Everything You Need to Know about Natalia Veselnitskaya, Contextualized
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At a Glance:
- Russian lawyer with connections to powerful individuals in Moscow;
- Long-time representative of the Katsyv family, including Pyotr Katsyv, the former minister of transportation for Moscow and vice president of Russian Railways, the second-largest state-owned company in Russia and one of the largest transport companies in Europe; and Denis, the owner of Prevezon Holdings.
- The Trump Connection:
- Attended the June 9 Trump Tower meeting; accounts differ as to whether she did so to lobby against the Magnitsky Act or bring the Trump campaign damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
- Represented Prevezon Holdings, a Russian company implicated in the money-laundering case that led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the case against which the U.S. Justice Department suddenly settled after Trump took office.
Natalia Veselnitskaya is a Russian attorney whose experience over the years, including aggressive lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, has brought her into contact with high-ranking Russian government officials. She became a central part of the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin after it was revealed that she attended the June 9, 2016, meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower to reportedly share damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
The Russia Connection
Long before Natalia Veselnitskaya became part of the narrative surrounding Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, she had developed a reputation in Russia as a fearsome lawyer with close ties to the Russian government.
Veselnitskaya’s legal career began with a three-year stint at the Prosecutor’s Office for the regional government of Moscow, during which she claims to have argued and won more than 300 cases. From there, she moved into private practice, with a focus on land deals in the suburbs of Moscow. In the process, Veselnitskaya developed a relationship with Pyotr Katsyv, at the time the region’s minister of transportation, in part through husband, Alexander Mitusov, who served as Katsyv’s deputy beginning in 2005. According to The New York Times, Veselnitskaya has represented the Katsyv family for many years, perhaps most notably in a successful defamation lawsuit against the anti-corruption nonprofit Spravedlivost, which had published articles accusing Veselnitskaya, Mitusov, and Katsyv of illicitly seizing valuable land in the region. Additionally, Veselnitskaya’s law firm, Kamerton Consulting, reportedly represented the FSB, the Russian state-security apparatus that Putin led before becoming president, in litigation over real estate in Moscow between 2005 and 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official spokesman Dmitri Peskov has denied that the Kremlin has any association with Veselnitskaya; a representative for Russia’s Foreign Ministry also stated that the government agency has “nothing to do” with Veselnitskaya’s work. However, as The New York Times explains, Veselnitskaya’s relationship with the Russian federal government is a demonstration of how, “in Russia, lines between career, loyalty and government service tend to blur more than in other countries.” William Browder, the American investor best known for his fierce advocacy of the Magnitsky Act, argues that Veselnitskaya is connected through the elder Katsyv, whom Browder characterizes as “the equivalent of a Chris Christie: no formal relationship to the Kremlin, but with very strong relations to the powers that be.” For example, as vice president of the state-owned Russian Railways, Katsyv worked under Vladimir Yakunin, an oligarch who has reportedly been a friend and adviser to Putin since the 1990s and who was included on the U.S. Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine; Katsyv has not publicly denied ties to the Kremlin.
The Trump Connection, Part One: The June 9 Meeting and the Magnitsky Act
Veselnitskaya became part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election when news emerged that she had attended the June 9 meeting at Trump Tower. Just as accounts differ as to the topic of the June 9 meeting, they also differ as to the capacity in which Veselnitskaya attended.
The conversation between Donald Trump, Jr., and Rob Goldstone in advance of the meeting suggest that Veselnitskaya attended the meeting as a representative of the Russian government bringing the Trump campaign damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In an email dated June 3, 2016, Goldstone informs Trump Jr. that “The Crown prosecutor of Russia” (reportedly a reference to the Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, a powerful government official and close Putin ally) “offered to prove the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Four days later, Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to “schedule a meeting with you [Trump Jr.] and the Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday.” These emails seem to indicate that Veselnitskaya, the only attorney at the meeting, attended as a representative of the Russian government whose main purpose was to bring damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Veselnitskaya, meanwhile, has claimed that she attended the meeting as a representative of the Katsyv family to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, an American sanctions bill that originated in response to the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky. In 2005, officials from the Russian Interior Ministry reportedly raided the offices of a hedge fund owned by the American investor William Browder and seized corporate documents. Browder then hired a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who reportedly discovered that the officials used the documents to misappropriate $230 million of taxes paid to the Russian government. After he filed criminal complaints and gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee, Magnitsky was arrested without charges. According to Browder, after almost a year of severe abuse by prison officials seeking to force Magnitsky to sign a statement “admitting” he had stolen the money on Browder’s orders, Magnitsky developed severe medical problems and died in a maximum-security prison.
After Magnitsky’s death, Browder lobbied the U.S. government to pass a law sanctioning Russian human-rights abusers. The resulting law, which passed in 2012, sanctioned several high-ranking Russian officials linked to Magnitsky’s detention and death, freezing their assets held by U.S. banks and barring them from entering the United States. In response to the Magnitsky Act, the Russian government severely restricted Americans’ ability to adopt Russian children.
As the lawyer for Denis Katsyv, whose company Prevezon Holdings has been implicated in money laundering related to the Magnitsky case, Veselnitskaya has publicly campaigned against Browder and asserted that Browder and Magnitsky, not Russian government officials, perpetrated the initial fraud. According to Foreign Policy, Veselnitskaya also met with the Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher—described by Politico as “Putin’s favorite congressman” for his pro-Russia views—in Russia in April 2016 to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, telling him, “do not let yourself be used by scammers.” (Rohrabacher also reportedly met with Yakunin, the sanctioned Putin-connected oligarch, on the same trip.) She also helped schedule a screening of an anti-Magnitsky Act documentary in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2017.
A memo released in October to Foreign Policy, purportedly the talking points Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting, suggests that the two explanations—that she was bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government and that she was lobbying against the Magnitsky Act on behalf of the Katsyv family—may not be mutually exclusive. In the memo, the authenticity of which has yet to be proven, Veselnitskaya claims Browder’s story “has nothing to do with the real facts.” It further alleges that Browder lobbied for the Act “to prevent the new Administration from revising the interstate relations between the United States and Russia, so diligently antagonized at the instigation of Browder and those interested in it” so he can avoid prosecution for his crimes. The memo goes on to speculate that Clinton may have received money from a client of Browder’s. In other words, the memo both outlines a case against the official explanation behind the Magnitsky Act and provides damaging information about Clinton, suggesting she may have been “bought” by wealthy individuals—a central theme of both Trump’s presidential campaign and that of the Russian government.
If the memo obtained by Foreign Policy is authentic, it also lends further credence to the idea that Veselnitskaya may have been working on behalf of the Russian government. Mother Jones notes that the document not only lays out a similar case but also employs very similar language to one that Rohrabacher received in April 2016 from the Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, whom Goldstone reportedly described as “the Crown prosecutor of Russia.” The way Veselnitskaya’s memo was released to the press also suggests a connection to the Russian government. Foreign Policy received the memo from News Front, “a pro-Russian news organization based in Crimea, which has touted exclusive access to Veselnitskaya.” One of the co-owners of the company behind News Front is reportedly Mikhail Sinelin, who formerly served on the board of the Russian state-run Vnesheconombank at a time when, by dint of being Prime Minister, Putin was the board’s chairman.
The Trump Connection, Part Two: Prevezon Holdings
Veselnitskaya’s interest in both the Magnitsky Act and the Trump administration may in turn relate to her work representing Denis Katsyv and his firm Prevezon Holdings.
Until May, the Department of Justice was actively pursuing Prevezon for money-laundering allegations related to the original Magnitsky case. In the case, U.S. v. Prevezon, the Justice Department accused Prevezon of receiving “at least $1,965,444 from the $230 million fraud scheme” in 2008, which it then invested “in various New York properties”; Prevezon ”denied any involvement in money laundering.” Veselnitskaya represented Prevezon in the case, which may help explain the assiduity with which she argued against the legitimacy of Browder’s story regarding the origins of the Magnitsky Act fraud. Initially, the prosecutor for the case was the US attorney for Manhattan Preet Bharara; however, Bharara was fired in March 2017 after refusing to resign at Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request.
In May, the Justice Department, which initially sought $14 million in the suit, settled with Prevezon for just under $6 million. Prevezon did not admit guilt as part of the settlement. At the time, neither the existence of the June 9 meeting nor the fact that Veselnitskaya had met with the Trump campaign was public information. Nevertheless, the unexpected settlement prompted speculation that the Trump administration had made some sort of deal to resolve the case, which increased with the revelation that the same lawyer who attended the June 9 meeting also represented Prevezon in the case and that Trump had reached out to Bharara multiple times in advance of Bharara’s firing.
- The New York Times: “Natalia Veselnitskaya, Lawyer Who Met Trump Jr., Seen as Fearsome Moscow Insider”
- The Washington Post: “Russian lawyer who met with Trump Jr. has long history fighting sanctions”
- NBC: “Russian Lawyer Veselnitskaya Says She Didn’t Give Trump Jr. Info on Clinton”
- The Washington Post: “Inside the link between the Russian lawyer who met Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump dossier”
- The Atlantic: “The Russian Attorney at the Center of the Trump Jr. Scandal”
- The Magnitsky Act
- Prevezon Holdings
- Rob Goldstone
- Irakly Kaveladze
- Rinat Akhmetshin
- Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika
- Paul Manafort
- Jared Kushner
- Donald Trump, Jr.
- Dana Rohrabacher