I don’t want to exaggerate: There is a lot we still don’t know. Also, I still believe that the most shocking, disqualifying aspects of the Trump/Russia relationship — President Trump’s hero worship of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his admiration for Russian dictatorship — are the ones that are already public. Nevertheless, the entry of Natalia Veselnitskaya into the Trump/Russia story is dramatic. This is not just because of what her role tells us about Trump and his entourage, but because of what it tells us about the possible motives of interested Russians.
To explain why, you need a few paragraphs of background. Veselnitskaya is a lawyer who has worked for many years to overturn the Magnitsky Act, a piece of U.S. legislation named after a very different Russian lawyer. Sergei Magnitsky was working for an American investor, Bill Browder, when he accidentally stumbled upon an incredible, almost unbelievable scam: Russian tax officials and police were secretly changing the ownership of companies, hijacking their names and bank accounts, and then using them to claim fake tax rebates and other payments. In effect, they were stealing vast sums of money from the Russian state.
Magnitsky learned too much about the scam, and in 2008 he was arrested. In jail he was reportedly deprived of medical care and beaten — until he died. In the wake of Magnitsky’s death, Browder launched an extraordinary crusade against the officials who had been involved in the original scam as well as Magnitsky’s death. In 2012 he convinced Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that has now forbade 44 people, including bureaucrats and tax officials associated with Magnitsky’s death, from entering the United States or doing business with U.S. banks.
The Magnitsky Act bothered the Russian leadership — in fact, it really, really bothered them, far more than it should have. In part that may have been because it focused attention on the real source of so much Russian wealth: theft from the state. In part it may have been because the powerful officials involved, like all powerful officials in Russia, care a lot about being able to travel freely to the West in order to buy property, to go skiing, to hide their money.
It also set a precedent. Suddenly there was a way to target all of those gray bureaucrats, the men behind the scenes who give the orders to loot the state and kill citizens. The Magnitsky Act was the template for the sanctions that the Obama administration placed more broadly on Russian individuals and businesses in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As in the Magnitsky case, those sanctions were also very specific: They did not target Russians in general but rather prevented particular people and companies from interacting with the West, traveling and doing business here. At the time, the U.S. government explained that the sanctioned people and companies were selected for their proximity to Putin.
By contrast, Putin’s response to the Magnitsky sanctions was designed to hit ordinary Russians, especially ordinary Russian children: He banned Americans from adopting them. His response to the Ukraine sanctions was similar: He banned Western food products, which led to higher prices for ordinary Russians, too.
Nevertheless, a lot of very rich, very influential Russians remained angry. They deployed Veselnitskaya — she represented one of the companies accused of laundering the Magnitsky money in the United States — to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, to attack Browder personally, to even make a scandalous film about him and his crusade. Given how far they went and how much money they spent, it’s not at all hard to imagine that they would deploy her in a far more audacious project: an offer to help Donald Trump become president, and to ask him to lift sanctions in exchange.
As I’ve argued before, the primary motive for Russian intervention in the U.S. election, like Russian interventions in politics all across Europe, remains geopolitical: to undermine U.S. leadership in the world, to weaken Western alliances and to damage Western democracy so that it will not seem attractive to Russians. But a small but powerful group of men might have had an additional, personal motive: to help elect a U.S. president who would lift the Magnitsky sanctions as well as the Ukraine sanctions, allowing them the freedom to travel and do business. They would have had a very strong motivation to contact the Trump team, to organize hacking, even to help pay for a social-media campaign.
Right now, both Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Jr. are denying that they did any such deal, although that is hardly surprising. Both Veselnitskaya and the Kremlin are also denying that they have anything to do with each other, and it is important to note that this is perfectly plausible: Like the American state, the Russian state is not monolithic.
As I’ve said, much is not proved. But do note this: President Trump really did seek to lift sanctions within days of the inauguration. His team really has sought to block Congress from passing a law reinforcing the sanctions. He and his secretary of state really have issued conflicting accounts of whether sanctions were discussed with Putin in Hamburg. Does he feel he owes somebody a favor? And if so — why?