How to Make Friends and Push a Russia Bill through Congress

My sincere congratulations to my friend, Bill Browder, on this historic achievement to memorialize the life of Sergei Magnitsky and other victims of injustice in Russia.

Also my congratulations to the city of Washington DC, who now get to enjoy the work of the talented reporter Julia Ioffe.

Here goes a well written breakdown of how Browder overcame every obstacle to put in place an extraordinary law to individually target human rights abusers instead of a blanket punishment against the entire government or its people.  We won’t know how brilliant this is for some years, but I am behind it, despite its flaws.

Browder, his lawyer dead and $4.5 billion fortune in Russia destroyed, wanted revenge. His friend, former deputy assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Winer, suggested a legal avenue of doing so. “The law banned corrupt foreign officials from entering the country,” Browder explained to me, referring to Proclamation 7750, which prohibits officials tied to corruption from entering the U.S. Browder liked the idea of applying it to those involved in Magnitsky’s death, so he turned to Kyle Scott, head of the Russia desk at the State Department at the time. “He dismissed my suggestion out of hand,” Browder recounts. That’s when Browder remembered a new acquaintance, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I had testified about Magnitsky’s incarceration at the Helsinki Commission, and I went back to Cardin’s office, and I told him what happened. And the response was, ‘Let’s see if they treat a U.S. senator the same way.’”

From there, Browder’s tale trails through the nooks and crannies of the couloirs of American power. He found a Republican co-sponsor, John McCain, for a bill going after the guys who got Magnitsky, and then expanded it to include other international bad guys. He hired Washington consultants from the Ashcroft Group, the firm founded by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He navigated the tensions between the State Department and Congress (he gleefully retells the story of Cardin’s showdown with State over its own secret list of offenders, compiled to head off Browder’s bill). He exploited the friction between Congress’s desire to win easy human rights points and a White House that likes to set its own foreign policy (and that has less hawkish ideas about Russia). In the end, he and Cardin won, by striking a bargain: the White House wanted to help Russia enter the WTO, and to do that, the U.S. had to repeal the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviet Union “most favored nation” trading status because it blocked Jews from emigrating. Cardin and his allies in the Senate— McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker—hitched the repeal of Jackson-Vanik to the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would ban officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death, as well as other human rights offenders, from traveling to the U.S., while also freezing their assets. A quid pro quo in the best traditions of Washington.