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Monday
Mar122018

GOP congressman: 'Nothing sinister' about recurring role in Russia probe

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California has seen his name resurface repeatedly in association with the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now he’s fighting back.

“There is simply nothing sinister, and everything about America’s best interests, arising from [Congressman Rohrabacher’s] activities,” a spokesman for the lawmaker told ABC News. “He believes, with regard to his meetings with Russians, that the media have indulged in a guilt-by-association hysteria not seen since the Red Scare of the Fifties and the Birchite conspiracy theories of the Sixties.”

Rohrabacher — who faces both Republican and Democratic challengers in his 2018 re-election bid — has said that he considers himself the “ultimate patriot,” and not, as some have suggested, a shill for Russian interests.

“That's a personal attack,” Rohrabacher told ABC News during an interview in December. “They call me Putin's best friend. I'm not Putin's best friend. I'm a patriotic American who knows that it would be really good for America to cooperate with Russia. I could care less whether it's good for Russia.”

Rohrabacher has not been approached by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his spokesman told ABC News, but Democrats say they remain puzzled by what they consider suspicious entanglements that have surfaced.

“He has interacted with some of the pivotal characters in this Russia story,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

During a trip to Moscow in April 2016, Rohrabacher met Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who traveled to Trump Tower in New York two months later to meet with Donald Trump Jr.

During a trip to London in August 2016, he met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who controlled the release of hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.

And at a meeting on Capitol Hill in early 2017, he met with Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank, a controversial figure who also briefly met Trump Jr. at a May 2016 gun convention.

Erik Prince — the Trump supporter and founder of the security firm Blackwater who is alleged to have secretly met with a high-ranking Russian official in the Seychelles during the transition — is hosting a fundraiser for Rohrabacher later this month.

The GOP lawmaker has twice been interviewed by his Capitol Hill colleagues, once by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and once by members of the House Intelligence Committees.

“Congressman Rohrabacher...has done his best to help the congressional intelligence committees understand current relations with Russia,” said his spokesman.

Rohrabacher told ABC News he was happy to meet with his colleagues, but made clear he viewed any alleged meddling by Russia to be “part and parcel of [what’s done by] every great power.”

“We meddle in peoples’ elections all the time," the congressman added. “Their meddling was this much,” gesturing with his fingers a small amount. Then he spread his arms wide: “We meddle that much.”

When Trump campaign aide Richard Gates pleaded guilty last month to lying to federal agents, the topic he was alleged to have lied about related to a 2013 meeting that involved Rohrabacher.

Court documents filed by federal prosecutors on Feb. 22 shed little light on the significance of the meeting, which was unrelated to the Trump campaign, but indicate Gates had lied when asked about topics discussed between participants that included Manafort and “a member of Congress who was on a subcommittee that had Ukraine within its purview,” which ABC News later confirmed as Rohrabacher.

“His chairmanship of the subcommittee pertaining to Russia requires him to meet and hear out all parties from that region, including Ukraine, concerning which he’s sought out and heard more anti-Russian than pro-Russian voices,” said the Rohrabacher spokesman.

In December, before the Gates plea occurred, the congressman told ABC News none of those interactions suggest anything “sinister” – he said they all occurred as a natural outgrowth of his congressional duties as chairman of the House Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees U.S. policy in Russia.

“I have talked to a lot of Russians and that's part of my job -- to hear what they've got to say and also to try to influence what they're doing,” Rohrabacher said. “I'm sure they want to know what's in my brain and what I'm talking about, what I believe. There's nothing wrong with that.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California who sits on the Houses Intelligence Committee, condemned Rohrabacher’s seemingly soft stance on a longtime geopolitical foe.

“Russia is not our friend,” Swalwell said. “They're not our friend from what they did in the Cold War and not our friend for what they’re doing today in Syria, Afghanistan, and what they've done in Ukraine. So any person who thinks they are our friend and who continuously meets with them and furthers their agenda in Congress I think is working against democracy in the world and the security interests of the United States.”

Over the years, Rohrabacher’s repeated contacts with Russian nationals generated enough suspicion that the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee asked him to curtail his travel to that part of the world.

“The chairman of the committee felt that there was so much negative interpretation of what I was doing in Russia that I had to be much more careful about it,” Rohrabacher acknowledged.

It appears, however, that the Russians have at least attempted to put their relationship with Rohrabacher to use. The FBI once visited him to warn him he had been the target of an espionage operation.

“The F.B.I. came to me and said that there was a Russian spy they wanted me to be aware of [who] had been in contact with me – that I had been targeted,” Rohrabacher said.

When news reports surfaced last year that Russian spies targeted him for intelligence and even assigned him a code name, Rohrabacher said he did not consider that a problem.

“The Russians do have a code name for me,” he said. “But I think they have a code name for about 50 or 60 other Americans.”

He does not know, he said, what that Russian code name is.

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