WASHINGTON – When Michael McFaul served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow under the Obama administration, he unexpectedly found himself the subject of a concerted Russian propaganda campaign, accused of plotting to overthrow leader Vladimir Putin, as well as being a pedophile.
It was in many ways a sign of the geopolitical times: a U.S. attempt to “reset” ties with Russia was collapsing, and as the U.S. face and voice in the Russian capital, McFaul was a ready target.
His two-year tenure as ambassador ended in 2014. But the 54-year-old ex-envoy, now an academic at Stanford University, got a jolting reminder this week that the Russian strongman hasn’t forgotten him — far from it.
At the Helsinki summit, Putin floated the idea of inviting Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russia, to interview a dozen Russian intelligence officials indicted in the U.S. last week as part of the probe. In return, Putin wanted Russian authorities to be allowed to interrogate a roughly equal number of Americans, including McFaul, for supposed illicit activities. At Monday’s post-summit news conference with Putin at his side, President Donald Trump — sounding intrigued rather than indignant — called that an “incredible” offer.
The idea drew a Senate rebuke on Thursday. A nonbinding resolution was approved 98-0 against allowing Russia to question McFaul or other current and former U.S. officials.
The White House had backtracked shortly before the vote, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters that Trump “disagrees” with the idea of such an investigatory exchange, but believed Putin had extended the proposal in “sincerity.”
“I don’t consider it ‘sincerity’ to falsely accuse U.S. government officials of being criminals,” McFaul tweeted in response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been blunter about the prospects of any such handover, telling reporters earlier Thursday: “That’s not going to happen.”
But to a wide array of U.S. lawmakers, former diplomats, fellow academics and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Trump’s initial response to Putin’s proposal — “incredible” — was the right word for the wrong reasons.
As details of the Helsinki tete-a-tete emerged this week, social media lit up with expressions of solidarity for McFaul — and consternation that an American president would not immediately shut down the idea of giving over a onetime ambassador for questioning.
McFaul, a Montana native educated at Stanford and Oxford, was known during his Russia days as an online pioneer among the diplomatic corps, authoring an ambassadorial blog and engaging in exchanges with ordinary Russians. As the week’s contretemps unfolded, he took to Twitter to express his shock and disbelief.
“When Trump says Russia is no longer targeting America, that’s not how this American feels,” McFaul wrote. “Putin is most certainly targeting and intimidating me. And I’m an American.”
He also decried what he called the “moral equivalency” being posited by Putin between the Mueller investigation and Russia’s desire to summon him and figures like U.S.-born financier Bill Browder for questioning. Browder has been a thorn in Putin’s side, leading a worldwide drive to expose corruption in Russia and impose sanctions to punish oligarchs and others.
In a new book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” the ex-envoy described the vitriol directed at him during his Moscow tenure, with propagandists photoshopping him into pictures, splicing his speeches to distort public remarks and even accusing him of pedophilia.