New details in a report by the Wall Street Journal highlight how a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. had more to do with a years-long feud between Russia and U.S.-born hedge fund manager William Browder than it did anything else.
The report, published Saturday, details the long-running feud and how the White House got sucked into it. It said:
The multiyear saga between Russia and Mr. Browder has featured accusations of murder and fraud, extensive lobbying efforts on both sides, high-level court proceedings and public statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting Mr. Browder is a criminal. And now, the drama has extended to the Trump White House, which is already facing probes into the campaign’s relationship with Russia.
According to the report, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a private lawyer and former Russian prosecutor who was defending a client charged with violating the Magnitsky Act, told the paper that she sought a meeting last year with the Trump campaign to spread information about Browder, a champion of the Act.
She asked Aras Agalarov — a Russian-Azerbaijani property developer who organized the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with Trump in Moscow — for help in arranging a meeting with the Trump campaign. Veselnitskaya had done some real estate-related legal work for Agalarov’s company over the years, Agalarov family lawyer Scott Balber said.
Veselnitskaya, who has been described in the media as a “Kremlin-connected lawyer,” apparently did not have her own connections to Trump, who had recently officially become the GOP nominee.
Veselnitskaya told the Wall Street Journal that Trump Jr. was only one of several people she petitioned in her effort to have the Magnitsky Act repealed and to discredit Browder.
Agalarov’s pop-star son Emin then had his publicist, Rob Goldstone, reach out to Trump Jr. to arrange the meeting.
Goldstone then emailed Trump Jr., alleging that the elder Agalarov had recently met with Russia’s “Crown Prosecutor,” and wanted to provide the Trump campaign incriminating information on Trump’s campaign opponent Hillary Clinton.
It’s not clear why Goldstone made that assertion.
No “Crown Prosecutor” exists in Russia, but it is believed to be the Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika. Agalarov’s attorney told the Wall Street Journal he did not meet with Chaika, as was suggested in the email. Agalarov himself on Wednesday called that assertion “some kind of fiction.”
Veselnitskaya also told the paper that the meeting was not about Clinton. She also did not make it a secret that she shared information about Browder regularly with Chaika and his office.
“I personally know the general prosecutor,” she told the WSJ. “In the course of my investigation [about the fund manager], I shared information with him.”
But she said Chaika did not request that she meet with Trump Jr., and Chaika’s office told the paper that it “does not exchange information and does not conduct any meetings at the international level outside the framework regulated by international legal agreements and Russian procedural legislation.”
Veselnitskaya said she asked Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who has also lobbied against the Magnitsky Act to join her in the meeting. She said when she stepped into the room to meet with Trump Jr., all she knew was that she had asked Agalarov to arrange a meeting with him and that his son had helped arrange it.
She told the paper she wanted to inform the Trump campaign of allegations that an American firm Browder worked with — Ziff Brothers Investments — did not pay taxes in Russia and had donated to Democrats.
She said Trump Jr. wasn’t interested in the information. The article points out that Trump Jr. expressed disappointment on Fox News that the information boiled down to an American firm donating to the Democratic National Committee that didn’t pay Russian taxes.
“I was like, ‘What does this have to do with anything?’” Trump Jr. said.
Veselnitskaya expressed disappointment too: “My expectation before the meeting was he read my letter of information, he got interested, and he was going to help me. His expectations were totally different, as I can understand now.”
Browder himself suggested the meeting was part of the coordinated Russian government attempt to undermine him and the Magnitsky Act.
“They were on a major full-court press on all fronts with Congress, with the press … with Trump Jr.,” Browder said. “I think that she’s working hand in glove with Chaika, and it’s all part of a coordinated strategy back at headquarters.”
The feud between Russia and Browder started about a decade ago.
Browder, the U.S.-born manager of Hermitage Capital, a London-based hedge fund, hired Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky accused Russian officials of defrauding his firm in Russia out of $230 million in a tax scheme.
Magnitsky was then arrested in 2008 by Russian authorities for allegedly helping Hermitage Capital underpay taxes and for masterminding the fraud he uncovered.
Browder was barred entry into Russia, and Magnitsky later died in prison in November 2009. Independent investigators said he died of torture and was denied medical treatment.
Browder lobbied for the successful 2012 passage of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned Russian officials who contributed to the death of Magnitsky. It was expanded in 2016 to include human rights abusers anywhere. The law allows the U.S. to add Russian human rights violators easily to a U.S. sanctions list, even if they had no part in the Magnitsky case.
Russia was angered by the passage of the law, banned American adoptions of Russian children in return, and has waged a public relations war against Browder. A Russian court has convicted Browder in absentia for tax evasion, and state-run Russian TV has aired investigations about him.
Veselnitskaya, as a private attorney, represented Denis Katsyv, the Russian owner of Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus-based hotel and real-estate group, who was accused of violating the Magnitsky Act.
Katsyv was charged in the U.S. after investigators had suspected Prevezon used funds from the $230 million fraud scheme Magnitsky uncovered to buy New York real estate. Prevezon was charged by Preet Bharara, then-U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and friend of former FBI Director James Comey.
That case brought Veselnitskaya to the U.S. in late 2015. As her visa was about to expire in September, the U.S. Attorney General’s office extended it through January. She was able to extend her stay again through June 2016, and during that time, she met with Trump Jr., Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and attended a House hearing, among other activities in Washington.
The U.S. and Prevezon reached a $5.9 million civil settlement in April. Trump asked Bharara to leave in March, along with 46 other U.S. attorneys.
Browder has denied Veselnitskaya’s and the prosecutor general’s office’s accusations, calling them “stale and disproven,” and part of a well-resourced, Moscow-coordinated campaign to undermine him and the Magnitsky Act.
Browder filed a complaint with the Justice Department in July 2016 that accused Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin of violating U.S. lobbying laws by not registering their activities.
Browder is due to appear in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for a hearing on enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.