Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has long believed that the United States needs to build a friendlier relationship with Russia, and he’s never tried to hide it.
He’s been a frequent defender of Moscow on cable news for years, and his colleagues have speculated privately about the reasons he’s willing to work with much-maligned Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But links between the Costa Mesa Republican and the country he’s bucked his party to extend a hand toward have raised new eyebrows because of the investigations into Russia’s attempts to undermine the 2016 election that Donald Trump won.
Despite winning reelection last year by nearly 17%, Rohrabacher’s district is considered a battleground for 2018. He has drawn a Republican challenger, and a handful of Democratic challengers — several of whom are highlighting his friendliness toward Russia in their campaigns.
There is no indication Rohrabacher is under investigation by the FBI or the House and Senate committees looking into what happened, but his name keeps popping up in connection to key figures and events in the investigation.
It’s a story that involves Russian tax fraud, foreign adoptions, dinner with a foreign agent and a meeting in Trump Tower with the soon-to-be president’s son. And much of it has just recently come to light.
A warning from the FBI
FBI agents sat Rohrabacher down in the Capitol and warned him that a Russian spy was trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence” — someone the Russian government might be able to use to steer policymaking.
“Any time you meet a Russian member of their Foreign Ministry or the Russian government, you assume those people have something to do with Russian intelligence,” he told the newspaper.
The newspaper’s sources said there was no evidence the recruiters succeeded or that Rohrabacher had been paid by a foreign government.
A ‘nice little’ dinner with Paul Manafort
When former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was working on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party in 2013, he met with just one U.S. politician — Rohrabacher.
“I assume when old friends call me up and are wanting to get reacquainted and stuff I always assume they are in some way under contract with somebody,” Rohrabacher said. “We discussed a myriad of things, a lot of personal stuff, a lot of different analysis of the politics of the day. It was a nice little dinner.”
Manafort didn’t file as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, or disclose the dinner, until he came under scrutiny during the Russia investigation.
On Feb. 23, 2018, Manafort’s longtime business partner and former Trump campaign aide Richard W. Gates III pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the contents of that dinner meeting. Documents show that Gates originally told agents the meeting was not about their work for Ukraine, when in fact he and Manafort had reported back to Ukraine that the meeting with Rohrabacher went well.
A meeting in Moscow
During a congressional trip to Russia in 2016, Rohrabacher and his longtime friend and employee Paul Behrends met privately with high-ranking Russian justice officials.
At the time, Congress was considering expanding the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which prevented Russians believed to be involved in certain human rights abuses from traveling to the United States or spending money in the country.
The law was named for whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison after he accused several top Russian officials of misappropriating $230 million in taxes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was incensed by the restrictions. In retaliation, he halted U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
During the April meeting, according to multiple news reports, Rohrabacher was given a memo stamped “confidential.” Deputy general prosecutor Viktor Grin, one of the Russians whose foreign accounts were frozen under the Magnitsky Act, was in the room, according to news accounts.
“Changing attitudes to the Magnitsky story in the Congress… could have a very favorable response from the Russian side,” the memo said, according to the Daily Beast.
It contested the details of the Magnitsky case, including how the lawyer died, and leveled accusations against Magnitsky’s American-born boss, financier Bill Browder. They wanted Rohrabacher to cast doubt on what had happened to Magnitsky, and try to at least get Magnitsky’s name removed from the law.
Politico also reported that Rohrabacher huddled with Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya while he was in Moscow, a meeting Rohrabacher hasn’t confirmed. The pair later went on to lead lobbying efforts against the expanded Magnitsky Act when Rohrabacher returned to Washington.
"The criminal justice department in Moscow had done a study of the Magnitsky case and had investigated it, and I was asked if I would look at it, and I said sure," Rohrabacher said. "I'm the chairman of the subcommittee that's supposed to focus on Russia. It's absolutely appropriate, and I think anybody that doesn't spend that time focusing on their responsibility is derelict in their duty."
Lobbying fellow House members
Soon after Rohrabacher and Behrends returned to Washington, Rohrabacher delayed further consideration of the expanded Magnitsky Act.
“The congressman came across some information that puts the Magnitsky narrative as we know it into some question, and he wants to pursue it," Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs told National Review at the time.
Rohrabacher and Behrends began setting up a subcommittee hearing on the Magnitsky Act with plans to invite Browder and show a documentary disputing the facts of the Magnitsky case.
Also trying to sway members of Congress at this time were the lobbyist and lawyer Rohrabacher had reportedly met with in Moscow months before: Akhmetshin, a registered lobbyist for Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative, a group started by Veselnitskaya to lift the adoption ban, but widely thought to be focused on getting rid of the Magnitsky Act sanctions.
But Rohrabacher’s plan for a subcommittee hearing was waylaid by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who instead arranged for the full committee to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia in June, a move that meant Royce controlled who would be called as a witness.
Neither Akhmetshin or Veselnitskaya registered as foreign agents with the Justice Department, but Akhmetshin did register as a lobbyist. His 2016 registration lists three foreign clients, all Moscow residents.
One of them, Denis Katsyv, owns Prevezon, the company sued by then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara for using the stolen money Magnitsky was investigating to buy Manhattan real estate.
Bharara was fired by Trump along with other U.S. attorneys, and his replacement settled the case against Katsyv and Prevezon in May for $6 million. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the timing of the settlement, which came just days before the trial was set to begin and for about half of what the Justice Department initially sought.
A meeting in Trump Tower
Around the same time as Rohrabacher was organizing the subcommittee hearing that never happened, the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., agreed to meet with some people with Russian ties after he was told he would be given derogatory information about Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to emails.
He brought along his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to the Trump Tower gathering.
Veselnitskaya provided Trump Jr. with material she said showed improper donations to the Democratic National Committee. Then Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin began to talk about the Magnitsky Act and Russian adoptions, according to multiple news accounts.
Huntington Beach businessman Ike Kaveladze also attended the meeting. Rohrabacher said in an interview he’d never heard of Kaveladze, a constituent who lives near Rohrabacher’s Costa Mesa home, until after the Los Angeles Times identified him as a meeting attendee.
Reports on who attended the meeting thrust Rohrabacher's efforts to remove Magnitsky’s name from the sanctions law back into the spotlight.
‘There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump’
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a GOP California colleague of Rohrabacher’s, speculated in a private meeting that Trump and Rohrabacher were being paid by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said in a recording of the exchange, first reported by the Washington Post in May. At that point, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan cut off the conversation and swore those who were there to secrecy.
A transcript of the tape noted that McCarthy was laughing during the conversation with other Republican leaders. After the transcript leaked, both McCarthy and Ryan said the comment had been a joke.
A meeting with Trump campaign advisor Michael Flynn
Flynn went on to briefly serve as National Security Advisor in the Trump administration before he was caught lying about conversations with the Russian Ambassador, prompting an intense look by the FBI into past work with foreign governments done by Flynn and his son.
In November 2017, NBC News reported that the FBI was interviewing witnesses about the content of the meeting Rohrabacher attended.
A canceled trip to Russia
Rohrabacher said in an interview that he decided not to go because he was worried the national focus on Russia would make it difficult to have serious conversations with Russian officials.
"In the middle of a chaotic, public brouhaha, you're not going to be able to get the serious job done that you need to get done," he said.
Accused of violating Russian sanctions
In a complaint filed with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Browder alleged that by getting information from Grin — one of the Russians sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act — and using it to try to change U.S. law, “Rohrabacher’s and Behrends’ reported actions thus provided services to one of the central figures targeted by the Magnitsky Act.”
Such complaints are most commonly made about the actions of big banks or private citizens, not a sitting member of Congress.
In a statement responding to the compliant, Rohrabacher said, “anyone who knows me understands that I am the member of Congress least likely to take directions from government officials, especially foreign government officials.”
A meeting with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
Graphic photo sources: L.A. Times, AFP, Getting Images, Inform Inc.
This article is regularly updated with new developments.
This article was originally published Aug. 4, 2017.