- REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Donald Trump Jr. said he met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June at Trump Tower to discuss compromising information she said she had on Hillary Clinton, but was disappointed when she changed the subject to Russia’s adoption policy.
“It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information,” Trump Jr. said in a statement to the New York Times, and that the adoption policy “was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
Veselnitskaya would have had her own motivations for pivoting from promises of dirt on Clinton to a discussion of Russia’s adoption policy, which was altered to bar American families from adopting Russian children in retaliation for the signing of the Magnitsky Act in 2012.
The Magnitsky Act was passed to punish those suspected of being involved in the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme in 2008 that implicated high-level Kremlin officials and allies of President Vladimir Putin. The scheme quickly snowballed into one of the biggest corruption scandals of Putin’s tenure.
Magnitsky uncovered the scheme on behalf of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital, which was at that point the largest investment firm in Russia. Magnitsky was later thrown in jail by the same Interior Ministry officers he testified against during criminal proceedings to punish those involved in the tax scheme, Hermitage founder Bill Browder recalled in 2015.
Magnitsky died in custody after being held for 358 days, and an independent human-rights commission found he had been illegally arrested and beaten. The Kremlin maintains that Magnitsky died of a heart attack.
“Since there was no possibility of getting justice for Sergei inside Russia, I decided to seek justice outside of Russia,” Browder wrote. ‘That’s when I took his story to Washington.”
- Getty Images/ AFP/ Bertrand Guay
Then in 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the president to deny visas to, and freeze the assets of, Russians believed to have been complicit in Magnitsky’s death. The list, also known as the Cardin List because it was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, has been expanded several times since then to include more Russians suspected of human-rights abuses and corruption.
“Putin’s top officials were apoplectic,” Browder wrote. “All of his key lieutenants had used their jobs to become enormously wealthy, and many had done some very nasty things in the process. In theory, the Cardin List opened the door for these people to be sanctioned in the future. As far as they were concerned, the list changed everything.”
Moscow retaliated by blacklisting Americans. One of them was US Attorney Preet Bharara – who was known for aggressively pursuing organized crime and money laundering schemes in Manhattan before he was fired by Trump in April. They also struck back by banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
Veselnitskaya is the family lawyer for Denis Katsyv, the son of senior Russian government official Pyotr Katsyv and owner of the Cyprus-incorporated real-estate company Prevezon. Prevezon was under investigation by the Department of Justice at the time of Veselnitskaya’s meeting with Trump Jr. over whether it laundered millions of dollars – allegedly stolen in the tax fraud scheme that Magnitsky uncovered – into New York City real estate.
Katsyv, with Veselnitskaya’s help, is at the center of efforts to overturn the adoption ban – which would start with the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. In February 2016, Katsyv registered a nonprofit company in Delaware called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation, the stated aim of which is to overturn the ban.
Veselnitskaya helps “represent” the HRAGIF along with a colleague, according to an email that colleague sent last April seen by Business Insider and first reported by The Daily Beast. And she had been lobbying to repeal the Magnitsky Act at the time the HRAGIF was set up, roughly four months before she met with Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort. She also helped organize the Brussels screening of an anti-Magnitsky film that cast doubt on both Browder’s claims and Magnitsky’s findings.
Browder, the founder of Hermitage, said in an interview on Saturday that fighting against the Magnitsky Act was Veselnitskaya’s “main project last year. And “there was no obvious reason,” Browder said, for Veselnitskaya and her team to engage in this lobbying “as part of their defense for Prevezon.”
“It wouldn’t have helped the company address the money laundering allegations mounted by the US Department of Justice,” Browder said. “The only reason for them to do this would have been at the behest of the Russian government.”