The State Department unexpectedly canceled the visa of Bill Browder, a U.S.-born British citizen and Putin critic, at the same moment Russia put out an international wanted notice on him.
With the Russia investigation still gathering steam, the last thing anyone in the Trump administration should do now is create the impression they are cooperating with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assaults on human rights.
Which is why the State Department’s sudden move against Putin critic Bill Browder — at the exact same time Russia is trying to mark him as an internationally wanted man — is so confounding.
Last week, Putin forced Interpol to issue a “red notice” for Browder, putting him on a global wanted list, despite the fact he has committed no crime. In theory, this is not a danger to Browder — Putin has tried on four previous occasions to flag him on Interpol, and every time Western democracies ignored it.
But this time, with no explanation, the State Department revoked Browder’s U.S. visa, restricting his freedom of movement at exactly the same time that Russia is hunting for him.
Such a move creates the impression that Trump administration officials are sympathetic to Putin’s crusade against a political foe.
Browder, a U.S.-born British financier whose former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured to death in a Russian prison after exposing the corruption of Putin’s inner circle, has been instrumental in pushing democratic nations to hold Russia to account for political murder. His activism has prompted four countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Estonia — to adopt “Magnitsky Acts.”
These laws, which block the Russian oligarchs who killed Magnitsky from using assets they looted from their country and stashed overseas, are the only significant consequence Putin has faced for his crimes. And Browder is at the top of the list of people he blames.
Sympathy for Russia is nothing new from Donald Trump. On the campaign trail, he frequently said he wished America would “get along” with Russia, despite the fact that even then the Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. election were widely known. More recently, Trump has refused to enforce new Russian sanctions that were passed nearly unanimously in Congress.
But the rescission of Browder’s visa looks particularly bad for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who at his confirmation hearing pledged he would support the Magnitsky Act. This move creates the impression that Tillerson was either lying or, to use Sen. Bob Corker’s memorable characterization, has been “castrated.”
If the U.S. no longer cares to stand with the targets of the Putin regime’s political wrath, our moral authority on human rights is only degraded further. The State Department owes the American people answers, and a commitment to stand with democracy and justice.