Russian President Vladimir Putin will now have one less defender in Congress. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California—who famously arm wrestled with Putin in the 1990s, and who was warned by the FBI in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence”—has lost his reelection bid after two decades in Congress, succumbing to a Democrat who ran ads touting Rohrabacher’s curious affection for the Russian autocrat.
While election officials won’t certify the results of the race until December 7, the Democrat Harley Rouda declared victory Saturday morning, leading Rohrabacher by about 8,500 votes, according to the Associated Press. Now, with Democrats set to take control of the House in January, Rohrabacher’s Kremlin ties could face renewed and intensified scrutiny.
Rohrabacher’s loss wasn’t necessarily a surprise. He consistently trailed Rouda in polls and was seen as vulnerable heading into Election Night. Locally, Rohrabacher tried to appeal to California voters by playing up his support for reforming marijuana laws, calling states’ rights to legalize and regulate the drug “a fundamental issue of federalism and freedom.” And he talked about the economy and immigration, the latter in inflammatory terms. Rohrabacher told The New York Times last year that his constituents “couldn’t care less” about Russia.
Paul Martin, a Republican who challenged Rohrabacher in the June primary, told me he believes that the congressman’s defeat in California’s Forty-Eighth District was more a reflection of voters’ desire for a moderate candidate than of their frustration with Rohrabacher’s coziness to the Kremlin.
“I made my campaign about the gruesome human-rights abuses of Putin, especially his suspension of the adoption of Russian orphans after the passing of the Magnitsky Act,” Martin told me, referring to Putin’s retaliatory measures after Congress passed a 2012 law designed to sanction high-level Kremlin officials. “But I’m not sure the voters here cared.” (A spokesman for Rohrabacher was not immediately available for comment.)
Rouda similarly went after Rohrabacher. He accused the lawmaker in a debate last month of “meeting with Russian operatives” in 2016, and criticized him for downplaying Russia’s election interference. “Representative Rohrabacher has said that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that were staffed by working men and women from diverse backgrounds, including our U.S. military … were all wrong,” Rouda said, “and that the Russians had nothing to do with meddling with our elections.”
On the national stage, Rohrabacher has become best-known for his defense of Putin’s leadership. A fierce Cold Warrior in the 1960s who later worked for Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher had a dramatic change in attitude toward Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. By 2014, he was publicly excusing Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine—viewed globally as a major breach of international law—and characterizing Russia, which had recently placed the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny on house arrest, as a bastion of free speech and Christian piety.
“There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues,” Rohrabacher said at the time. “The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that communism has fallen.”
Rohrabacher has attracted attention more recently for his involvement in the congressional and federal investigations of Russian election interference. After Democrats take over the House inquiry in January, Rohrabacher’s relationships abroad—not only with Russian government officials, but also with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange—could be more closely examined. Like President Donald Trump, Rohrabacher has downplayed the significance of Russia’s interference and claimed in March that the U.S., too, has “tried to influence their elections, and everybody’s elections.” And he’s called Assange, who gave Russia a platform to disseminate stolen emails from prominent Democrats via WikiLeaks, a “very honorable man.” He tried to strike a deal with Trump that would have exonerated Assange in exchange for supposed evidence that Russia wasn’t WikiLeaks’ source for the hacked emails.
His defense of Russia has attracted negative attention even from those within his own party. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, said during a closed-door meeting of the chamber’s leadership in 2016 that was secretly recorded and leaked to The Washington Post. (McCarthy later said he was joking.)
Further digging into Rohrabacher’s history could help illuminate a major moment in the Russia investigation: the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump-campaign officials, including the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Rohrabacher could provide a key link to understanding the Kremlin’s role. On a trip to Moscow in April 2016, a few months before the meeting, Rohrabacher obtained a memo about the Magnitsky Act and the Putin critic Bill Browder from the office of Russia’s chief federal prosecutor, Yury Chaika. Rohrabacher also dined with Veselnitsksya on that trip. Later, at the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya provided a nearly identical memo to the Trump campaign, indicating that she was not an independent operator but rather a representative of Russian government interests. She later admitted to being an “informant” for the Kremlin.
Rohrabacher also had considerable influence on Capitol Hill as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., from his Moscow trip in April 2016, Rohrabacher circulated the memo he had obtained and tried to organize a screening of a film that attacked Browder and the Magnitsky Act, according to The Daily Beast. He also tried to get Russia’s deputy general prosecutor, Victor Grin, removed from the U.S. sanctions list in 2016—a move that prompted Browder to file a complaint with the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Rohrabacher testified before the House Intelligence Committee last year about his communications with Assange and with Russian nationals during the 2016 election, but Republicans have declined to make Rohrabacher’s transcript public. That could change by early next year. Democratic Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, who sits on the committee, told me last month that while Rohrabacher’s testimony did not contain “a missing link to understanding the Russia investigation,” there were some “wild and woolly moments” that the American public could benefit from reading. “When something is hidden,” Himes said, “it understandably raises questions.”