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White House, Following Backlash, Rules Out Russian Interrogation of Americans

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Foreign Ministry in Moscow in 2013.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

The White House ruled out Thursday making a former American diplomat or others available to Russian interrogators, the latest in a series of reversals since President Trump's summit on Monday with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki.

Trump, appearing with President Vladimir Putin in Finland, at first said he didn't believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 election — but then said he does. Trump said he didn't believe Russian intelligence is continuing to target the United States today — but then the White House said he does.

Then on Thursday, press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an announcement that Trump now "disagrees" with Putin's proposal from their summit that the two governments exchange people of interest to each other's investigators.

"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it," Sanders said. "Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt."

Sanders was referring to 12 intelligence officers in Russia's military spy agency, the GRU, who were charged in an indictment on Friday that linked them to the cyberattacks in 2016 against political targets and state-level elections targets.

The Senate voted 98 to 0 on a resolution condemning the earlier idea that the White House had held open — that Russians might get to interrogate Americans if American investigators were able to talk with the Russian suspects — and individual lawmakers and others also had spoken out.

Man in the middle

A former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, says Putin is obsessed with an imaginary scheme to undermine the Russian government that McFaul supposedly conducted from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. McFaul worried about Trump permitting that story to take flight.

Granting any credibility to the scheme means the White House is "playing into Russia's hands," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters on Thursday.

Corker said that although the president has wide discretion to conduct foreign affairs, he might have gone too far in Helsinki, adding that he wants to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the summit at a hearing next week.

"The president does have the ability to meet with anybody he wishes," Corker said. "I think this one, especially the presentation that was made at the end, was disconcerting to most Americans and certainly was to me."

"We're going to have Pompeo come in next week, and I think we'll be much better informed when that is over, as to what the intentions are, where they're trying to take this relationship, was there anything that was agreed to privately in those meetings."

The prospect that the United States might grant access to McFaul or others, in exchange for American investigators talking with Russians linked to cyberattacks, had been viewed as unlikely.

But Trump had called it an "incredible offer" on Monday in his press conference with Putin in Helsinki, and Sanders had seemed to suggest Wednesday that the administration was evaluating it.

Critics said it was a mistake for the White House even to appear that it had been evaluating the idea of an interrogation exchange.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter earlier Thursday that he thought the White House must "publicly and unequivocally rule it out."

And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also weighed in on McFaul's behalf, calling him a "patriot" and writing, "To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling."

One issue for administration officials before Thursday's climb-down appeared to be how receptive Trump had remained to the idea.

Another issue was that the idea was so novel that when the administration appeared to be contemplating it, no one seemed to be sure how an exchange might have worked.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday that although Putin's charges against McFaul and other Americans are "absolutely absurd," she was not prepared to speak on behalf of the department and say that her agency opposed the idea of some kind of handover.

"I believe some of this would fall under the Department of Justice, so I'd have to loop in the Department of Justice on this," she said. "This is something that just came out."

NPR correspondents Deirdre Walsh and Miles Parks contributed to this report.
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