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WASHINGTON — As members of Congress weighed a measure Thursday criticizing President Donald Trump for considering a Russian request to interrogate former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, the White House again released a statement saying the president did not hold a position he had appeared to embrace.
After the White House statement, the Senate unanimously approved in a 98-0 vote a nonbinding resolution Thursday offered by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that said the U.S. should refuse to make any former diplomat available to Russian investigators who say that official may have interfered in their country's domestic affairs.
McFaul reacted quickly. "98-0. Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support," he tweeted following the vote.
“This body must agree on the importance of protecting our ambassadors. We should pass it today —not wait, not show any equivocation,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at her weekly press conference Thursday that the suggestion of handing over McFaul is “outrageous.”
“That the president would even entertain the idea of subjecting our diplomats to Putin’s thuggery — that is an abuse of power,” he said.
Trump said Monday during his joint news conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was intrigued by the idea. "What he did is an incredible offer," said Trump. "He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders indicated to reporters at the Wednesday briefing that Trump was still weighing the idea of having McFaul and Bill Browder, a London-based financier and Putin critic, questioned by Russia, as had been discussed in a private conversation between Trump and Putin at their summit in Helsinki on Monday.
“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn't a commitment made on behalf of the United States. And the president will work with his team, and we'll let you know if there's an announcement on that front,” she said.
Ahead of the Senate vote Thursday on resolution, Sanders issued a follow-up statement backtracking on what she had said a day earlier about Trump's position.
"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt," she said.
McFaul reacted skeptically to the new White House statement. "I don’t consider it 'sincerity' to falsely accuse US government officials of being criminals," he tweeted shortly after its release.
McFaul was critical of Putin and the Russian government when he served as ambassador. His name reportedly appeared on a list of Americans who Russia could have access to if Trump went along with Putin’s offer to allow special counsel Robert Mueller to interview the 12 Russians indicted last week for allegedly interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"It later then came out in the Russian press that they had a list, and I was at the top of that list," McFaul said on MSNBC Thursday morning. "Shocking. This is classic what-aboutism by the Russians. 'You have this indictment, right? Well, we have this indictment of these people.' Tit for tat."
Ahead of the White House's statement, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said that the administration's failure to reject the possibility of McFaul being questioned was “unbelievable” and yet another reason Congress needed to learn what was discussed during the leaders’ private meeting.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters that the administration's even considering the idea of letting Russian agents question U.S. diplomats was "naive" and "absurd."
And in an interview on MSNBC Thursday, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called the prospect “ridiculous.”
“It's another sign that this president is very happy making himself a client of Vladimir Putin,” Murphy said.
Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state while McFaul served as ambassador in Moscow, tweeted Thursday that McFaul is a “patriot who has spent his career standing up for America. To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling.” McFaul is now an international affairs analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
Separately, a resolution offered by Flake and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., expressing support for the U.S. intelligence community, failed Thursday after Senate Majority Leader John Cornyn, R-Texas, objected to it, calling it merely “symbolic” and saying that he’d rather Congress work on tougher sanctions against Russia.