In the spring of 2016, a longtime Washington operative pulled aside French Hill during a trip to Moscow and introduced the conservative Arkansas congressman to two Russians who are now at the center of a firestorm over the activities of Donald Trump Jr.
In the brief encounter, which took place two months before their now-infamous meeting with the president’s son in Trump Tower, the jet-setting pair proposed the same trade they would soon be pitching all over Washington: Lift the sanctions on Russia, and we’ll make sure Americans can adopt Russian babies once again.
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Paul Behrends, the operative who set up that previously unreported Moscow meeting, has worked in security and foreign policy circles in Washington for decades while keeping a low profile, but he has never been far from intrigue.
Long before he took up his most recent post as an aide to California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Behrends worked alongside the Afghan mujahideen, helped the future Blackwater founder Erik Prince get an internship on Capitol Hill (later, he navigated the security firm through the political fallout from a 2007 massacre of civilians in Iraq) and served as chief lobbyist for a firm at the heart of the Jack Abramoff scandal. More recently, he has become a confidant of the pro-Trump Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and served as the Capitol Hill point-man for the right-wing government of Hungary.
While his boss—who was jokingly described by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a closed-door meeting last year as being on the Kremlin’s payroll—is the most vociferous defender of Russian interests in Congress and a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, it is Behrends who does much of the actual work, a role that now thrusts him into the spotlight as investigators and media sleuths suss out links between Trump’s allies and Moscow.
Behrends has been the chief Capitol Hill contact for the lawyer Natalia Vetlitskaya and the lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet intelligence officer, whose contacts with Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, are now at the center of questions about whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
After arranging their impromptu meeting with Hill in Moscow, Behrends later escorted Akhmetshin around Capitol Hill—“almost by the hand” in the words of one congressional staffer—after the Moscow meeting last year, introducing him to lawmakers as part of an effort to undermine human rights legislation opposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, drawing on his significant experience and connections to give the Kremlin’s version of events a hearing.
One longtime acquaintance described Behrends as “sophisticated” and a “charming guy with a wonderful breadth of knowledge,” adding, “He is as comfortable dealing with good ol’ boys from Texas as he is with sophisticated European investors.”
But that same sophistication Washington foreign policy hands puzzling over the zeal with which Behrends —for decades a standard GOP hawk on Russia — has been promoting the Kremlin line of late.
His activities, and the scrutiny they are now drawing, have become a source of growing unease among his colleagues and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “Paul knows better,” said one congressional staffer. On Wednesday evening, a spokesman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Behrends had been working until this week, informed Politico Magazine that he was no longer working for the panel, but declined to comment further, leaving his current employment status unclear.
“Paul Behrends has done a terrific job for me and the committee,” Rohrabacher told POLITICO Magazine in response to the news. “I have not been told anything to the contrary. I am looking forward to discussing this with the committee leadership. I am sure we will work this out.”
After graduating from Ohio’s Xavier University in 1981, Behrends enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he first encountered Rohrabacher—who worked in the Reagan administration before being elected to Congress in 1988—as both men participated in the U.S. government’s efforts to help Afghanistan’s Islamist insurgents repel the Soviet invasion.
Behrends then went to work for Rohrabacher’s office for most of the ’90s, helping a college-age Erik Prince score a job as the California Republican’s first congressional intern.
In 1997, Behrends became a lobbyist and went on to work extensively for Prince’s private security firm, Blackwater, which was founded the same year. In 2004, he became chief lobbyist for Alexander Strategy Group, a firm with close ties to former House Majority Leader Tom Delay that has been described as “ground zero” in the Abramoff scandal because of its entanglements with the disgraced lobbyist.
(Ties between the four men run deep: Abramoff, Behrends and Prince all gave generously to a fund Rohrbacher created to pay for expenses related to the 2004 birth of his triplets, according to a report in OC Weekly. Rohrbacher, an old friend of Abramoff’s, defended the ex-lobbyist’s character in a 2007 letter to the judge deciding Abramoff’s sentence for wire fraud. In February, POLITICO reported that Rohrabacher and Abramoff have teamed up once again, this time in a bid to unite African leaders against Islamic terrorists.)
Behrends continued to lobby for Blackwater — which has rebranded twice since 2009 and is now called Academi — as its name became increasingly toxic in Washington, and helped the firm navigate the fallout from a 2007 incident in which the company’s security contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad.
In addition to Blackwater and its founder’s next venture, the Prince Group, lobbying disclosures show Behrends also performed highly lucrative work for various defense contractors and mining interests, as well as Kuwaiti industrial firms and something called the “Destiny Democratic Movement,” which hired him to promote “free and fair elections in Nigeria.”
In 2009, Behrends first became acquainted with Thiel, the tech magnate and founder of Palantir, a government defense and intelligence contractor, who would go on to become Trump’s most prominent supporter in Silicon Valley and an influential outside adviser to his administration. Behrends also became involved with the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school in DuPont Circle with close ties to the Europe right, doing a stint on the school’s board that ended in 2013, and forming a relationship with Sebastian Gorka, a Hungarian-American professor at the school who now works at the White House as a national security adviser to Trump.
In July of 2014, in a career move that puzzled many of his contacts in Washington, Behrends, then in his mid-fifties, returned to work for Rohrbacher on the Hill, trading in his lobbying gig for a staff job that pays $138,000, according to public disclosures.
Behrends referred questions to Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs, who explained, “Paul took the job because the congressman had asked him repeatedly, over the course of months, to replace his outgoing foreign affairs adviser. Because of their relationship, he took the requests seriously. He wanted to get back into government service, the world having changed since his last stint.”
But Behrends’ sympathy for Russian interests since then has vexed members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, many of whom have known and liked him for decades but say his views on the Kremlin have changed radically in the past couple of years.
“I don’t know why,” said a person who has repeatedly discussed the issue with Rohrabacher and Behrends. “I know that he and Dana have traveled to Moscow, but how he got turned around on this issue, I have no idea.”
Two months after Behrends returned to the Hill, in September 2014, he and Rohrabacher peeled off from New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, with whom they had been traveling in Europe and Asia, and traveled alone to Russia for three days, according to congressional travel expenditure reports. An itinerary for that leg of the trip provided by Grubbs shows the pair met with Mikhail Margelov, then-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, as well as representatives of Russian industry and civil society, in Moscow.
As recently as the spring of 2015, Behrends was still aggressively promoting the work of Putin critic Paul Joyal — an expert on Russian intelligence who was shot in his driveway in Maryland in 2007 by unknown assailants days after speaking out about the assassination of a Russian dissident in London — according to a person in touch with Behrends at the time.
Since then, Behrends’ stance on Russia has softened remarkably, according to several people who engage with him on foreign policy. Like Rohrabacher, Behrends, who is Catholic, seems to have bought into Putin’s narrative that the United States and Russia are part of a shared Christian civilization whose biggest threat comes from the encroachment of radical Islam.
“He was your typical GOP hawk until Trump came around,” said one foreign policy hand who interacts regularly with Behrends.
For the past several years, Jim Denton, director of the World Affairs Institute, has hosted regular meet-ups at his home and on the second floor of the Monocle restaurant on Capitol Hill to discuss transatlantic relations. At the meet-ups—which draw think-tank types, congressional staffers, journalists like Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum and government officials like Kurt Volker, who was tapped this month to lead the Trump administration’s efforts to end the conflict Ukraine—Behrends, attendees say, has become the sole consistent voice sympathetic to the Kremlin’s worldview and intentions. At one dinner at Denton’s home in December, Behrend confronted the guests of honor—former Lithuanian ambassador to the U.S. Zygimantas Pavilionis and Lithuanian MP Emanuelis Zingeris—asking them why the United States should have to defend their country from Russia, according to a person present.
“We don’t agree on everything certainly, but he’s informed and has reasonable points, agree or not,” said Denton, one of the few people willing to speak on the record about Behrends’ foreign policy views. Denton added that Behrends is “no softy” on Russia. “He’s a decent guy and he gives a damn.”
“He’s been critical of Putin,” said Grubbs, the Rohrabacher spokesman, “but he believes that a more cooperative relationship is a result of a realistic analysis of our national security interests.”
In the House, Behrends, like his boss, often goes against the grain. Fellow staffers regularly receive emails from him with links to Brietbart articles and YouTube videos that push back against Washington’s prevailing foreign policy narratives. (“Like many staffers, Paul sends around news reports that contribute to the general fund of knowledge,” said Grubbs. “Breitbart adds a perspective that is often missed.”)
He is also known for spicing up the itineraries of congressional delegations abroad – often to the chagrin of staffers and lawmakers.
During last April’s congressional trip to Moscow, Behrends pulled aside Rep. Hill after a public roundtable discussion and asked him to meet with Akhmetshin and Vetlitskaya, who huddled with the congressman and pitched him on a deal to end Russia’s adoption ban, offering him opposition research on Bill Browder, the London-based investor who has championed Magnitsky Act sanctions against Russian officials.
Hill had no advance knowledge of the meeting, according to his spokeswoman, Caroline Thorman. “He was invited by Paul. Paul initiated all these different meetings.”
According to another aide to Hill who was not authorized to speak on the record, the congressman listened to the pair’s pitch and took their research back to Washington, where Foreign Affairs Committee staffers informed his office it was “not legit,” and the congressman then dropped the matter.
It has not been previously reported that Akhmetshin and Vetlitskaya interacted with U.S. officials in Moscow during last April’s congressional delegation to Moscow. Grubbs did not respond to questions about Behrends’ relationship with the pair.
Earlier this year, CNN reported that Rohrabacher met with Akhmetshin in a hotel lobby in Berlin during another congressional delegation this April. According to a congressional staffer, Behrends was also present at that meeting, which was just one of several notable incidents to take place during the trip.
Behrends also arranged for the Russian-born investor Yuri Vanetik, a Rohrabacher donor who traveled with a personal bodyguard, to join the delegation in Berlin and the Hague, according to the staffer.
Rohrabacher had originally wanted the congressional delegation to go to Russia, but Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce requested that he not do so at such a politically sensitive moment. On the trip, which a staffer desribed as “Dana’s weed legalization tour” – a cause the congressman supports – Rohrabacher traveled to meet with the separatist leaders of Spain’s Catalonia region and made waves by declaring support for its independence.
Royce had pressured Rohrabacher to add a stop in Madrid to meet with Spain’s national government, and when the delegation left Catalonia and arrived in the Spanish capital, they were berated by an angry official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “They were pissed,” said a congressional staffer who was present. “That was the first time I ever saw Dana apologize for something.”
The government of Russia is not the only controversial regime that looks to Behrends for access to the halls of power in Washington. He has also become a crucial point-man for Hungary’s government, which in recent years has taken the country in an increasingly illiberal direction, forcing the temporary closure and sale of a leading opposition newspaper and waging a campaign against a university backed by liberal financier George Soros.
Last summer, Behrends arranged a meeting between Thiel and Jeno Megyesy, a senior to adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, during the Republican National Convention, when Thiel was holed up at a house in nearby Shaker Heights, Ohio, according to a person briefed on the meeting. More recently, Behrends facilitated meetings on the Hill in June to give Megyesy a chance to lobby against a proposed congressional resolution condemning Orban for his harsh treatment of migrants and his efforts to “stifle any opposition to his rule, including by suppressing free speech and assembly, from universities, civil society groups, and independent think tanks.”
As time has worn on and scrutiny grown, House Republicans have become increasingly exasperated with Behrends’ exploits and the unwelcome attention they bring to the Foreign Affairs Committee, according to interviews with several staffers and operatives, but Rohrabacher’s office, no stranger to controversy, simply shrugs.
“The congressman’s subcommittee oversees Europe and Russia, so Paul, being his chief foreign policy adviser and coordinator, is the contact point for any and all leaders from the region, including the Orban government,” said Grubbs. “It is his job.”