State Dept: Russia’s allegations about American citizens ‘absolutely absurd’
A State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday dismissed Russian claims against Americans as “absolutely absurd” and said that the agency does “not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes.”
The agency in a press briefing took a more stern stance toward Russia’s proposal to interview Americans than the White House appeared to earlier in the day.
“What I can tell you is that the overall assertions are absolutely absurd — the fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions that the Russian Government is making about those American citizens,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert at a press briefing on Wednesday. “We do not stand by those assertions.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a joint press conference with President Trump on Monday that he wanted permission for Russian investigators to question people “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.”
The list that the Russian prosecutor general’s office released after Putin’s comments included former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and others who Russia believes are connected to British financier Bill Browder.
Putin claimed without evidence on Monday that Browder had illegally taken $1.5 billion out of Russia, including $400 million that was funneled into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He later clarified that he believed Browder donated $400,000 to Clinton’s campaign.
“It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal,” Putin charged. Browder has denied any illegal actions.
“The prosecutor general in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard,” Nauert said on Wednesday.
Her comments followed a tense White House briefing earlier in the day where the administration did not dismiss Russia’s proposal to provide access for special counsel Robert Mueller to the interrogation of 12 Russian intelligence officers charged with interfering in the U.S. election in exchange for access to question some Americans.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump and Putin had discussed the proposal during their summit and that Trump would discuss it further with his team.
“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” Sanders said at Wednesday’s press briefing. “The president will work with his team and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”
Trump previously called Putin’s suggestion an “interesting idea.”
But Nauert called the Kremlin’s assertions “absurd.”
“Those have been refuted by, among other things, the Southern District Court of New York in other cases that are somewhat related,” she said.
Nauert refused to weigh in on Trump’s decision, saying, “I can’t answer on behalf of the White House.”
“And I believe some of that would fall under the Department of Justice, so I’d have to loop in the Department of Justice on this. This is something that just came out,” she added.
Along with McFaul, other targets of Russia’s probe are Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled the “Steele dossier” containing allegations against Trump, David Kramer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, and other former State Department officials, according to the state-owned outlet RT.
McFaul has since called on Trump to reject Putin’s “ridiculous” proposal publicly.
Nauert noted that she understood why the request to interview Americans would be “a grave concern to our former colleagues here.”
She urged the Russians to pursue other options in their probe.
“Instead, we continue to urge Russian authorities to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue those in Russia who in fact perpetrated the fraud scheme that Russia refers to — that targeted not only Mr. Browder but also his company and others, and also the Russian people as a whole,” Nauert said.