Bill Browder Dishes on How He Ended Up on Putin’s Most Wanted List
Bill Browder talks about being on the top of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most wanted list, his personal safety, and his shock at President Donald Trump's reaction to Putin’s Helsinki proposal.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin singled out 12 Americans he’d like to see the US hand over to Russia for interrogation in exchange for allowing special counsel Robert Mueller to question the 12 Russian GRU agents he recently indicted. Of those, much attention focused on former US Ambassador Michael McFaul. (WhoWhatWhy also interviewed McFaul just a few days ago.)
But Putin singled out, even more prominently, international businessman Bill Browder, a major force behind the passage in 2012 of a particularly powerful piece of legislation, the so-called Magnitsky Act. Browder is Jeff Schechtman’s guest in this WhoWhatWhy podcast.
The Magnitsky Act, initiated and lobbied for by Browder, was named after his murdered lawyer, who uncovered Russian government corruption. It created visa and banking sanctions for Russian officials violating human rights. The Magnitsky Act has long been a major point of contention for Putin, and he’s actively worked to get the law overturned.
The legislation — which passed the US Senate 92 to 4 — has since, according to Browder, gone viral. It’s been copied and passed into law by seven countries, including Canada, and eight more countries are on deck to put it into law.
Browder explains to Schechtman that Putin’s hatred of the legislation has nothing to do with ideology. It’s about narrowing the range of countries in which Putin and his oligarchs are allowed to park their ill-gotten fortunes — and therefore puts their money at risk.
What surprised Browder most about Helsinki was not Putin’s talking about him, or even offering an exchange to get Browder back to Russia, since the Russian president has long been chasing Browder. Rather, he was shocked that Trump had labeled Putin’s proposal an “incredible offer.” Putin had suggested that McFaul, Browder, and a group of legislative staffers who had worked on the Magnitsky legislation be sent to Russia for “interrogation.”
Browder reminds us that he is a British citizen and therefore not even subject to Trump’s wishes. Similar requests made to the British government of Theresa May, and David Cameron before her, were turned down immediately.
Browder also sheds some new light on the role of Natasha Veselnitskaya — the convener of the famous Trump Tower meeting — and her role as Putin’s point person within the US to work toward a repeal of the Magnitsky Act.
Browder, who has long known Putin, talks about the Russian leader’s clear understanding of the “Deep State” and how America works, and how the former KGB agent benefits by being a “long-term player.”
As Browder sees it, “If Putin can’t bring Russia to the level of the West, he’s determined to bring the rest of the world down to the level of Russia.”
Bill Browder is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (Simon & Schuster, paperback version, October 20, 2015).
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Last week, when Putin singled out Americans he’d like to have sent to Russia for interrogation, a lot of attention was focused on former US Ambassador Michael McFaul. He also mentioned others, including very prominent international businessman, Bill Browder. More significantly, Putin talked about the Magnitsky Act, which Browder birthed with the help of the United States Congress.|
|We often throw terms around today in our political and geopolitical debate like capitalist and community and oligarch, but very few who use these terms really understand the essence of what they mean. One of those that does understand is Bill Browder. He rebelled against communism as a teenager, became a very successful capitalist, and made millions in Putin’s Russia. What he didn’t know was just what kind of price he would pay for getting involved in the ever-entangled web of Putin, oligarchs, and a system 180 degrees from our own, a system of men and not of laws.|
|The ultimate result was the brutal death of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder has since carried on Magnitsky’s legacy at great personal risk to himself. Putin’s remarks underscore that Bill Browder’s ongoing quest for justice for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky has taken a dark turn under the presidency of Donald Trump. It is my pleasure to welcome Bill Browder back to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Bill Browder:||Glad to be here.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||For our listeners that may not know, real quickly, talk a little bit about the Magnitsky Act, what it was, when it was passed in 2012, and why it so gets under Putin’s skin to this very day.|
|Bill Browder:||After Sergei Magnitsky was murdered in 2009, I tried to get justice for him in Russia. He was tortured to death. We have very, very detailed evidence of his torture from a variety of different sources, and I expected justice in Russia, but Vladimir Putin personally got involved in circling the wagons and exonerating the people involved and giving even promotions and state honors to some of the people who are most complicit in Sergei’s murder.|
|So I came up with this idea that if you can’t get justice inside of Russia, let’s try to get justice outside of Russia. I looked at what happened and I said, Sergei Magnitsky was killed not for ideological reasons or religious reasons. He was killed for money. He was killed because he had uncovered and exposed a $230 million government corruption scheme in which we later learned Putin was a beneficiary. Those people who killed him and did it for $230 million, they don’t keep that money in Russia. They keep that money safely in western banks in the United States, and England, and France, and Switzerland, and other places.|
|So I came up with this idea, which is if we can’t get justice inside of Russia, why don’t we freeze the assets and ban the visas of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky and the people who do similar types of things? I took this idea to Washington, and I met with Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, and Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. I explained to them the whole Magnitsky story and this idea of visa sanctions and asset freezes on human rights violators from Russia.|
|It was the perfect idea at the moment when it was most needed, and these two gentlemen initiated something called the Magnitsky Act. They put it onto the proposed law books in 2010, at the end of 2010, and then we spent two years fighting our way through Washington to get everybody on side. By November of 2012, it went for a vote in the Senate and it passed 92 to 4 and 89% of the House of Representatives, and it was signed into law on December 14th, 2012 by President Obama.|
|Putin hit the roof, and I mean literally hit the roof. He got so angry because he is personally a beneficiary of this crime and he keeps his money in the west. He has a lot of other money in the west from other crimes. This particular piece of legislation puts his entire personal fortune at risk. For Putin, money is more important than human life. You may remember that in retaliation, he banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. That was in direct retaliation to the Magnitsky Act.|
|He did that, and I should point out that these orphans that were no longer allowed to be adopted, tended to be the orphans who were sick, that had Down Syndrome, HIV, spina bifida, heart conditions, and Americans would still take them back to America with open arms and open hearts and nurse them to health. In Russia, they couldn’t do that, and these orphans often died in orphanages. As a result, Putin was sentencing his own orphans to death in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things we should point out, that this is also spread to other countries, that Canada recently adopted something similar to the Magnitsky Act, and that it is spreading to other countries, which is also driving Putin crazy.|
|Bill Browder:||In his eyes, thinking maybe he can avoid putting money in America, but now we have Canada, we now have the United Kingdom, we now have Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Island of Gibraltar off of Spain. We have seven countries with Magnitsky Acts, and there are eight countries that are currently on deck, France, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Australia, South Africa, and Ukraine. I would venture to say that the Magnitsky Act, as a policy tool and as a piece of legislation, is going viral. That makes Putin terrified because, effectively, there’s no place he’ll be able to keep his money other than North Korea and Iran when this whole thing is finished. I don’t think he’d feel too comfortable, too safe with his money in North Korea and Iran.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||All of this, of course, has increased his vendetta against you as really the progenitor of this. Talk a little bit about your reaction when you heard about Putin’s remarks at this press conference in Helsinki last week.|
|Bill Browder:||I should point out that after the Magnitsky Act was passed in 2012 was the first moment that Putin started to speak about me publicly and speak about me with great anger. It wasn’t a surprise for me to hear that Vladimir Putin was talking about me. The surprise was that Donald Trump was actually listening to and describing his proposal of handing me over as some type of brilliant idea. That was the surprising part of the whole thing. Putin has brought up my name, I think, five or six times in public settings. You can even see the anger in his face when he brings it up.|
|But Donald Trump saying, “Wow, an incredible offer,” and nodding approvingly when Putin said that, that was the big surprise. I never thought that I would have to worry about being handed over to the Russians if I traveled to the United States.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It wasn’t only your name, it was some of the people, even staff members in the US Congress that had helped get this passed. These people he mentioned as well.|
|Bill Browder:||If you look at the list, Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU agents for hacking the election. His indictment was very clear, the evidence was absolutely robust. It came from emails and bitcoin records and other stuff. The Russians made a list of 12 people they wanted to prosecute. Of course, I was the top of that list and the name that Putin rattled off during the Helsinki Summit, but the 11 other people on that list all had one thing in common. They all worked with me from the US government in one way or another, in either passing the Magnitsky Act or investigating the money laundering from the case that Magnitsky discovered in New York.|
|For example, you have Mike McFaul, who is one of the principal interlocutors in the Obama administration who shepherded through the Magnitsky Act. You have a name that most people haven’t heard of but they should know about, which is a guy named Kyle Parker. Kyle Parker was the senior Senate staff member who wrote the Magnitsky Act. He wrote the Magnitsky Act and he was the guy who ran all the traps for two years to make sure that the law passed, and often with a piece of legislation… Of course, the senators who initiated or the people with the most responsibility, but there’s always some unsung hero in the background, and Kyle Parker was that unsung hero.|
|Then you have a guy named Jonathan Winer. Jonathan Winer had been a senior State Department official. He had become a lawyer in private practice, and he was the person who conceived the Magnitsky Act. It was his legal advice that led to the whole thing. One more person I should mention on that side is a guy named David Kramer. He was a former State Department official who was running an NGO, a human rights organization called Freedom House. Freedom House was with me every day, blocking and tackling and walking the halls of Congress to advocate for the Magnitsky Act.|
|That was on one side. Then on the other side, this is perhaps even more heinous, is that you have three special agents from the Department of Homeland Security. A guy named Todd Hyman, got a person named Schwartzman, and can’t remember the name of the third person. These are special agents in the Department of Homeland Security whose job it was to investigate money laundering in the United States that originated from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky exposed and was killed over.|
|They found some of that money, and the Department of Justice froze that money. The Russian perpetrators paid the US Department of Justice $6 million to settle the case. Then all of a sudden, these three people from the Department of Homeland Security are being asked by Putin for Donald Trump to hand them over. I can’t think of something more cynical than … Putin can ask for whatever he wants, but for Donald Trump to say that’s an incredible offer, to hand over these patriots … These were all unsung heroes. These are all people who had been working in America for the US government, for no glory, and for no money, in service to their country to fight Russian organized crime, and Russian murder, and Russian money laundering, and to be handed over to the Russians? It’s just beyond the pale.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The other part of it, small part of it but an important fact nonetheless, is that Donald Trump can have no authority over you at all. You’re a British citizen.|
|Bill Browder:||Yeah. That’s kind of the little absurd loophole in this whole thing, which is that although my accent is American, I moved to London 29 years ago and became British. I’ve been living there ever since. It’s not as if Putin can really even ask Donald Trump to hand me over. I spent 95% of my life in the UK. Putin went to the wrong head of state.|
|If he really wants me handed over, he should go to Theresa May, and I should point out that Putin did go to Theresa May and various other prime ministers in the UK before Theresa May. The Russian administration went 12 times with the same request to the British government. Both David Cameron’s government and Theresa May’s government didn’t think it was an incredible offer at all. They rejected it within five seconds, the 12 different requests for either handing me over for extradition or mutual legal assistance or other things. So of course, I feel totally legally protected in the UK on the basis of that. That’s why Trump’s behavior in contrast to that was so shocking.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The accusation that Putin made in Helsinki about you having given $400 million to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, had you heard that before? What was your reaction to it, if you hadn’t?|
|Bill Browder:||Yes. I had heard something similar to that before because this is the spin that the Russians had been putting out there for quite a while. If you remember, two years ago there was a meeting at Trump Tower between a Putin crony lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner. They were pumping out this talking point then, and they continue to now. I should point out that this $400 million is an absurdity. It’s complete nonsense. I’ve not donated one single penny to Hillary Clinton’s campaign or any other campaign, for that matter. As I mentioned before, I’m a British citizen. I’ve been living in the UK for 29 years. I have no financial involvement, nor am I allowed to have a financial involvement, in US politics. For them to throw that out there, it’s just the ultimate in complete fabrication and fake news.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||You mentioned that Trump Tower meeting and the Russian lawyer, Natasha (sic — Natalia) Veselnitskaya. What was her involvement, as you understand it, in terms of her relationship with Putin?|
|Bill Browder:||What we can say for sure is she is a lawyer for a family called the Katsyv family. The Katsyv family is a Russian family in which the senior member of the Katsyv family, his name is Pyotr Katsyv, and was the former vice governor of the Moscow region. He’s currently a vice president of Russian Railways. Russian Railways is one of the two or three most important Russian state companies. He’s considered by many people, and certainly by myself, to be a senior member of the Putin regime.|
|The way that Putin delegates tasks is he asks oligarchs and cronies to go and do his bidding for him. In my opinion, he asked Katsyv to send Veselnitskaya to go in and do this whole anti-Magnitsky campaign, which she did with great vigor and with great resources, and hired lots of fancy lobbyists, and smear campaigners and lawyers to go and try to make this thing go away, and to try to destroy my reputation, and to try to change the law. Thankfully, the facts were so clearly understood on the right side of this thing that nothing bad ever happened, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on the side of the Russians.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Understanding Putin and understanding Russia as you do, talk a little bit about what you make of what you have seen transpire with respect to Donald Trump and Russia and Putin over the past year and a half.|
|Bill Browder:||What we know 100% for sure, we know 100% for sure, which is not disputed by anybody, that Vladimir Putin had taken sides in the US election. He had taken sides on behalf of Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. He took that side because he wanted sanctions to be lifted, in particular the Magnitsky sanction to be lifted.|
|In taking sides, he also took great effort or made great effort in manipulating the outcome. As we know, they hacked the DNC. They were involved in all this social media with Twitter and Facebook, et cetera. We know they also tried to penetrate the voting machines in various states around the United States. That’s what we know for sure. That’s proven, that’s agreed, there’s nobody really disputing that, not even Donald Trump at this point. Some days he disputes it, some days he doesn’t.|
|What we don’t know for sure, and I have no firm opinion on this, is whether he did this with the acceptance and acknowledgement of the Trump campaign and Donald Trump himself or whether he did this freelancing just because he had a view of who he wanted. That, we don’t know. I could speculate, and lots of people can speculate, and the probabilities go up and down based on different pieces of information, but the person who will be able to conclude one way or another whether that happened is Robert Mueller.|
|That’s what the investigation is about. He literally has 10,000 times the information and investigative capacity than any of us lay people do with whatever leaks out here and there. He will be wire tapping, and he has been wire tapping, and subpoenaing, and interviewing, and getting witnesses to flip. Sooner or later, we will have an answer to that question. It will be a very important answer because it will determine the future of the US Republic as to whether Russia just was taking sides on their own or whether taking sides with the involvement of one of the candidates.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What impact has this Putin Trump relationship had on you and your efforts to continue getting the Magnitsky Act put in place in other countries around the world?|
|Bill Browder:||First of all, I should point out to everybody that the Magnitsky Act itself is not in danger, no matter what Trump’s actions are, because the Magnitsky Act was not a piece of legislation that was put in place by executive order by the stroke of the pen of the president. This was a piece of legislation that was put in place as an act of Congress. Congress would have to vote in a majority way to repeal the Magnitsky Act, and I can say with great confidence that’s not going to happen. I know members of Congress, and there’s no way that, Republican, Democrat, anybody, will ever repeal the Magnitsky Act.|
|I should also point out that while Trump is making all these loving noises towards Vladimir Putin, his administration is not. His Secretary of State, Pompeo, his Secretary of Defense, Mattis, his Secretary of Treasury, Mnuchin, his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, none of these people have anything other than disdain for Vladimir Putin and his malicious activities towards the United States and the rest of the world. They have been enforcing policies, which are clearly and objectively anti-Putin.|
|For example, in April of this year, the Trump administration put seven Russian oligarchs, some of the richest men in Russia, on the sanctions list. On the sanctions list, those people are effectively financially devastated. That’s probably been the most single powerful move any government has taken at any point against Russia. In addition, the US government has supplied offensive weapons to Ukraine and even recently increased the military in Ukraine.|
|There was an absolutely devastating attack by the US military in Syria against Russian mercenaries where they effectively evaporated 300 mercenaries in one moment because they were going after US allies. The US and the Trump administration has, so far, taken a pretty tough stand on Russia. What’s weird and totally inconsistent, and I would go so far as to argue schizophrenic, is this weird, these words that Donald Trump … Now these visuals of Donald Trump somehow kowtowing to Putin personally. That’s extremely disturbing, and that’s very upsetting. If that does filter into policy, that could be really, really bad for the United States and the rest of the world.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||As somebody that understands and knows Putin, talk a little bit about how you think he’s dealing with this schizophrenia, that he seems to manipulate Trump and gets Trump to say these things on the one hand, as we saw in Helsinki last week, and yet the policy, as you articulated, is very different. How is Putin responding to this or how will he respond to it, do you think?|
|Bill Browder:||I think that Putin understands that the establishment, the people, the responsible adults who are dealing with this stuff, are against him. He’s trying to find a way of getting Trump to turn that around. Putin is a very long-term player. He’s not playing in the short-term. He clearly thinks that he has Trump’s sympathies, and he wants to use that so that all these nice words actually filter into policy. He’ll play the long game, as he does, and he’s going to continue to try to do this. I think that both Putin and Trump both realize that at this last summit, while it was of great benefit to Putin in terms of theatrics, may have been a bit of a disaster in terms of the reaction. That’s why I think they’re both going for a second summit in the fall in the United States.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Finally, Bill, what are you worried about personally as a result of all of this in this relationship, and what should the US and the west in general worry about?|
|Bill Browder:||I’m worried personally that, one way or another, they’re going to get their … The Russians, Vladimir Putin’s going to get his hands on me and get me back to Russia and kill me in a Russian prison the way they did Sergei Magnitsky. They’ve tried using Interpol, they’ve tried using these mutual legal assistance and extradition requests. I’m worried that one day my luck will run out.|
|I’ve been very lucky so far in that that world has been on my side. Interpol has rejected all Russia’s requests, Britain has rejected all of Russia’s requests, United States has rejected all of Russia’s requests. I’m worried that someday that might change, and that’s why Putin’s indecent proposal to Trump in Helsinki was really not a good thing for me.|
|In terms of overall, I think that Putin, he’s got such degrees of freedom that any other head of state doesn’t have. He doesn’t have any electorates to worry about, no press, no laws, no courts. He can do whatever he wants, and Putin is out there manipulating not just the US election, but the Germans, the French. He’s sending refugees out of Syria all over Europe to destabilize democracies.|
|He’s creating all sorts of nationalism and supporting far right and far left candidates, and he’s trying to win… Since he can’t bring Russia up to the level of the west, he wants to bring the west down to the level of Russia. He’s had great success so far, and if he carries on, it could get a lot worse, and we could end up in a situation where he’s created little fascist enclaves all over the place that we never even thought about.|
|Then one day, we’re going to have a third world war because of that. The first world war started with the assassination of one obscure rogue member of the royalty in Europe. That’s how things work. People are saying, we should be talking to Russia and be nice to Russia because they’ve got nuclear weapons. No, we should be containing Russia, not letting them do all the stuff to start World War III.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Bill Browder, I thank you so much for spending time with us today on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Bill Browder:||Thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Nikita Magnitsky, Nikita Magnitsky, widow, son, and Bill Browder (Andrew Scheer / Flickr).