As America sets out on its long strange trip with President Trump, nothing seems stranger than his repeated defense of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “But he’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly reminded the president in a weekend interview. “Putin’s a killer.”
“We’ve got a lot of killers,” the president responded. “What do you think—our country’s so innocent. You think our country’s so innocent?”
Meanwhile in Russia, real killers appear to have made another move to silence a critic of the Putin regime. Last week, the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza collapsed in Moscow and was placed in a medically induced coma. His wife said doctors had diagnosed “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance.”
It’s a diagnosis that has FSB—the Russian intelligence service—written all over it. And it’s not the first time someone tried to whack Mr. Kara-Murza. In May 2015, he suffered multiple organ failure, fell into a coma and was hospitalized for two months. Mr. Kara-Murza believed he was deliberately poisoned for his political activities. His Moscow doctors thought maybe he took the wrong anti-depressant. Oh.
Mr. Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in February, 2015. In an amazing coincidence, all the security cameras on the bridge had been turned off for maintenance. At the time of his murder, Mr. Nemtsov was battling Putin regime corruption and organizing resistance to the war in Ukraine.
Russian intelligence uses the full tool kit against its opponents, but it has a particularly long association with poisons.
In 2004, the Ukraine opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko was slipped a near-fatal amount of TCDD, a contaminant found in Agent Orange, at a dinner with Ukrainian officials, including the deputy director of the intelligence services. Mr. Yuschenko survived the poisoning with substantial facial disfigurement. The Ukrainian intelligence official fled to Moscow.
The same year, crusading investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya became violently ill after drinking poisoned tea aboard a Russian airline flight. She survived. Two years later, assassins caught up with her and shot her dead in the elevator of her apartment building. Thirty-four journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000 in cases linked to political corruption and crime. The number for the same time frame in the U.S.? Three.
In a sensational case seen as telegraphing a warning to Kremlin critics, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died a gruesome death in London in 2006, poisoned by highly radioactive polonium-210, most likely slipped into his tea during a meeting with two Russian agents. Mr. Litvinenko had charged that Mr. Putin rose to power through a series of brutal bombings and murders. From his deathbed, he blamed the Russian president for his poisoning. Scotland Yard later concluded that evidence in the case suggested that “the only credible explanation” for the Litvinenko murder is “one way or another the Russian state is involved.”
Several mysterious deaths swirl around the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law sanctioning corrupt Russian officials. The law was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009 while investigating an alleged $230 million tax fraud connected to public officials and the Russian mafia. Andrew Kramer of the New York Times has noted that five people linked to inside information in the case “have died under mysterious circumstances that, in their sophistication, suggest state-sponsored killings.”
Two of them, men in early middle age, died of organ failure. Another plunged from a balcony. Mr. Magnitsky’s death has been attributed to an abdominal rupture or heart attack. And then there is banker Alexander Perepilichny, who fled to London and passed wire-transfer records to Swiss investigators. At age 44, he suffered an apparent heart attack while jogging. Three years later, Mr. Kramer reports, a botanist identified traces of Gelsemium in the banker’s stomach. It’s a rare plant grown in the Himalayas and used by Chinese assassins.
Yes, yes, none of these deaths can be directly linked to Vladimir Putin, etc. But no serious observer of Russian society believes that he has clean hands. He set the tone, gave the green light for the gangster economy, empowered his old FSB allies and now sits atop an unsteady throne. As for President Trump, he seems unwilling or unable to explain how the United States has “a lot of killers” like Mr. Putin. So chalk it up as a remark cut from the same cloth as his attacks on the dishonest media, so-called judges, rigged elections, fake news and the like. But he too is setting a tone, giving a green light, and the road ahead is uncertain.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: email@example.com.