President Donald Trump emphasized that an attorney who met with his eldest son during the 2016 presidential campaign was a “Russian lawyer” and “not a [Russian] government lawyer.” That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump Jr. agreed to sit down with a “Russian government attorney” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to an email exchange setting up the meeting.
Trump defended his son during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on July 13 in Paris. The U.S. president was responding to a reporter who asked if Trump Jr. — who met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016 under the promise of getting damaging information about Hillary Clinton — should have told the FBI about a Russian attempt to provide the Trump campaign with information rather than accepting the meeting.
“As far as my son is concerned, my son is a wonderful young man. He took a meeting with a Russian lawyer, not a government lawyer, but a Russian lawyer,” Trump said.
His point may be technically correct, but it’s misleading.
Veselnitskaya is the founder and managing partner of Kamerton Consulting, which specializes in corporate and property law, according to U.S. court documents filed in January 2016. After graduating from the Moscow State Legal Academy in 1998, she worked for the Moscow regional prosecutor’s office for three years. And in 2003, she started her private legal consulting firm in the Moscow Oblast, a region outside of the Russian capital.
But the New York Times, which first reported that Veselnitskaya met with the junior Trump, identified her as “a Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin” whose “clients include state-owned businesses and a senior government official’s son, whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting.” Other news outlets have said that she “had ties to Russian government,” as well.
Veselnitskaya has “a history of pushing the Kremlin’s agenda,” the Times said, including lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, “which provoked a Cold War-style, tit-for-tat row with the Kremlin when President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2012.” It was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after uncovering evidence of corruption in the Russian government. The law, which denies entrance to the U.S. to Russian human rights abusers, prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt American adoption of Russian children.
Veselnitskaya was also “deeply involved in the making of an anti-Magnitsky film that premiered just weeks before the Trump Tower meeting,” the Times said. “The film echoes the Kremlin line that the widely accepted version of Mr. Magnitsky’s life and death is wrong. The film claims that he was not assaulted and alleges that he never testified that government officials conspired to steal $230 million in fraudulent tax rebates.”
In addition, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya “hired a team of political and legal operatives that has worked unsuccessfully in Washington to repeal the Magnitsky Act.” That team included “Rinat Akhmetshin, an émigré to the United States who once served as a Soviet military officer and who has been called a Russian political gun for hire.”
According to multiple reports on July 14, Akhmetshin, a Russian American lobbyist, confirmed that he also attended the June 2016 meeting with Trump Jr. at Veselnitskaya’s request. Paul Manafort, then-Trump campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and now senior adviser, also were at the meeting. (And CNN reported on July 14: “A source familiar with the circumstances told CNN there were at least two other people in the room as well, a translator and a representative of the Russian family who had asked [music publicist Rob] Goldstone to set up the meeting.”)
Akhmetshin told the Washington Post that he was not affiliated with the Kremlin, which has denied knowing both Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya.
“I never worked for the Russian government. I served as a soldier, for two years, like tens of millions of Russian young men who were drafted. I am proud of my military service. At no time have I ever worked for Russian government or any of its agencies. I was not an intelligence officer,” Akhmetshin said, according to the Post.
For her part, Veselnitskaya also has denied working for the Russian government. “I’m just an ordinary person. A regional prosecutor is not the Kremlin,” she said in her own July 11 interview with the Washington Post. “I did not have an assignment from the Kremlin, there were no orders from the government.”
Akhmetshin, according to the Associated Press, said that Veselnitskaya had brought with her to the meeting a file with papers that she believed to show an illegal transfer of money to the Democratic National Committee. “Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the Trump campaign, he said,” the AP reported.
But Veselnitskaya told NBC News on July 11 that she “never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that.” She said she came to the meeting to discuss the Magnitsky Act.
Still, emails released by Donald Trump Jr. show that he was expecting to talk with a representative of the Russian government who was going to provide dirt on his father’s Democratic opponent in the presidential race.
A June 3, 2016, email from music publicist Rob Goldstone said that Russian pop star Emin Agalarov had asked Goldstone to contact Trump Jr. on behalf of his father, Aras Agalarov, a Russian real estate developer who has ties to Donald Trump Sr., including his 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide 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,” Goldstone wrote. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump Jr. responded minutes later, saying that “if it’s what you say I love it.”
Four days later, Goldstone emailed again to “schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow.” About an hour went by before Trump Jr. responded, saying, “How about 3 at our offices? Thanks rob appreciate you helping set it up.”
Two days after that, on June 9, Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner met with Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in New York.
“The meeting lasted approximately 20 to 30 minutes,” according to a statement Trump Jr. released to the media on July 9. He said it “quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information” about Clinton, and that “discussing the adoption of Russian children and … the Magnitsky Act … was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
President Trump said that his son “took a meeting with a Russian lawyer, not a government lawyer, but a Russian lawyer.” Veselnitskaya may not have been working on behalf of the Kremlin, but Trump Jr. didn’t know that when he agreed to meet with her. The emails he released clearly show that he was fully expecting to discuss “information that would incriminate” Clinton with a “Russian government attorney” as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for his father.
During the joint press conference in France on July 13, Trump also said that Veselnitskaya’s visa was approved by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, adding “maybe that’s wrong” but then saying “she was here because of Lynch.”
It turns out that is wrong. Press reports at the time of the press conference indicated the Department of Justice approved entry. It’s true that Veselnitskaya was granted short-term “parole” status by the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 and early 2016 to come to the U.S. to provide legal services to a Russian firm that faced civil charges of money laundering and fraud.
But as BuzzFeed subsequently reported, when Veselnitskaya came to the U.S. in June 2016, it was under a standard visitor’s visa issued by the State Department, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security. BuzzFeed noted that a week after that meeting, Veselnitskaya “traveled to Washington, DC, to push members of Congress into repealing the Magnitsky Act.”