Preet Bharara: So, I’m thrilled to have on the show Bill Browder, for a lot of different reasons. He is, among other things, perhaps Vladimir Putin’s number one critic, which comes with some advantages and also some disadvantages. Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill Browder: Great to be here.
Preet Bharara: Bill, you okay?
Bill Browder: I’m doing great. I’m doing good.
Preet Bharara: Okay. You had kind of a nutty week.
Bill Browder: Well, yeah. I’m—I get all sorts of different types of validation, and this was definitely a big validation week for me.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. You’re talking to us right now from where?
Bill Browder: I’m in London at the moment. I’m in my office in the city of London.
Preet Bharara: And you had some issues this week. You were in the news a lot. I saw you all over the cable news networks because you had a problem leaving London, right?
Bill Browder: Yeah. So, what happened was that last week, I had a big success in a campaign that I’ve been running to get the Magnitsky Act, which I’ll describe in more detail in a minute—it got passed in Canada. It’s a sanctions act against Putin in Russia. And in retaliation to that, Vladimir Putin issued an Interpol Red Notice for me to have me arrested wherever I go. As a consequence of that, I lost my U.S. visa and could not travel to America. And so, there’s been a huge sort of scandal in Washington, a scandal in Leone, where Interpol is located, as everybody is trying to make sense of why all these Western organizations and the U.S. government would be cooperating with Putin in a vindictive prosecution against me because I’m calling him out for his corruption.
Preet Bharara: Also, with some irony, or maybe it makes complete sense, you have a bestselling book by the same name, Red Notice, right?
Bill Browder: Yeah, indeed. In fact, so my book is called Red Notice. A Red Notice is a description of an Interpol arrest warrant. And this last Red Notice was the fifth time that Russia has applied to try to get me arrested. The previous four times, Interpol has rejected their requests to say this request from Russia is politically motivated and illegitimate. But Putin is a guy who doesn’t give up. And he didn’t give up this time. And he went for it again. And at least in the very short term, he succeeded in getting this onto the system, and effectively getting me blocked from traveling to the United States.
Preet Bharara: Who do you blame in the United States for this hiccup this week?
Bill Browder: You know, I actually don’t blame anybody, because what had happened was that—
Preet Bharara: You gotta blame somebody, Bill.
Bill Browder: Well, I’ll blame Vladimir Putin. The United States justifiably automatically cancels visas for people who are fugitives from justice. And they assume that when you’re on the Interpol system, it must be legit. And my big statement to everybody in Washington was, I don’t blame everybody for what they’ve done, but I will blame them a lot if they don’t correct this quickly, because that will show some type of malfeasance. But the whole thing was corrected very quickly. The problem came to air on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon, my visa was fully functional. So, I don’t blame anyone in America. However, I do blame Putin, and to a certain extent, I blame Interpol, because first of all, Putin is busy using Interpol for his own political vindictiveness. And strangely, Interpol is letting themselves get used. It’s not like this is the first time. This is the fifth time.
Preet Bharara: Right. Well, you know, I’ve had a lot of experience with Interpol, obviously, in my—for my prior job. Sometimes they do a great job, and they don’t always do a perfect job. I’m gonna ask you an odd question based on something that a prior guest of mine on this podcast said. Are you skilled in any way in martial arts?
Bill Browder: No, I’m not. I’m unfortunately not.
Preet Bharara: You’ve never challenged Putin to a fight?
Bill Browder: Well, I’m not sure he’d be such a great martial artist. He pretends that he’s some kind of judo star, but this guy, he’s a complete fraud in almost everything he says he does, so.
Preet Bharara: That’s exactly what Ben Wittes said on the show very recently, so brilliant minds think alike. I’m gonna get to get to a lot of the story on how we got to this point, but for the listeners who don’t have a sense of your history and haven’t read your book yet, tell our folks about who your grandfather was.
Bill Browder: So, yeah. I come from a very unusual American family. My grandfather was a labor union organizer from Wichita, Kansas in the 1920s, and he was so good at organizing the labor union that one day, he was spotted by the Communists, and they said, “Hey, if you like labor unionism, you’re gonna love Communism. Why don’t you come to Russia and check it out?” And so, my grandfather moved to Moscow at the—in 1927, and he does what a lot of young American men do when they get to Moscow. He met a Russian girl, who became my grandmother. And then he came back to America in 1932, five years later, and he became the General Secretary of the American Communist Party.
Preet Bharara: Does that mean he was like the head Communist?
Bill Browder: Yeah, he was the head of the American Communist Party. He ran for president on the Communist ticket in 1936 and 1940 against Roosevelt.
Preet Bharara: So, then you became a diehard Communist yourself following in your grandfather’s footsteps?
Bill Browder: Well, so I had a slightly different reaction. So, I was born in 1964. I’m now 53 years old. But when I was going through my teenage rebellion in the 1970s, I was trying to figure out a good way to revel from this family of Communists. And so, I tried out a couple things that didn’t work. I grew my hair long, and if you could see, you’d see that my hair would—doesn’t grow long. It grew into an afro. Strangely, that didn’t upset my family at all. But then I came across the perfect rebellion technique, which was to put a suit and tie on and become a capitalist. And there was nothing that would stop—
Preet Bharara: That’s an interesting type of rebellion.
Bill Browder: Right. And I graduated Stanford Business School in 1989, which was a very auspicious year, because that was the year that the Berlin Wall came down.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Bill Browder: And so, I was trying to figure out what to do with myself after business school, and I one day had this epiphany, which is if my grandfather was the biggest Communist in America, I’m gonna try to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe. And that’s what I set out to do.
Preet Bharara: And did you succeed?
Bill Browder: Amazingly, I did. I first moved to London, then I eventually moved to Moscow. And I set up an investment company to invest in the shares of the newly privatized companies of Eastern Europe. And what was going on after Russia left the Soviet Union was that there was a president at the time named Yeltsin. Yeltsin wanted to go from Communism to capitalism as well, and so he said, let’s just give all the state property away for free to the people, and that will make them capitalists. And so, he did that. It didn’t work out very well. 22 oligarchs ended up owning 40 percent of the country. But there were little crumbs falling off the table, and those crumbs created the opportunity for me to set up a business to invest in the shares of these Russian companies.
Preet Bharara: How well did you do? How much money did you make?
Bill Browder: I started out managing $25 million at the very beginning for a famous American-Lebanese banker named Edmond Sara. And eventually, at the top of the market. I was managing $4.5 billion, which made me the largest foreign investor in Russia. And so, I’d effectively succeeded in my goal of becoming the biggest capitalist based on one measure in that part of the world.
Preet Bharara: That’s a lot more money than you would have made if you’d maintained the white afro, I think. So now, let’s fast-forward to the early 2000s. You’re successful in the way you’ve described. And then your investment firm, called Hermitage, right?
Bill Browder: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Starts to make some enemies of important and influential and powerful people in Russia. What happened there?
Bill Browder: Well, so I become this huge investor. I’ve got this big, big investment fund. And I notice that in the companies I’m invested in, and these are big companies that many people have heard of, called Gazprom, the national gas company, Lukoil, the electricity company, [?Sparebank]. And a lot of these companies, you didn’t really own a share of anything because the management of these companies or the majority shareholders were stealing billions of dollars out the backdoor. And it was very frustrating because you could kind of see where the value was, but you could also see that there was just monumental stealing, stealing on a proportion that you can’t even imagine anywhere else in the world.
And I was watching this, and I was saying to myself, you know, this is just wrong, and this is not profitable, and it’s just morally abhorrent. And I’m gonna try to stop it. And so what I did was, we started to do deep research into how they did the stealing. And then we would take the research and we would share it with the newspapers, with the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, etc. And this what I call naming and shaming campaign strangely worked.
Preet Bharara: How were they doing the stealing?
Bill Browder: A lot of different things, they were doing. They were doing asset stripping, where they would take assets, huge oilfields, and move them into the balance sheet of other companies. There was transfer pricing, where they would basically—they would sell oil at $1 a barrel to their private company, and then that company would sell oil at $50 a barrel to the market. They were doing share dilutions where they would sell shares for nothing to their friends for free. And then there was just outright embezzlement. And they were doing this stuff to a high art. It’s hard to even imagine. Discussing it sort of in a cursory way here, but these guys were such experts at stealing, you couldn’t imagine. And it was just so brazen.
Preet Bharara: How were you able to figure all this out, if it was—if they were so clever and smart?
Bill Browder: Well, so, they were clever, smart, brazen—and interestingly, everyone thinks that Russia is not a transparent place, but Russia is the most bureaucratic country in the world. Everything is registered everywhere. You go to the bathroom and you’ve got to like sign your name on the bathroom sheet, and then they—and then that bathroom sheet gets distributed in quadruplicate to four different ministries. And so, there’s information everywhere in Russia. And that information was basically for sale for five bucks at like the local street market. You could buy the Russian Securities Commission database, like look at all share transactions for five bucks. You could basically, for 20 bucks, put together the data to analyze who was doing the stealing, and how much they were stealing, and where it was going. And I was the guy doing it. And the journalists, of course, loved me, because I was saving them three months’ worth of their own work by doing that.
Preet Bharara: You’re doing the work for them, right. Can we back up? Can we back up just one step from before—so at this point, you’re pissing off a lot of people, naturally. But before you started to do this research exposing corruption, you were quite friendly with the Putin government, were you not?
Bill Browder: Yeah. So, Putin—so, there was guy Yeltsin before Putin. He had let the country get taken over by 22 oligarchs. The rest of the country was living in destitute poverty. And so, at the end of the Yeltsin era, which was total chaos, I, and I think most other people, were just longing for someone to restore order. And this guy Putin shows up. And he’s got this sort of face that’s totally impenetrable. You don’t really know what he’s thinking, or it’s just—and he comes in, and he says, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna restore order. I’m gonna get rid of these oligarchs, and life is gonna improve. And I was so longing for an improvement in life, and a restoration of order, and all those criminalities to stop, that I was cheering for Vladimir Putin. And—
Preet Bharara: Because you thought he was—because you thought he wanted to drain the swamp, so to speak?
Bill Browder: Yeah, that was his pitch. And he kind of was a little even—and when he first came in, I think he wasn’t as brazen as he is now, and he kind of did a few things that one could objectively say, well, this is kind of good and in the national interest. They were sort of normalizing things a little bit. He was going after some of the oligarchs, which I loved, because these oligarchs were so disgusting and criminal. But then he did something which completely changed everything, which is that he goes after the biggest oligarch in the country. He arrests a man named Michael Khordorkovsky, who is the owner of an oil company called Yukos. And he takes him off—he arrests him off of his private jet in Siberia, takes him back to Moscow, and he puts him on trial in Moscow for tax evasion. And when you’re on trial in Moscow in the court, there’s a 99.7 percent conviction rate, which means that there’s no presumption of innocence. So, they stick you in a cage when you’re on trial. And Putin allowed the television cameras to come into the courtroom and film Michael Khordorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, sitting in a cage.
Now, imagine that you’re the 17th richest oligarch in Russia. You’re on your yacht. You’re parked off the Hotel du Cap in Antibes. Perhaps you’ve just finished up with your mistress in the bedroom, and you go out to the living room, and you flick on CNN, and there you see a guy far smarter, far more powerful, far better than you sitting in a cage. Well, what’s your natural reaction gonna be?
Preet Bharara: More vodka.
Bill Browder: One by one by one, these guys went back to Putin, and in the fall of 2004, they said, “Vladimir, what do we have to do to not sit in that cage?” And he said, very calmly, “50 percent.”
Preet Bharara: He made a deal.
Bill Browder: He made a deal. And not 50 percent for the Russian government or the presidential administration of Russia. 50 percent for Vladimir Putin.
Preet Bharara: What’s an oligarch?
Bill Browder: An oligarch is a guy worth $10 or $15 billion in Russia from stealing assets from the state.
Preet Bharara: And would they self-describe themselves as oligarchs?
Bill Browder: Well, I think that they’re all desperately trying to find new definitions of themselves. They’re philanthropists now, they’re artists, musicians. I don’t know. They’re trying to find anything else other than being an oligarch, because being an oligarch puts them in the crosshairs of—not only in Russia, but in the West. Nobody likes Russian oligarchs anymore.
Preet Bharara: So, let’s go back to you’re annoying all these people who had a lot of power, but not as much power as Putin. And then things go south for you.
Bill Browder: Well, so basically, after Putin arrested the richest oligarch in Russia, the oligarchs went from being his enemies to being his business partners. And I continued to go after all this corruption. And I was no longer going after—I was basically going after Vladimir Putin himself. He didn’t like that. And in 2005, as I was flying back to Russia—I’d been living there for ten years. I was the largest foreign investor in their country. I was at Sheremetyevo Airport, arriving in from a flight from London. I go into the VIP lounge. I sit down. I expect it to be a two-minute affair with getting my passport approved. I’m waiting there for an hour.
And then in come four heavily armed border guards. They come straight towards me. They grab me. They frog march me down to the basement of the airport. They put me in the detention center of the airport and lock the door. And I didn’t know whether I was being arrested or deported. So, I sat down there all night, thinking, what’s gonna happen? And the next morning came, and the flight out to London—the next flight out to London was 11:00 AM. And I thought, okay, 9:30 AM. If they’re deporting me, they’ll grab me and process me for the flight. And nobody came at 9:30. And 10:00 AM, there was nobody there, and I’m starting to think maybe that I’m being arrested. 10:15, and I thought that there’s no way. How are they gonna get me to the flight in 15 minutes?
Preet Bharara: Were you handcuffed at this point, or?
Bill Browder: No, no. I was just sitting in their detention center. 10:30, I’m thinking, oh my god, this is it. I’m being arrested. I’m going to Siberia. Like 10:40, I’m just in a state of raw panic. And at 10:47, a different group of four guards come into the cell, grab me again, and then frog march me towards an Aeroflot flight, stick me in the center seat, leave the plane, close the door, and I breathe the biggest sigh of relief I’ve ever breathe in my life. I wasn’t being arrested. I was being deported. The foreign ministry of Russia eventually sends a letter saying you’ve been deported because you’ve been declared a threat to national security, never to be allowed into Russia again.
Preet Bharara: So, when you were deported, what was going on with your firm?
Bill Browder: Well, so I get deported, and I say to myself, okay. You know, when the Russians turn on you, they don’t tend to do so mildly. They do so with extreme prejudice. And just deporting me is not that serious a sanction. So, I look around. I say, okay, what else could they do? Well, there’s two things they could do. They could seize all the assets, and we had a hell of a lot of assets in Russia, or they could arrest my people. So, I evacuate my staff. I take everybody and their families out of Russia. I bring them to London. And then I say to them, let’s get our money out. And we quickly and quietly sold every last share we held in Russia and got our money out safe.
Preet Bharara: How did they allow you to do that?
Bill Browder: A lot of people ask me that question, and it seems odd. Then the answer is that the Putin regime is extremely evil, but they’re highly incompetent at exercising their evil because they don’t get good people, and the people they get aren’t highly motivated, and they’re just not very efficient. And so, these guys just didn’t get to my stuff until later. They eventually tried. I’ll tell you about it in a second. So, we got our money out. Got all our money out. Got our people out. Everyone was safe. All our money was safe. Clients were happy, thank you very much. End of story with Russia. I started going on to invest in other parts of the world, and I thought that was the end of Russia.
Preet Bharara: Do you have any doubt in your mind that all this bad stuff that happened to you and your deportation was personally directed by Vladimir Putin?
Bill Browder: I have no doubt in my mind.
Preet Bharara: And why do you say that?
Bill Browder: Well, I’ve learned a lot about Vladimir Putin in the last 12 years since I was deported, and he is a first-rate criminal. We haven’t gotten to what they did next, but when you hear what they did next and you see Vladimir Putin’s involvement, you’ll understand—
Preet Bharara: Right.
Bill Browder: That he was like, deeply entrenched in this whole thing.
Preet Bharara: So, you then could have lived happily ever after.
Bill Browder: I intended to live happily ever after, and I planned to live happily ever after. But it didn’t work out that way. So, I was expelled in November of 2005, and I’m doing some new stuff. And in June of 2007—and I should point out one thing. I kept an office in Moscow. I had prepaid my rent. And so, I thought, let’s just keep the office, so maybe one day, this thing blows over and that will be—and I can go back. So, I kept a little office in Moscow. There was a secretary there. And on June 4, 2007, I get a call from the secretary in Moscow in hysterics. She said, “Bill, there’s 25 police officer here raiding the office.” And, “What should I do?” And I said, “I don’t know. Let me call our lawyer in Moscow.” So, I have this lawyer, a guy named Jamison Firestone. So, I call up Jamison, and I say, “Jamison, we’ve got some people raiding our office. What should I do?”
And he sounded pretty harried. He said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’ve got 25 more officers raiding my office here looking for your documents.” And the next thing we know, using the documents seized by the police, the companies had been fraudulently reregistered out of our name into the name of a man who had been convicted of murder and let out of jail early by the police, presumably to put his name on these documents. I was horrified. And I was horrified not because I was gonna lose any money, because we didn’t have any money in these companies, but I was horrified because if the police were working with murderers, opening up criminal cases against me and raiding our offices, god knows what else they were gonna do to me. And so, I needed to stop this whole thing and find a way of fixing it. And so, I looked around to try to find the smartest lawyer I could find in Russia. And I found him. It was a young man. He was 35 at the time. His name was Sergei Magnitsky. Sergei Magnitsky worked for an American law firm, and he was one of these guys who could do ten things in the time it takes other people to do one.
He was just a genius. And I said to Sergei, “Got out and figure out what’s going on here, why they’re doing it, and how we stop it.” And so, Sergei goes out. He does a big investigation. And he comes back, and he says, “I’ve figured out what they’ve done, and it’s shocking.” And he said, “There were two things they were trying to do. The first thing was, they wanted to steal all of your money. But you were smarter than them, and you got your money out quicker, and they didn’t get anything.” I thought, phew, thank god. He said, “However, the second thing is truly the most cynical thing I’ve ever seen in Russia, and I’ve seen a lot of cynical things.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said—well, when we were moving all of our money out of Russia, we sold everything, and we had a huge profit. We had a billion dollars profit. And we paid $230 million capital gains tax to the Russian government. And what Sergei had discovered was that when these bad guys had stolen our companies, they went back to the tax authorities, and they said those taxes that were paid, the $230 million that you paid last year, was paid by mistake.
And they said, “We’d like to file an amended tax return and get a tax refund of $230 million.” And so, they applied for a $230 million tax refund. It was the largest tax refund in the history of Russia. They applied for it on the 23rd of December, 2007, and it was approved and paid out the next day. The largest tax refund in the history of Russia.
Preet Bharara: Merry Christmas. And then, so what did—did you direct your lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to do something about that?
Bill Browder: So, yeah. So, we said to ourselves, okay, first of all, we said to ourselves, this couldn’t have been a sanctioned exercise. Putin, how would he have allowed—he’s a nationalist, right? He’s the guy—a patriot. He cares about his country. How would he have allowed his own officials to steal money from their own country? It’s very important. This wasn’t my money they stole. This was the Russian government’s money they stole.
So, Sergei and I were both thinking that Putin, he might have authorized them to steal our money, but he couldn’t have authorized them to steal the government’s money. And so, we then decided that if we just bring this to the highest level of the Russian government, that the good guys would get the bad guys, and that would be the end of the story. And so—
Preet Bharara: But why didn’t you—I’m sorry, Bill, quickly, a couple things. My question is, you know, at this point, you’ve escaped Russia without having gone to Siberia. You’ve escaped with your life, and you’ve escaped with your money. Why not just leave this alone at this point?
Bill Browder: It’s a good question, and the answer is that they had opened up criminal cases against me and my colleagues in Russia in retaliation for us investigating what was going on, and those criminal cases were real. Those criminal cases would lead to prosecutions, and Interpol arrest warrants, and all sorts of other stuff.
And it was clear that you can’t just leave a criminal prosecution open against you. And since these guys had done these prosecutions in order to perpetuate this fraud, it seemed like if I could uncover and expose the fraud, then all the prosecution would be over, and then I could live happily ever after, quietly enjoying my life going forward. And so, it was very important to clear my name and clear the record. And so, that was the purpose of exposing the fraud. So, we exposed the fraud. So, we filed the criminal complaint. Sergei then gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee, which is their version of the FBI. And then we sat back, and we thought, let’s wait for the good guys to get the bad guys. It turns out that in Putin’s Russia, there are no good guys. And instead of arresting the people who committed this vast financial fraud against the Russian government, the same officers who Sergei testified against came to his home at 8:00 in the morning on the 24th of November, 2008, and they arrested him, and they put him in pretrial detention, where he was then tortured to get him to withdraw his testimony.
Preet Bharara: Were you surprised that justice wasn’t being done in the proper way? I mean, you’ve described already how you were ejected from Russia, how people with power got done whatever they wanted to get done. Were you being a little naive, and was Sergei Magnitsky being a little naive, when you thought the good guys were gonna get the bad guys in that place?
Bill Browder: Yeah. I mean, in retrospect, we were being completely, absolutely stupid, that there was no such thing as good guys. But part of it was that we were sort of hopeful that it wasn’t such a bad place. We were kind of thinking it was as we wished it to be as opposed to how it really was. And but part of it was also very logical. I mean, when I tell this story in different countries in the world, this couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I mean, this couldn’t have happened anywhere else, where a quarter of a billion dollars would get stolen with like the full approval of the president of the country.
Even in the most corrupt places—people ask me a lot about China versus Russia. And China might have crooks there, but if the government is there to work in the national interest, there may be people sort of abusing that. But Russia, people in the government are there to steal for themselves, and that’s the only purpose of government. And so, it may look naive in retrospect, but it was just such an extreme thing that nobody could have imagined that this would be sanctioned at the highest level. But it was.
Preet Bharara: So, Sergei Magnitsky goes into custody in Russia. Could you tell us what happened to him in prison?
Bill Browder: So, they put him in pretrial detention. And he’s then tortured to get him to withdraw his testimony against the police officers. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leave the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes in December in Moscow, so he nearly freezes to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor where the sewage bubbles up.
They move him from cell to cell to cell. I think they moved him something like 28 times in his 358 days in detention. And the purpose of all this is to get him to withdraw his testimony against the corrupt police officers. And then they want to get him to sign a false confession to say that he stole the $230 million, and he did so on my instruction. And they figure, here’s a tax lawyer from an American law firm who wears a blue suit and a red tie, and buys his Starbucks in the morning, and sits in a cubicle. This guy will buckle in a week and do whatever they want him to do. And they had no idea who they were dealing with with Sergei Magnitsky. Sergei Magnitsky is one of the most principled people I’ve ever come across in my life. He’s this man of absolutely integrity. And for Sergei, the idea of perjuring himself and bearing false witness was more awful and more painful than the physical pain that they were inflicting on him, and he just refused to do that.
And so, they just upped the pressure, upped the torture, and things got worse and worse and worse. And about six months into this, Sergei started getting terrible pains in his stomach. He ended up losing 40 pounds. And he was diagnosed as having pancreatitis and gallstones, and needing an operation. And about a week before the operation, his jailers came to him again with this proposal to sign a false confession. Again, he refused. And then they abruptly moved him from the prison— they had a medical facility—to a new—not a new, but a very old maximum security prison called Butyrka. It’s considered to be one of the worst prisons in Russia. And most significantly for Sergei, at Butyrka, there was no medical facilities. And at Butyrka, Sergei’s health completely broke down. He went into constant, agonizing, ear-piercing pain, and they refused him all medical treatment. He and his lawyers wrote desperate requests to every different branch of the criminal justice system begging for medical attention, and every one of their requests was either ignored or denied.
And eventually, Sergei’s body could no longer tolerate this, and on the night of November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. On that night, the Butyrka authorities didn’t want to have responsibility for him anymore, and so they moved him—put him in an ambulance and moved him to a different prison where they had a medical wing. But when he arrived at this different prison, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell. They chained him to a bed. And eight riot guards with rubber batons beat him until he died.
Preet Bharara: Were you learning about the mistreatment and torture of Sergei Magnitsky in real time?
Bill Browder: We were. So, Sergei—the way that we know what happened to him is that Sergei wrote it all down. Everybody has their own way of dealing with the duress of being in prison, and Sergei’s way was to write it all down.
And Sergei wrote about 450 complaints about his mistreatment in prison during his 358 days in detention. Once a month or so, he would hand a big stack of complaints to his lawyer, and his lawyer would file them. And the Russian authorities would either ignore them or deny them. But we got copies of all those complaints. Some of them in real-time, some of them afterwards. But it was a slow-motion torture to death, what they did to Sergei Magnitsky, and it was absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking to watch while it was happening. And of course, the most horrifying and most heartbreaking thing, when I got that telephone call on the morning of the 17th of November, 2009.
Preet Bharara: Did you feel powerless? How did you feel when you were getting these reports over the course of almost a year?
Bill Browder: I felt horrific. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t—I felt terrible, guilty even taking a shower, because they wouldn’t let Sergei take showers. I mean, just all the things—I’d wake up on a sunny Saturday morning, and the birds were chirping, and I just—I felt terrible that the birds were chirping for me, and he was sitting in some dank cell in some dungeon in Moscow. And it just was horrible.
Preet Bharara: Was there any point when you thought, hearing all this torture that was happening, to your lawyer, was there any time that you thought, you know what? Maybe it would be better if Sergei just signed a false confession.
Bill Browder: Yeah. Through his lawyer, I encouraged him to. But this was a man of just absolutely sort of steel integrity, and he was just not gonna do that. I’m hoping that one day, when the Putin regime ends, they will build statues for Sergei Magnitsky all over Russia for the kind of person that they should encourage and have in that country.
Preet Bharara: Well, that actually brings me to my next series of questions. There have been statues of a manner erected in the name of Sergei Magnitsky, first in terms of a law in the United States, another in Canada. And why don’t you explain what you did after Sergei Magnitsky died, so that he would not have died in vain?
Bill Browder: Well, so I got the news on the morning of the 17th of November, and it was the most heartbreaking thing that’s ever happened in my life. And when I finally got over the shock, I put aside everything else to find justice for Sergei Magnitsky. And at first, I thought I was gonna try in Russia. We had this absolute granular detailed record of who did what to him, where, how, when, and why. And from that record, I figured that there must be some possibility of getting justice inside of Russia, because it was such a high-profile murder. But we got none, zero. Putin circled the wagons. He personally got involved in exonerating every single person who played a role. He gave promotions and state honors to some of the people most complicit. And in the most shocking miscarriage of justice, the Putin regime put Sergei on trial three years after they murdered him, in the first ever trial against a dead man in the history of Russia.
They found him guilty. I was his codefendant, and they found me guilty as well, sentenced me to nine years in absentia in a Russian prison. It became absolutely clear and obvious well before that trial that there was no possibility of justice inside of Russia. So I said, let’s get justice outside of Russia. What I discovered was that this was a crime of money. This was not a crime of ideology or a crime of religion. It was a crime of money. It was a crime to cover up the theft of $230 million. And the people who stole that money don’t keep it in Russia. They keep it in the West. They buy apartments in London and villas in France, and they have ski homes in Aspen. They just love to travel and spend their money, and keep their money in the West. And so, I came up with an idea, which was if we could ban their visas and freeze their assets, that may not be real justice, but it’s a hell of a lot better than total impunity, which is what these people had been enjoying up to then.
And so, I took this story of Sergei Magnitsky, pretty much the same story I’ve just shared with you today, and I presented it to Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, and Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. And I said, “Can we freeze the assets and ban the visas of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky?” And they said, “Yes, we can.” And in October of 2010, these two senators introduced the Sergei Magnitsky Act into Congress. And the moment after they introduced it, a number of other victims came forward, and they added about 65 words to the law to include all other gross human rights abusers in Russia. And then the whole thing went viral in Washington. And in November of 2012, it went for a vote, and it passed the Senate 92 to four. It passed the House of Representatives with 89 percent. And on December 14, 2012, President Obama signed it into law. The Magnitsky Act became a federal law in the United States. There are now 44 people on the Magnitsky list who have had their assets frozen, their visas canceled, and most importantly, they’re on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list, which means they can’t open a bank account anywhere in the world.
And let me tell you something. This absolutely, completely infuriated Vladimir Putin. He was so angry that in retaliation, Vladimir Putin banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. And that sounds terrible. Let me explain to you how much more terrible it is than it sounds. The orphans that Russia was putting up for adoptions were not the healthy ones. They were the sick children, the ones that no one else wanted. And in spite of that, Americans came to Russia with open arms and open hearts, and adopted these sick children, and brought them back to America, and nursed them back to health. And Vladimir Putin, by banning their adoption, was basically sentencing these children to death. A lot of the orphanages don’t have any resources—can’t take care of children with HIV, with Downs Syndrome. And these children die in orphanages.
Preet Bharara: Why retaliate in such a spiteful way that hurt his own people more? I don’t—it’s hard to follow.
Bill Browder: Well, he couldn’t find anything else to retaliate on. If he tried to seize assets in Russia, American government would seize Russian assets in America. If he tried to block the military equipment which was going out of Afghanistan, America would block Russian military equipment in Syria. So, he found the one thing that we couldn’t retaliate on, which was these orphans who had no voice. And why was he so motivated by this? Because Putin, it turns out, we have learned since then, was a recipient of that $230 million. We’ve traced some of that money to a man named Sergei Roldugin. Sergei Roldugin is a famous Russian cellist who’s been exposed by the Panama Papers as having been worth $2 billion. And when everybody researched where did this cellist get $2 billion, they realized that he was Putin’s best childhood friend. He was the godfather of Putin’s children. And he Putin’s nominee. So, effectively, this guy getting money from the $230 million that Magnitsky exposed, effectively going to Vladimir Putin. And Vladimir Putin believes his money will eventually be frozen. And I should point out that Vladimir Putin is a very rich man.
Preet Bharara: How rich?
Bill Browder: That 50/50 deal he did with the oligarchs made him $2 billion. In my analysis, he’s the richest man in the world. And so, he thinks that his money is at risk of being frozen and seized. And so, we genuinely, as many people had told us, had hit the Achilles heel of Vladimir Putin personally with this Magnitsky Act.
Preet Bharara: You mentioned that you went to Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat, and Senator John McCain, Republican. Why didn’t you go to the White House?
Bill Browder: Well, I discovered something very frustrating for me, which was that at the time that I wanted to do this, President Obama wanted to do something called the reset with Russia. What that meant in practical terms was he basically wanted to allow Russia to do whatever they wanted to do, as long as sort of general diplomatic relations improved. And so, I was being blocked. The White House wanted nothing to do with this.
Preet Bharara: Who was blocking you?
Bill Browder: President Obama, basically. He didn’t want to do this. This particular story shows how the U.S. Constitution, the checks and balances, make it possible to do things that should be done. And so, this was clearly a situation where, whatever the diplomatic objectives were of the administration, this was just something that—this was a good piece of legislation. This was basically saying, should Russian torturers and murderers be allowed to come into America? And 92 senators thought, no, they shouldn’t.
Preet Bharara: Do you think—I know you’re not a foreign policy expert, but you seem to know a lot about American and Russian relations. Do you think the reset on the part of the Obama administration was an error?
Bill Browder: Oh, it was a complete error. So—and it’s an error—it’s sort of an error of the pride of Obama. What happens in all these situations, you get a new president. They come in, and they think, I’m such a successful guy. Look, I’m a president of the United States of the America. I can do anything. I can convince Vladimir Putin to behave himself. We saw this with George Bush. George Bush goes in there, and he looks into Putin’s eyes and sees his soul. And then it didn’t work out so well. He has one meeting where he saw his soul, and the next 27 meetings didn’t work out so well. And then Obama comes in and says, “I can—you know, I think I’m such a special guy, I can reset relations with Russia.” And it didn’t work out for him.
Preet Bharara: If you think that the Obama administration’s attempt at reset with Russia was an error and a mistake, what’s your view of how our current president, Trump, deals with Vladimir Putin in particular and Russia in general?
Bill Browder: Well, so there’s two things. How does Trump deal with Putin, and how does his administration deal with Putin? And so, it’s a very schizophrenic situation. On the Trump side, he’s tweeting out and saying all sorts of nice things about Putin, and saying things that I find very upsetting and distasteful. But then you look at his defense secretary, Mattis, his CIA head, his—all these other people. They’re like the biggest Russia hawks there are. And so in reality, nothing has changed on the Russia policy, even with all this tweeting and offensive praise of Putin. Sanctions haven’t been lifted. NATO is still intact. And generally, Russia is grumbling and pissed off with America right now, so.
Preet Bharara: There has been a lot of press about a particular meeting that relates to the Magnitsky Act and the retaliation by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, about a meeting in Trump Tower with a lawyer that you may be familiar with, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was—it has been said by one of Donald Trump’s sons, was there to talk about adoption. What do you make of that, and what do you know about that meeting?
Bill Browder: I know a lot about that meeting. So, first of all, who is Natalia Veselnitskaya? Natalia Veselnitskaya is a Russian lawyer who is working full-time for a Russian family headed by a Russian oligarch named Pyotr Katsyv. He was one of the senior members of the Putin regime. And the U.S. Department of Justice, under your command at the time, discovered that some of the money of the $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky exposed and was killed over, found its way into Manhattan real estate. And so, your good work at the Southern district, your people filed a federal forfeiture order over those properties and seized about $15 million, or actually froze $15 million. And then Natalia Veselnitskaya shows up as a lawyer to find these money laundering charges against her Russian oligarch clients. Now, in the process, this lady began a major lobbying campaign against the Magnitsky Act. And she went out spending millions on high-priced lobbyists, lawyers, to try to get the Magnitsky Act repealed.
And as part of that effort, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian ex-spy or current spy, depending on how you look at it, named [?Renat Akmenshin], and a bunch of other cast—motley cast of characters show up to meet with Donald Trump, Jr. Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, with one specific ask, which is to repeal the Magnitsky Act if Donald Trump becomes president. There is no question that that’s what they were asking for. Everybody has more or less confirmed it. And it’s also been confirmed contemporaneously by notes from Paul Manafort and by a memo that she had created to make her talking points. They were there to repeal the Magnitsky Act. When they mentioned adoptions, the only thing that adoptions had to do with this is that adoptions were the Russian retaliation against the Magnitsky Act. And so, to the extent that the Magnitsky Act was lifted, then they would allow adoptions again. But that meeting was not about adoptions. I don’t believe that anyone ever talked about adoptions for any minute in that meeting.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that if Donald Trump had his druthers, he would repeal the Magnitsky Act?
Bill Browder: I don’t think that Donald Trump has the capacity to, because—
Preet Bharara: Well, that—so, I’m gonna ask you that question second. The first question is, if Donald Trump had his druthers, would he repeal the Magnitsky Act?
Bill Browder: You know, I don’t know what’s going on inside his head. It’s all so confusing, upsetting for me to hear him talking about Russia, I don’t really know what he would do and why he would do it. But what I do know is that there’s no chance that it will be repealed.
Preet Bharara: Because we have a Congress, right.
Bill Browder: It’s an act of Congress. It wasn’t done by a president’s signature. So, in reality—in fact, if Obama had been more helpful to me, and he had done it as an executive order, then I’d be in much worse shape than I am right now, where he forced me to go to Congress. And by going to Congress—now, to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, you have to go to Congress, and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that this will ever be repealed under Trump or anything else.
Preet Bharara: You make a good point. A lot of people don’t realize that acts that they like on the part of a president that they prefer that are done by executive order are ephemeral. Do you fear for your life?
Bill Browder: I am under real serious, grave threat of murder, kidnapping, arrest, imprisonment by the Russians, and a variety of other things. Vladimir Putin, in no uncertain terms, wants to destroy me. And it’s clear, it’s unequivocal. Just last week, he was on a rant about me in front of a group of scholars and journalists. Just today, he was meeting with [?Cypriate’s] president going on about me and trying to get the Cyprus government involved in his persecution of me. I’m in serious risk of harm by the Russian government.
Preet Bharara: Do you hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky?
Bill Browder: I do. Vladimir Putin is responsible for his death and for the cover-up, and for the shocking retaliation afterwards.
Preet Bharara: So, you’re accusing Vladimir Putin of murder of a particular human.
Bill Browder: He wasn’t the one with the rubber batons in the cell, but it’s his responsibility. I hold him responsible. It’s his command responsibility. And I can say he’s personally responsible for the obstruction of justice and the cover-up of a murder case after Sergei Magnitsky was killed.
Preet Bharara: Is Vladimir Putin a strong man or a weak man?
Bill Browder: Vladimir Putin is a weak little man that has to take extreme positions in order to compensate for his weakness. He’s not running a big powerful country. Russia is the size of Italy in terms of its economy. It’s stagnating. And Putin, he’s finding enemies anywhere he looks. He’s looking over his shoulder constantly. He’s scared of losing power. And every step that Russia takes internationally, where they start wars, or domestically, where they oppress—repress their citizens, this is all a function of his weakness, not his strength.
Preet Bharara: What gives you hope?
Bill Browder: For Russia? Nothing gives me hope. The only thing that gives me hope is that eventually, the West will wake up to what a menace he is. And when they do wake up to what a menace he is, we can put in place a proper containment strategy so that we don’t have these naive approaches towards Russia that we made in the past, which has empowered Putin.
Preet Bharara: How do you think Putin comes to an end in Russia?
Bill Browder: Well, I think there’s three scenarios for what could happen in Russia. The first scenario, which is the least likely, is what I call the Maidan scenario. Maidan is the name of the square in Ukraine where everybody rose up to overthrow their dictator. The probability of that happening is low, like I would say ten percent. And the reason is that because Putin is so scared of that happening that he’s doing everything possible to prevent it. He’s created a presidential guard of 500,000 people who are ready to fire on their own people if that’s what’s necessary. The second scenario is what I call the palace coup scenario.
This is where his people around him say he’s becoming too much of a liability, too costly for us. I put that at about 20 percent. But again, Putin’s looking out for traitors in his midst all the time. And so—and he’s like even setting up through cutouts, fake coups to see who’s receptive to that so he can marginalize, imprison, and or kill those people. And so, that’s 20 percent. And the third scenario is what I call the Mugabe scenario. Mugabe is the name of the dictator of Zimbabwe, who’s been around for as long as or longer than Putin, I should say. He’s been around for almost 30 years. And he’s run Zimbabwe completely and absolutely into the ground, hyperinflation, complete destruction of the economy, total loss of liberties. And sadly, I would give the Mugabe—Russia the Mugabe scenario a 70 percent probability. So, it’s very hard for me to be optimistic about what’s gonna happen going forward.
Preet Bharara: So, before we let you go, I just want to go back to that—to the thing you said when we were on break about how things all worked out for you well this week. So . . .
Bill Browder: Sure. So, very important development in the last week is that Canada has followed the United States, Great Britain, and Estonia in unanimously passing and signing into law a Canadian Magnitsky Act. And this is a big, big breakthrough for us because Canada is a country where they’re sort of seen as being a very likable, honest broker country. And by having Canada onboard, it means that we’ve effectively—we have a much better case for all sorts of other little countries around the world passing Magnitsky Acts. And Putin is so angry that he lashed out at me last week in a public setting. He added me to the Interpol list last week. The U.S. automatically banned my visa. And thankfully, there was a huge outrage on Monday. By the way, thank you for weighing in on the visa—
Preet Bharara: Oh, no, sure. Well, I think you had John McCain in your corner. That was a bigger deal.
Bill Browder: No, I think it was good to have you, Mike [?McFall], John McCain, and Ben Cardin. That pretty much did it. The dream team.
Preet Bharara: You have a lot of people in your corner because of all the work that you’ve done, and I want to thank you for it. And when people ask the question what gives me hope, among other things, I point to you. So, thanks again. It’s been a real, real treat and honor to have you on the show.
Bill Browder: Thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done.