During a press conference with President Donald Trump in Finland on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would allow special counsel Robert Mueller to interview Russians indicted for interfering in the 2016 presidential election if Russian law enforcement can access people connected to one man in particular: the London-based financier Bill Browder.
“Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over 1.5 million dollars in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country and was transferred to the United States,” Putin said Monday. “They sent a huge amount of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. That’s a personal case, it might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal…So we have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions, so we have an interest in questioning them,” Putin added.
Browder is a fierce opponent of Putin who successfully advocated for sanctions against Kremlin-linked Russians. Shorty after Putin and Trump’s press conference, Browder responded to the allegations that he is linked to the Clinton campaign.
“I did not [funnel money to Hillary Clinton]. I’m not a U.S. citizen, I don’t live in the United States, I’ve been living in Britain for 29 years, I make no campaign contributions,” Browder told CNBC Monday. “I should also point out that Vladimir Putin and his regime have accused me of serial killing, of being a CIA, MI6 agent, and about a thousand other things, so he’s kind of unhinged in these accusations.”
Some Russia analysts said Putin was trying to draw a false equivalency between Russian election meddling and alleged cooperation between U.S. officials and Browder.
“I think it’s an attempt by Putin for moral equivalency. A state actor meddling in elections is not comparable to an individual who was kicked out [of Russia] because of his views of the Kremlin,” Mark Simakovsky, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek.
Born in Chicago, Browder moved to Moscow in the 1990s, just as capitalism was arriving in Russia, and opened the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. The fund was wildly successful and Browder became a billionaire. After Putin took control of the government in 2000, Browder supported him. He continued to make statements in favor of Putin even as the Russian leader began jailing oligarchs critical of him.
But in 2005, Browder ran afoul of Putin and was deported. According to Browder’s version of the story, which he has detailed in numerous interviews, Russian officials stole documents from his company’s office, re-registered the company in someone else’s name and then used his investment fund to obtain a fraudulent tax refund of around $230 million.
Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s Russian lawyer, claimed to have uncovered the tax fraud scandal. In 2008 he testified that he had evidence Hermitage Capital Management was stolen. Shortly thereafter, he was thrown in jail, accused of helping Browder evade taxes and died in prison under mysterious circumstances.
Browder claims Magnitsky was murdered, and the billionaire’s lobbying efforts led Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act in 2012. The law imposes sanctions on a long list of Russians believed to be responsible for perpetrating human rights violations.
Over the past decade, Browder has transformed into one of Putin’s most vocal critics. In the lead up to the summit in Helsinki, he called Putin a “pipsqueak.”
“[Trump] doesn’t need to ask Putin anything. He needs to tell Putin, ‘don’t mess around anymore because we are the 800-pound gorilla,’” he said in an interview with Fox Business on Friday.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have never lost hope of punishing Browder. In May, he was briefly arrested on a Russian warrant during a trip to Spain. He was released shortly after the Interpol General Secretary advised Madrid that it should not honor Moscow’s arrest warrant.
Browder claimed he had traveled to Madrid to meet with Jose Grinda, a prosecutor known for his work on money laundering and the Russian mafia.