Bill Browder Doubts He'll Be Swapped To Russia For U.S. Access To Russian Agents

Jul 19, 2018
Originally published on July 19, 2018 10:00 am

Bill Browder was not surprised Vladimir Putin called him out by name at Monday's press conference with Donald Trump in Helsinki.

Browder's name came up because Putin floated this idea: If the U.S. gave the Kremlin access to Browder, Putin would allow U.S. investigators to interview the 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

What did surprise Browder, he says, was hearing Trump's response. Though Trump didn't mention Browder by name or endorse a swap that involved him, he did praise Putin's idea as "an incredible offer."

"While most people in the world probably haven't heard my name, Vladimir Putin thinks about my name on a very regular basis. He really dislikes me because I'm the guy responsible for the Magnitsky Act," Browder says in an interview on Morning Edition with NPR's David Greene.

Browder is an investor who became a human rights champion after his accountant and lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died under mysterious circumstances in a Russian jail in 2009. Since then, he's become an outspoken critic of Putin and was the force behind the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that freezes the assets and bans visas for certain Russian officials. Putin has denied the allegations regarding Magnitsky and has accused Browder of a multitude of crimes.


Interview Highlights

On whether he thinks such a swap would happen

No, I don't think there's a chance in hell that would happen. First of all, Robert Mueller is not interested in sitting in a room while Russian police officers interview Russian spies about election hacking. Robert Mueller wants these 12 individuals brought to the United States to face trial.

On what Putin has to gain by letting officials question him

I think this was almost an emotional reaction. You have to look at the timing of the whole thing. On Friday of last week was when Mueller issued the indictments against the 12 [Russian military intelligence agency] officers for hacking the U.S. election. And so Putin and his guys only had the weekend to try to sort of figure out how do they deal with that. And so they came up with what is commonly referred to as "whataboutism." What that is is, we say that they've hacked our election – [they say] well, what about Bill Browder? This is just a way of completely turning the conversation, which it kind of has.

On whether Trump's praise of the idea made him fear for his safety

Well, there's one very important caveat which is: although my accent is American and I was born in America, I immigrated to the United Kingdom, to London, 29 years ago and I've been living there ever since and became a British citizen. I'm not an American citizen. And so if Putin really wants to get hold of me to do all this questioning that he's talking about, he's actually approached the wrong head of state. He should be approaching Theresa May, who at this point in time probably has a few words for Vladimir Putin in relation to Novichok chemical weapons.

On Putin's accusations that Browder avoided paying his Russian tax debts, is a serial killer and has stolen money from the IMF

There's not an ounce of truth in anything he said. What happened was that the Russian authorities raided our offices, seized our documents and then stole the tax money. And then our lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky found out about the crime, exposed the crime and then he was subsequently arrested, tortured and killed in prison. And not only have we not done it, they did it and they killed the guy who exposed it.

Joanne Levine edited and Taylor Haney produced this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The investor Bill Browder became part of the controversy swirling around President Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. At their press conference in Helsinki, Putin said he would allow U.S. investigators to interview 12 indicted Russian intelligence agents if President Trump gave him access to Bill Browder. Here's Putin speaking through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor the United States, and yet the money escaped the country.

GREENE: Now, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said yesterday that Trump had called allowing Russians access to Browder an interesting idea but that he did not commit to doing it. Earlier yesterday, I asked Bill Browder what it was like when Putin singled him out.

BILL BROWDER: Well, I wasn't actually watching it. I was on - I'm on vacation. The way I knew about it was that my mobile phone started burning up with notifications and tweets and all sorts of other stuff. And I thought - wow, what's going on? And I checked it out. And I said, yep (laughter), Vladimir Putin's talking about me.

GREENE: Just what you want on vacation.

BROWDER: Well, it hasn't been much of a vacation since then. But I should say that it doesn't come as a huge surprise. While most people in the world probably haven't heard my name, Vladimir Putin thinks about my name on a very regular basis. He really dislikes me because I'm the guy responsible for the Magnitsky Act, which was named after my lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was murdered by the Putin regime after uncovering a $230 million Putin corruption scheme.

GREENE: Yeah. And we should remind our listeners that that law - among other things, it freezes the assets of Russian officials and limits their travel. So this is something that the Kremlin has not liked for some time.

BROWDER: Vladimir Putin, in 2012, declared it his single-largest foreign policy priority to try to have it repealed. And he's been absolutely sore about this. And the reason he is is because he's got a lot of money himself. He's probably one of the richest men in the world. And he thinks that money is potentially at risk of being seized.

GREENE: What do you think he believes he would gain by having you questioned by Russian officials?

BROWDER: I think that this was almost an emotional reaction. You have to look at the timing of the whole thing. So on Friday of last week was when Mueller issued the indictments against the 12 GRU officers for hacking the U.S. election. And so Putin and his guys only had the weekend to try to figure out how do they deal with that. And so they came up with this what is commonly referred to as whataboutism (ph). You know, we say that they've hacked our election. Well, what about Bill Browder? (Laughter). And this is just a way of completely turning the conversation, which it kind of has. And the most crazy moment was when Trump said, wow, that's a good deal - incredible (laughter).

GREENE: Well, I want to - give me one moment here because I want to play a little of this tape because that was what struck me as well. You've been on our program talking about how you feel targeted by Vladimir Putin. But here we had U.S. President Donald Trump suggesting that maybe he would be open to something like this. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer.

GREENE: Now, we should say Trump didn't say specifically that he would do some sort of swap and didn't mention you by name. But do you think the U.S. government might bring you in for questioning by Russian authorities if that would give them access to these military agents?

BROWDER: No, there's not a chance in hell that would happen. Robert Mueller is not interested in sitting in a room while Russian police officers interview Russian spies about election hacking. Robert Mueller wants these 12 individuals brought to the United States to face trial.

GREENE: So Donald Trump's words did not make you fear for your safety or take any extra precautions or anything like that.

BROWDER: Well, there's one very important caveat which is, although my accent is American and I was born in America, I emigrated to the United Kingdom, to London, 29 years ago and have been living there ever since and became a British citizen. I'm not an American citizen. And so if Putin really wants to get hold of me to do all this questioning that he's talking about, he's actually approached the wrong head of state. He should be approaching Theresa May who, at this point in time, has probably a few words for Vladimir Putin in relation to Novichok chemical weapons.

GREENE: The poison, you're talking about.

Can I just ask you, just so we have you responding to this - I mean, Putin, through a lot of accusations - he's done this for a long time - saying you earned $1.5 billion in Russia and never paid any taxes. He's accused you of being a serial killer, stealing money from the IMF. Is any of this even remotely true, what he's saying?

BROWDER: There's not an ounce of truth in anything he said. What happened was that the Russian authorities raided our offices, seized our documents and then stole the tax money. And then our lawyer Sergei Magnitsky found out about the crime, exposed the crime. And then he was subsequently arrested, tortured and killed in prison. And so not only have we not done it, they did it, and they killed the guy who exposed it.

GREENE: Bill Browder, always good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

BROWDER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.