wrote a letter May 17, 2016, to congressional colleagues that mirrored Akhmetshin’s suggestion that Congress remove Magnitsky’s name from the law.

Both Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya insisted Magnitsky was a false hero, according to people familiar with the matter. Their position echoed that of Putin, who has bitterly opposed the Magnitsky Act. In 2012 Russia initially retaliated against the law by banning Americans from adopting Russian-born children.

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Rohrabacher’s colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee rejected his proposed amendment, and Congress renamed the law the Global Magnitsky Act.

Eisenberger earlier confirmed that Rohrabacher viewed the two Russians as likely spies. The congressman acted, he said, in a manner consistent with his official duties.

He would not directly answer whether Rohrabacher reported his contact with the pair to U.S. authorities.

“The congressman assumes that U.S. intelligence agencies already know about any contact he’s made with Russians, especially if they are potential foreign agents,” Eisenberger said.

Rohrabacher was not required by law to report the contacts. Some former intelligence officials say he should have done so.

“He should’ve reported all the Russians with whom he met right away,” said Daniel Hoffman, a longtime former CIA clandestine service officer who served two tours for the agency in Moscow.

“You don’t meet with Russians like that and then not tell anybody,” Hoffman said, adding that the Kremlin’s principal intelligence service, the FSB, has major hotels “mic’d up” with audio and visual recording devices.

It’s likely that “everything in that transcript” of Rohrabacher’s discussions at the Ritz-Carlton, “the FSB already knows,” said Hoffman, who has appeared as a Fox News contributor since retiring from the CIA in early 2017. “That’s the argument for letting it be public.”

Both Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin have been spotlighted during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into what actions Russia took to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated. On June 9, 2016, the two Russians met at Trump Tower in Manhattan with three of candidate Trump’s top lieutenants, including Donald Trump Jr., who scheduled the meeting after an intermediary wrote him that the Russians had “information that would incriminate Hillary” Clinton.

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