Analysis

New Charges Against Russian Lawyer Who Met Trump Jr. Reveal Her Ties to Kremlin

Veselnitskaya saw no difference between her client and the Russian government, said a source close to the case.

A picture taken on November 8, 2016 shows Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaking during an interview in Moscow. (Yury Martyanov/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on November 8, 2016 shows Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaking during an interview in Moscow. (Yury Martyanov/AFP/Getty Images)

The Russian lawyer at the center of the investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to the Kremlin has been indicted for obstruction of justice in a separate money-laundering case that reveals her close ties to the Russian government.

In an indictment unsealed in New York on Tuesday, U.S. prosecutors alleged that the attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya worked hand in glove with Russian prosecutors to block an attempt by American authorities to seize property thought to have been acquired with the proceeds of a massive tax fraud scheme. Veselnitskaya was charged with one count of obstruction of justice.

The charge against Veselnitskaya was not directly related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president’s relationship to the Kremlin and whether Trump conspired with Moscow’s effort to interfere in U.S. politics and catapult him into the Oval Office.

But according to sources associated with the case, the indictment may be used by Mueller to establish that Veselnitskaya acted in cooperation with Russian officials to advance the Kremlin’s policy goals, effectively describing her as an agent of the Russian government.

Although it’s unlikely Veselnitskaya will be tried in a New York courtroom as the United States does not have an extradition agreement with Russia, she risks arrest if she travels to any country where such an agreement is in place.

The indictment against Veselnitskaya was unsealed the same day a separate court filing revealed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have shared internal polling data with a former employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, with close ties to Russian intelligence.

In June 2016, Veselnitskaya met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort at Trump Tower in New York City to discuss what had been billed as information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton in the closing months of the U.S. presidential election season.

That meeting has become a central focus of the Mueller probe.

Tuesday’s indictment describes in vivid detail the extent of Veselnitskaya’s involvement in drafting a response from the Russian prosecutor’s office to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York investigating the Prevezon case. A politically and financially damaging investigation, the case alleged that part of the proceeds from a $230 million tax refund fraud scheme ended up in New York City real estate.

A source close to Veselnitskaya told Foreign Policy that the Russian attorney “saw no difference between her client and the Russian government.”

The case was settled in May 2017.

That scheme was uncovered by the Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who later died in jail and has become a cause célèbre of Russian anti-corruption activists. The U.S. sanctions law named after the accountant, which imposes sanctions on officials implicated in human rights abuses, has become an object of hate for Russia’s kleptocratic government.

In her capacity as a lawyer for Prevezon Holdings, the company at the center of the scheme uncovered by Magnitsky, Veselnitskaya orchestrated the legal response to corruption allegations that implicated senior Russian government officials.

In 2014, American investigators asked their Russian counterparts for documents related to the fraud and received in response a 14-page document that exonerated Russian government officials from any involvement in the scheme and claimed it had in fact been perpetrated by Magnitsky.

Now, American prosecutors allege that Veselnitskaya provided edits to that document, many of which were incorporated entirely. Additionally, Russian prosecutors helped Veselnitskaya initiate a legal complaint against the Russian government to make it appear that she had been forced to go to great lengths to obtain the document, the indictment alleges.

It is not unusual for U.S. prosecutors to reach out in good faith to their counterparts in other countries to request information when working on transnational cases. However, sharing details of the request and involving a defense attorney in the crafting of its response can undermine the prosecution’s evidence and potentially put witnesses at risk.

While Veselnitskaya’s close ties to the Russian government have been well-documented, Tuesday’s indictment describes her as a co-conspirator with Russian prosecutors to obstruct the U.S. investigation.

When Veselnitskaya met with Trump campaign officials in the summer of 2016, she used the meeting to discuss the Magnitsky sanctions and Bill Browder, the financier whose company was defrauded by the scheme Magnitsky uncovered, according to talking points that FP obtained in 2017.

Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, helped organize the meeting and emailed Trump Jr. ahead of time to tell him that his Russian contacts had “sensitive information” on Clinton that was supplied by the Kremlin.

“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. replied.

Veselnitskaya appears to have been unable to deliver on Goldstone’s promises, but the email exchange and Veselnitskaya’s relationship with the Kremlin have turned the Trump Tower meeting into a central issue for Mueller’s investigators.

Louise Shelley, the director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, who was due to serve as an expert witness for the prosecution in the Prevezon case, said she was unsurprised by the indictment against Veselnitskaya and said it was a prime example of how Russian officials are able to undermine the integrity of prosecutions that are potentially politically sensitive.

“We have not paid sufficient attention to this other form of Russian interference in our society. It’s not just through the media. It’s not just through hacking. It’s through our legal process, which is the heart of our society and our commitment to democracy,” Shelley said.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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