Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya arrived at a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. armed with a set of talking points arguing American officials were hoodwinked into slapping human rights sanctions on Russia in 2012 and that efforts to expand those measures would hurt relations between Washington and Moscow.
According to her talking points, obtained by Foreign Policy, Veselnitskaya made the case that the American businessman Bill Browder perpetrated a massive scheme of tax fraud against the Russian state and then launched a global campaign claiming that his companies had in fact been defrauded by Russian officials — and that they had killed the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in order to cover it up.
That June 2016 meeting has landed in the crosshairs of investigators examining whether aides to Donald Trump conspired with Kremlin operatives in their alleged effort to boost the real estate mogul’s campaign by hacking into Democratic Party computer systems and leaking stolen documents online.
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended the meeting with the Kremlin-connected lawyer Veselnitskaya, who brought with her a Russian-American lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, with ties to Russian intelligence. The meeting was organized with the help of Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, who emailed Trump Jr. ahead of the gathering to tell him that his Russian contacts were in possession of “sensitive information” supplied by the Kremlin on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. wrote back.
Trump’s critics have seized on the meeting as evidence that his lieutenants conspired with Russian operatives, but Veselnitskaya’s talking points provide scant mention of Clinton or her rivals. An English-language copy of the memo was provided to FP by News Front, a pro-Russian news organization based in Crimea, which has touted exclusive access to Veselnitskaya.
In a phone interview with FP, Veselnitskaya confirmed that the document was an English-language translation she had prepared to take to the meeting. “I prepared it not only for the meeting with Trump but for anyone I met in the United States” to discuss these issues, she said.
Veselnitskaya said when it became clear the meeting wasn’t what Trump Jr. expected, the document never changed hands.
The memo’s existence was previously reported by CNN, which quoted from a section of it. FP is publishing it in full.
A lawyer for Trump Jr. did not respond to questions from FP.
Only one line of the memo refers to Clinton, and even that ties back to Veselnitskaya’s primary obsession, Browder. According to Veselnitskaya’s talking points, Browder’s work in Russia was bankrolled by Ziff Brothers Investments, an American firm that she describes as having deep ties to Democrats. “It cannot be ruled out that they also financed [the] Hillary Clinton campaign,” she writes in the document.
Though the meeting was set up under the pretense of providing damaging information on Trump’s Democratic rival, the memo’s passing reference to Clinton appears to demonstrate just how limited Veselnitskaya’s interest was in Clinton.
When contacted by FP, Michael Freitag, a spokesman for Ziff Brothers Investments, declined to comment on the allegations in the memo.
Veselnitskaya’s memo describes her message to Trump campaign officials as firmly focused on attacking Browder, and advocating for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions Russian officials accused of humans rights violations. But Trump Jr.’s explanation of the meeting shifted once it was made public.
After the gathering was revealed, according to the Washington Post, President Trump personally dictated a statement in his son’s name, saying the meeting “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” — an issue that Veselnitskaya’s talking points mention only briefly. (The adoption of Russian children by Americans was banned in response to the passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012.)
The statement allegedly dictated by the president has become a centerpiece of the probe into whether Trump and those around him attempted to obstruct the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
According to Scott Balber, a lawyer for the Russian real estate mogul Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, who helped arrange the meeting, Veselnitskaya’s message became muddled as it was passed along. Veselnitskaya passed her talking points to Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, Balber said, but as that information passed to Goldstone through the Agalarovs, the message became that Veselnitskaya had information from the Russian government.
And that was the message Goldstone emailed to Trump Jr. — that the material came from the Russian government.
“There’s a bit of a game of telephone here,” Balber said.
Goldstone did not answer emailed questions from FP.
When Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya met in June 2016, each appeared to think the meeting was about something different. Trump Jr. thought he was getting damaging information on Clinton, possibly from the Russian government, and Veselnitskaya believed she was being given an opportunity to make her case for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act.
At the time of the meeting, pending legislation — dubbed the Global Magnitsky Act and since signed into law — would expand the president’s authority to slap sanctions on government officials responsible for human rights abuses around the world. According to her memo, this legislation was being pushed in Congress to “prevent the new Administration from revising the interstate relations between the United States and Russia.”
Veselnitskaya’s claims about Browder have not gained much traction in the United States, where officials have described the seizure of his investment firm Hermitage Capital Management as one of the better-documented cases of Russian kleptocracy. Browder alleges $230 million was funneled from his firm to Russian bureaucrats.
Thanks to Browder’s advocacy, Magnitsky emerged as a cause célèbre for critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a sweeping 2012 sanctions bill bears the lawyer’s name. That measure, the so-called Magnitsky Act, allows American officials to seize assets belonging to Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses and bars their entry into the United States.
Browder did not respond to questions about the memo, but in a July interview with FP the American financier said Veselnitskaya’s June 2016 meeting was “one of fifteen different angles” used by the Kremlin “to get to Trump.”
“They wanted the Magnitsky Act repealed, and who knows what they got up to in order to get this carried out,” Browder added.
Veselnitskaya has orchestrated a yearslong lobbying campaign against the Magnitsky Act, and former American intelligence officials argue that she could not have done so without at least tacit approval from the Kremlin.
But if Veselnitskaya was dispatched to New York to suss out whether Trump operatives were receptive to help from the Kremlin, she would arguably have been an odd choice. Veselnitskaya remains far from Putin’s inner circle and does not speak English.
While Trump Jr.’s description of the meeting has evolved, Veselnitskaya’s version has been relatively consistent. She has portrayed her meetings with Trump supporters and American politicians, which included Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, as opportunities to lobby them on the Magnitsky Act, not elections.
In an email, she disputed what she believes is the nefarious characterization of those meetings in the press, including in FP. Even her meeting with Rohrabacher, a California Republican who has advocated for closer Russian relations, was “rather by chance,” she wrote in an email to FP.
Neither “the meeting with Donald Trump Jr., nor with anybody else in the US had [anything] to do with the elections,” she wrote.
Amie Ferris-Rotman and Sharon Weinberger contributed reporting to this article.
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