WASHINGTON ― The criminal information document released by special counsel Robert Mueller ahead of Trump campaign aide Rick Gates’ guilty plea on Friday contains prominent references to “a member of Congress” who met in 2013 with future Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and another lobbyist.
HuffPost has identified that member as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a loudly pro-Russia lawmaker who has drawn the attention of Mueller and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller has not yet interviewed Rohrabacher, the congressman’s spokesman told HuffPost on Friday in a message that also confirmed the 2013 meeting with Manafort. But Mueller’s team wanted to interview Rohrabacher as of late last year, according to news reports, and the criminal information released in advance of Gates’ plea suggests they were asking about Rohrabacher recently. The congressman has already been interviewed by the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
Gates has told a court that he lied to federal investigators on Feb. 1, 2018, about his knowledge of the meeting between Rohrabacher, Manafort and lobbyist Vin Weber when he falsely claimed he did not know Ukraine was discussed. Ukraine is one of the top foreign policy concerns of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort spent years working for Ukrainian politicians close to Moscow. And Rohrabacher was one of only a few U.S. lawmakers to oppose American assistance to a new government in Ukraine established in 2014 after protests against Putin’s allies in that country.
Rohrabacher has become notorious for being what The New York Times calls “an apologist” for Putin. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said during a 2016 meeting of the GOP’s top brass, according to a secret recording shared with The Washington Post. (McCarthy later said he was joking.) Russian intelligence officials gave Rohrabacher a code name because they viewed him as a valuable source, The New York Times revealed last year.
Rohrabacher maintains that he is simply motivated by a sincere desire for better relations between Washington and Moscow. In a 2014 Twitter exchange, the congressman wrote, “Have known Manafort 35 years. As in all matters, I make up mind based on truth & right, not donations or even friendship.”
Officials speaking with The New York Times last year said they did not believe Rohrabacher was actively working with the Russians.
As both chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee covering Europe and a former anti-Soviet hawk, the congressman argues that the two countries with the world’s largest nuclear arsenals need to get along and that Americans should have more sympathy for Russia’s priorities and its fears of Western encirclement.
His team said that Friday’s news does not show any wrongdoing.
“As the congressman has acknowledged before, the meeting was a dinner with two longtime acquaintances ― Manafort and Weber ― from back in his White House and early congressional days. The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics. The subject of Ukraine came up in passing,” Ken Grubbs, Rohrabacher’s spokesman, told HuffPost in an email. “It is no secret that Manafort represented [pro-Putin Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine. We may only speculate that Manafort needed to report back to his client that Ukraine was discussed.”
Still, Rohrabacher has emerged as an important figure in the investigations into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to help President Donald Trump and hurt his rival Hillary Clinton.
One of a mere handful of well-known GOP figures in Washington who were enthusiastic about Trump before his election victory, Rohrabacher was once under consideration to be the new administration’s secretary of state. He has cast doubt on the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community about the election and said voters benefited from the hacks of Clinton campaign messages. Last year, he met with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, the group that released the stolen Clinton materials, and said he wanted to give Trump information proving the hack was not committed by Russia. Soon afterward, top Republicans curtailed his powers on his influential subcommittee. And in 2016, Rohrabacher had meetings with Trump adviser Michael Flynn ― who is now cooperating with Mueller ― and with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya ― who is known for a Trump Tower meeting she had with Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and others hoping that Russia would share information damaging to Clinton.
The 15-term congressman is courting controversy even as he faces what observers describe as his toughest re-election race yet in a California district that seems to be turning more liberal. He appears unfazed.
“My constituents couldn’t care less about this,” Rohrabacher told The New York Times last year. “They are not concerned about Russia.”
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.