The fact that Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voted against the so-called Magnitsky Act of 2012 imposing targeted sanctions on Russian oligarchs to punish the Putin regime for human rights abuses is often cited as “proof” by liberal conspiracy theorists that Sanders was somehow culpable in the Kremlin’s targeted effort to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton as part of their broader attack on the 2016 U.S. election.
What liberal conspiracy theorists won’t tell you is that Sanders was joined in voting nay by Carl Levin (D-MI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Jack Reed (D-RI) none of whom stand accused by anyone of being Russian stooges.
What liberal conspiracy theorists won’t tell you is that the Obama administration opposed the Magnitsky Act. The administration flip-flopped only after the sanctions were attached to a bill normalizing trade relations with Russia, hence the bill’s official name: The Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (H.R. 6156).
What liberal conspiracy theorists won’t tell you is that Sanders voted for a second, more robust version of the Magnitsky Act in 2015.
What liberal conspiracy theorists won’t tell you is that Sanders supports imposing punitive sanctions targeting Putin and his oligarch cronies, supports the sprawling Russia counter-intelligence investigation of the 2016 election led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, denounces Russian aggression and Putin on a fairly regular basis, and during the 2016 presidential campaign supported sending more U.S. troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Eastern European members to deter Russia from attacking them the way it attacked Ukraine in 2014.
Clearly Sanders is no Putin stooge.
So although liberal conspiracy theorists are wrong that Sanders is somehow soft on or partial towards what he calls “the autocratic, nationalistic kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin,” the fact remains that he voted against the Magnitsky Act.
The question is: why?
The difficulty in answering this question is that Sanders issued no press release or statement during that time period outlining his position on the bill; made no speech on the Senate floor about the topic before casting his vote (neither did Levin, Reed, or Whitehouse); and was never questioned by the media about it.
Given that Sanders supports imposing punitive sanctions in principle on Russia (and other bad actors in the international state system), there are two likely reasons why he voted against the Magnitsky Act.
The first is that Sanders almost certainly opposed normalizing trade relations with Russia just as he opposed permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China. China and Russia (then the USSR) were designated as non-market economies under the Trade Act of 1974 which meant that trade relations with both of nations were subject to an annual review by Congress. Human rights abuses by both regimes inevitably came up during such reviews, so awarding PNTR to China (in 2000) and Russia (in 2012) was a way of eliminating regular discussion of these unsavory issues. In almost every discussion of U.S. trade policy, Sanders mentions his opposition to PNTR for China in the same breath as he denounces trade agreements such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and TPP, so the likelihood that he voted against the 2012 version of the Magnitsky Act since it awarded PNTR to Russia seems high. When Chuck Todd asked Sanders on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2015,“So basically, there’s never been a single trade agreement this country’s negotiated that you’ve been comfortable with?”, Sanders’ response was, “that’s correct.”
The second possibility is that Sanders may have agreed with Levin’s objections to the final version of the 2012 Magnitsky Act. Levin’s remarks on the Senate floor were later reproduced as a statement on his (now-defunct) Senate website:
“… the Magnitsky language before us is not the Magnitsky language adopted by our Finance and Foreign Relations committees. Their Magnitsky language applied the same sanctions to human rights violators wherever they might be — whether in Russia, or Syria, or Sudan, or North Korea, or China, or in any other country.
“In other words, the Senate committee-approved bill wisely adopted a global Magnitsky standard. The reasoning for this is sound, because while the mechanism of U.S. visa denial for human rights violators was inspired by a single case in a single nation, the principles that it seeks to advance are universal. This bipartisan Senate committee bill, unlike the House-passed version of the Magnitsky Act that we will soon vote on, does not single out Russian human-rights violators for visa denial, but would apply the visa denial mechanism to people from any country who violate important human rights standards. The United States should be clear and firm in its commitment to protecting human rights, wherever the violations occur, and to holding those who violate those rights accountable to the best of our ability, including denying them visas to come to our country. Human rights do not end at the borders of Russia, and anyone who violates those standards, as so many did so blatantly in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, should be held accountable.
“Applying the Magnitsky provisions globally, as the Senate bill approved by our committees did, follows in the spirit of Jackson-Vanik, which, while inspired by events in the Soviet Union, was not limited to the Soviet Union.
“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee both voted unanimously to report a version of the Magnitsky bill that applies its sanctions globally. Senators Cardin and Kyl have worked, on a bipartisan basis, to build support for that global standard, and I strongly support their effort. I commend them on their effort.
“So why is that Senate committee-reported bill not before the Senate? Why would we deny visas only to Russian human rights violators? Why diminish the universality of the values the Magnitsky bill seeks to uphold?
“Applying the sanctions contained in this bill solely to Russians, as the House version does, not only diminishes a universal value. Because it adds a political twist — it will stoke a nationalistic response in Russia. If this bill does not apply the same rule to all human-rights violators, if it singles out Russian human-rights violators, President Putin will no doubt appeal to the nationalistic passions of many Russians by saying that our bill isn’t aimed at protecting human rights, but is aimed at Russia. We should not hand President Putin that argument.”
Levin voted nay on the 2012 Magnitsky Act as a protest vote against the Republican-controlled House of Representatives narrowing the bill’s scope to focus solely on Russian oligarchs whereas the original bill would have applied to all human rights-abusing regimes and their respective oligarchs generally. Since neither Senators Whitehouse nor Reed issued statements about why they voted the final bill down, we can only speculate as to their reasoning.
Since Sanders voted for the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that it fell well short of his preferred Medicare for All single-payer plan and voted for many Iraq war funding bills even though he was against that war, it seems unlikely that he wold vote down the 2012 Magnitsky Act because it was flawed. He generally votes for flawed legislation (like the 1994 crime bill) and then works to fix the flaws later. When he votes against a bill, it is because he thinks the legislation will do more harm than good.
In conclusion, the most likely explanation for why Sanders voted against the 2012 Magnitsky Act is because he opposed normalizing trade relations with Russia. When a stronger, more consistent version of the Magnitsky Act came up for a vote in 2015 at the beginning of the Kremlin’s election interference campaign, he voted the right way.