How did Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a protege of Reagan, become ‘Putin’s favorite congressman’?
He’s been called “Putin’s favorite congressman.” And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher makes no apologies for his fondness for Russia.
That position has put the iconoclastic Huntington Beach Republican and onetime speechwriter for Ronald Reagan at odds with many in his own party for decades. But now, in the midst of a roiling investigation into Russia’s influence in the 2016 presidential election, he’s in sync with a least one very important person — the current president of the United States.
Rohrabacher is one of Capitol Hill’s strongest backers of President Trump’s view that the United States has unfairly demonized Russia, which both see not as an adversary but a potentially important partner in the fight against terrorism. Rohrabacher hailed Trump for arguing with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, among others, about Russia’s human rights record and saying “we’re no better.”
The congressman’s Russia awakening happened years ago on a battlefield in the midst of the Cold War.
It started with a promise he made to Afghan fighters in the late 1980s when he was a special assistant to President Reagan, helping to arm the Afghani mujahedin during their battle with the Soviet Union. He vowed to one day fight alongside them.
Following his 1988 election to represent coastal Orange County in Congress, Rohrabacher joined the Afghan civil war, signing up for a week with a unit wielding AK-47s and grenade launchers. The mission: take out a Soviet position outside Jalalabad.
“I think, since that moment, I have realized that I was fighting communism all that time, but I wasn’t fighting Russians,” Rohrabacher said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
The Soviet Union would soon break apart, and Rohrabacher grew to respect his onetime enemies and champion their attempt at democracy. Two decades ago, he got to know Vladimir Putin while drunkenly arm-wrestling the then-deputy-mayor of St. Petersburg over who actually won the Cold War. (Putin won the matchup, and quickly, Rohrabacher notes.)
Rohrabacher insists he’s not standing up for his old drinking buddy. “I’m sure he’s done things that are totally unacceptable, but he is the elected leader and I think he runs the country the way the Russian people basically want it run,” Rohrabacher said.
Now Washington is buzzing with the Russia election-meddling allegations that have spurred Congressional investigations and prompted calls for more. And Rohrabacher dismisses it all as no big deal.
“Did they try to influence our election? We have tried to influence their elections, and everybody’s elections,” Rohrabacher said. “The American people are being fed information that would lead them to believe that we need to be in a war-like stance when it comes to Russia.”
His position on Russia, along with his views on marijuana legalization, have for decades made him a Libertarian outlier in the Republican Party. While he hasn’t moved into the mainstream, he’s not an outlier in this administration.
Hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the country’s 45th president, Rohrabacher stood on stage at a ball he threw in Trump’s honor and told war stories about working as a speechwriter for Reagan. In the great hall of the Library of Congress, the smell of bourbon and apple cider filling the air, guests in ball gowns and tuxedos strained to hear Rohrabacher do his spot-on Reagan impression.
“I will tell you now, we do not have Ronald Reagan, but what we have is a strong and vocal leader who will not be afraid to tell people that we are going to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism, and we have a president of the United States who is not going to apologize for making America the first priority in his decision-making,” Rohrabacher said.
After playing a role in the Soviet Union’s collapse, Rohrabacher decided his job in Congress was to ease the way for Russia to embrace democracy. He has spent the nearly three decades since meeting with Russian politicians, carrying Russian-related legislation and advocating for the country and against U.S. sanctions, moves that earned him the favorite congressman nickname from Politico.
“We have a significant number of people, right-wingers, who their whole life Russia was the Soviet Union, it was the evil empire,” Rohrabacher said. “There are a lot of people now who this is part of their psyche. They just can’t get themselves out of the Cold War. We’ve been treating Russia as if it’s still a hostile dictatorship that wants to undermine democracy every place they can in the world and that’s just not the case anymore.”
He sees a kindred spirit in Trump, who since the early days of his campaign has said he wants to have a friendly relationship with Putin, and believes Russia could be a strategic ally for fighting Islamic State. Rohrabacher was even briefly floated as a candidate for secretary of State.
But a cloud has settled over the Trump administration since intelligence agencies released a report in January saying the Russian government actively tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, first to ensure Hillary Clinton would lose, and later to ensure Trump would win.
Since then, questions have swirled about what the Trump campaign knew of the plan and when it knew it. The White House has flatly denied any collusion, but several news outlets have reported the FBI is investigating members of the Trump campaign, and both the House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees have announced they are looking into what happened.
So Rohrabacher has found himself frequently sticking up for Trump and Russia.
That included defending former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned after news broke that he’d lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador before the election.
Rohrabacher told the right-leaning news site Independent Journal Review that Flynn’s resignation was a growing pain of a new administration, and equated further investigation of Flynn’s contacts with Russia to “people waiting to beat this person up when he’s on the ground and kick his face in.”
When U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself after revelations he hadn’t been truthful during his Senate confirmation hearings about meeting with the Russian ambassador, Rohrabacher said, “the Democrats and their allies in the elite media are clearly obsessed with placing blame for their rejection at the polls on their fantasy of a nefarious Russia-Republican cabal.”
At home in Huntington Beach, where his positions on Russia haven’t helped or hurt, Rohrabacher remains popular. He won his last election comfortably even as the voters in his district narrowly chose Hillary Clinton for president. At 69, he has long been considered a prime candidate for retirement, but there’s been no talk of that lately.
As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee, Rohrabacher plans to lead a congressional delegation to Russia and Ukraine in April to talk about working together.
Establishment Republicans are puzzled by Trump’s efforts to reset the U.S. relationship with Russia, but Rohrabacher mostly worries Trump will feel pressured to change his position and get sucked into the establishment way of thinking.
Fox News’ O’Reilly noted in a recent interview with Trump that Putin is “a killer,” prompting the president to respond: “You think our country is so innocent?”
Many in the party distanced themselves from those comments, but Rohrabacher made similar arguments to the Los Angeles Times, saying the United States doesn’t hold the moral high ground, including when it comes to trying to influence foreign elections.
And for years, Rohrabacher has suggested that Russia’s record of human rights abuse is inflated. In December, he grappled with a Soviet-born Yahoo News reporter, calling her biased and saying “Oh, baloney” when she compared human rights abuses in China and Russia.
During a committee hearing just last week, Rohrabacher dismissed concerns about Russian aggression from the former president of Estonia, and compared Putin to the late Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
Daley “beat demonstrators up and did not represent anything what America was all about, but he was not some vicious dictator,” Rohrabacher said.
He was nervous when U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blamed Russia for renewed, deadly fighting in Ukraine that began shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Haley also said U.S. sanctions against Moscow would remain in place, which seems to contradict what Trump hinted about Russia as a candidate and as president-elect.
“It was intended as a slap in the face to Russia,” Rohrabacher said. “You’ve got people trying their best to box the president in and to force him into positions that take him away from his goal of having better relations with Russia.”
He says there was no other reason for Russia to act aggressively in Ukraine right after the inauguration of a friendly president. But Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Anders Aslund, an expert on Russia and Ukraine, said Russia was testing the waters. He wasn’t surprised the aggression came after Trump and Putin’s first phone call. What matters is what the White House does, and spokesmen and surrogates’ comments are just a distraction, he said.
“Putin understood that Trump won’t do anything,” Aslund said.
No one doubts that Rohrabacher was especially close to President Reagan, who is remembered as a staunch anti-Soviet.
“His heart beats in the same rhythm as Ronald Reagan’s, this man was about as close to him as anybody I ever knew,” senior Reagan speechwriter Joshua Gilder told the crowd at Rohrabacher’s ball for Trump’s inauguration.
That’s what makes Rohrabacher’s position today so mystifying to his House colleagues. Rohrabacher sees no contradiction. His mentor, he says, would have wanted the United States to have a good relationship with Russia.
“Ronald Reagan would be just like Trump on this, no doubt,” Rohrabacher said. “He believed in peace through strength. Conservatives always sort of skip over the peace part and [go] straight to strength.
“Reagan was very much for peace, especially with the Russian people.”
Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics.
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.