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Why did Trump’s NASA chief invite a sanctioned Russian to Houston?

Jim Bridenstine made it seem like plans to host Dmitry Rogozin were already in the works. Who's telling the truth?

Rice University has emphatically denied that a Trump administration official will be hosting sanctioned Russian official Dmitry Rogozin (right) on campus. In this picture, the sanctioned Rogozin is shown helping host multiple NRA higher-ups in late 2015. CREDIT: TWITTER
Rice University has emphatically denied that a Trump administration official will be hosting sanctioned Russian official Dmitry Rogozin (right) on campus. In this picture, the sanctioned Rogozin is shown helping host multiple NRA higher-ups in late 2015. CREDIT: TWITTER

In October, NASA Administrator (and Trump appointee) Jim Bridenstine made a very surprising announcement: he would like to host Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin in the U.S. According to Russian state outlet TASS, which initially reported the invitation, Bridenstine was visiting Russia when he invited Rogozin to in turn visit NASA headquarters and speak alongside him at his alma mater, Rice University.

Not so fast, said the university.

The problem, it’s clear, is Rogozin himself. The Russian official has been under U.S. sanctions — which include barring him from traveling to the U.S. — for years because of his role in fomenting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He is also one of the most homophobic and hyper-nationalistic officials in Moscow.

Rogozin even happens to have been intimately involved with different facets of Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections: He helped host delegates from the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Moscow, and elsewhere laid the groundwork for groups that would later convene with American secessionists and white supremacists.

Now that Bridenstine is in the news for his invitation to Rogozin, Rice University has issued multiple statements denying it has any plans to host the sanctioned Rogozin.

On Twitter, Rice was explicit, saying, “There is no plan for Dmitry Rogozin to speak at Rice University.”

It’s unclear if even Bridenstine is coming to his alma mater Rice for a talk, as the NASA chief initially made it seem. “Bridenstine’s not scheduled to speak here either, as far as I know,” Rice spokesperson Doug Miller told ThinkProgress. (Disclosure: This reporter is a graduate of Rice University.)

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NASA representatives did not return multiple ThinkProgress requests for comment, but confirmed to Politico as late as Tuesday that Rogozin was still planning his visit. Bridenstine told Russian state media that the Trump administration agreed to temporarily lift sanctions to allow Rogozin into the country.

If it goes forward, the visit would be the highest-profile Russian official trip to Houston since former Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited and ogled Houston’s super-market shelves.

“Right now the ball’s in NASA’s court, I’d assume,” Miller added. “If Bridenstine wants to say something, that’s in his court.”

Rogozin’s Russian imperialism

Rogozin has claimed that the U.S.’s “foundations” are going to “crash down under the pressure of ISIS and gays,” but he’s further called for the return of Alaska to Russia.

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“Dmitry Rogozin has no business visiting our nation in the first place, much less being offered a speaking engagement at an academic institution,” GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Beyond Rogozin’s past statements, though, there’s also the fact that Rogozin played an outsized role in Russia’s 2016 election interference efforts.

Even though he was already under sanction by the U.S. following his role in Russia’s 2014 invasion of southern and eastern Ukraine, higher-ups at the NRA decided it was a good idea to meet with Rogozin during the gun group’s infamous 2015 trip to Moscow. Photos that Rogozin later posted to Twitter featured him sitting alongside Trump surrogate David Clarke, as well as sanctioned Russian official Alexander Torshin — now known as the handler for Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty in the U.S. to acting as a foreign agent. Other photos (such as the feature photo above) also saw Rogozin grinning alongside NRA donor Joe Gregory and NRA presidents Pete Brownell and David Keene.

Dmitry Rogozin (right) spotted alongside Maria Butina's handler (at the back right corner) and Trump surrogate David Clarke (back to camera).
Dmitry Rogozin (right) spotted alongside Maria Butina's handler (at the back right corner) and Trump surrogate David Clarke (back to camera).

Rogozin also participated in destabilizing efforts that went beyond the 2016 election. Rodina — a far-right Russian political party Rogozin helped found — hosted Texas secessionists in St. Petersburg, sparking a series of visits to Russia by American secessionists from states like Texas, California, and Hawaii. Likewise, Rodina and the Russian Imperial Movement, which was itself an outgrowth of Rogozin’s efforts, brought some of America’s leading white supremacists to St. Petersburg in the lead-up to 2016, including white supremacists who vocally supported both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump alike.

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Lawmakers and former national security officials across the political spectrum are bristling at the invitation by NASA’s administrator to the Russian official. This week, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) issued a statement clarifying that “Bridenstine’s invitation to Dmitry Rogozin, one of the leading architects of the Kremlin’s campaign of aggression towards its neighbors, undercuts our message and undermines the United States’ core national security objectives.”

She also threatened Bridenstine with congressional action if Bridenstine doesn’t rescind the invitation. Wrote Shaheen, “Bridenstine should withdraw this invitation immediately before Congress is forced to take action.”