With one story, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya found herself at the center of one of the biggest stories in America: the Trump family's potential collusion with Russia.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Veselnitskaya met with the president's eldest son in June 2016, and that Donald Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about top Democrats. Trump Jr. had allegedly been told that Veselnitskaya was part of the Russian government's efforts to help his father win the 2016 presidential race.
Within hours, Veselnitskaya had become a source of intrigue — who is she, really?
On Tuesday morning, Veselnitskaya defended herself in an NBC television interview. “I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” the lawyer said.
Veselnitskaya said she met with Trump Jr. to press her client’s interest in the Magnitsky Act, a wide-ranging Russia sanctions bill.
In a statement to the New York Times, Trump Jr. initially confirmed that he had a “short, introductory” meeting with Veselnitskaya. He said the conversation was primarily about adoption. But the Times then reported, citing unnamed sources, that Trump Jr. was told the lawyer would give him incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, Trump Jr. released emails that confirm he was seeking damaging information on Clinton.
The Magnitsky Act imposes sanctions on Russian officials identified by the U.S. government as having been involved in violations of human rights. The Kremlin hates the law — and banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans in retaliation. One of Veselnitskaya’s clients, Denis Katsyv, has been lobbying hard to get the American law overturned. He is the son of senior Russian government official Pyotr Katsyv and the owner of Prevezon, under investigation by the Department of Justice for laundering millions of dollars into New York City real estate. Katsyv registered a nonprofit company in Delaware in February 2016 called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative to lobby for the repeal of the American law and the end of the Russian adoption ban.
Veselnitskaya has worked closely with the Katsyv family on the issue. She has lobbied extensively for repeal of the Magnitsky Act and helped organize a Brussels screening of an anti-Magnitsky film.
This is what Veselnitskaya said she wanted to talk about with Trump Jr. She maintained that she never disclosed any damaging information about Hillary Clinton or the Democratic National Committee. “It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted,” she said.
Veselnitskaya also denied that she has any ties to the Russian government. (Kremlin officials said that they don't know the lawyer.)
In the NBC interview, Veselnitskaya said that Trump Jr. asked her only one question during the meeting, which was “whether I had any financial records which might prove that the funds used to sponsor the DNC were coming from inappropriate sources.” Veselnitskaya said that she had no such records and that “it was never my intention to collect any financial records to that end.”
Veselnitskaya also told NBC that she had not asked specifically to meet with Trump Jr., and that the appointment had been coordinated in part by pop-star Emin Agalarov, who appeared in a music video with Trump during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, held in Russia. On the day of the meeting, music publicist Rob Goldstone met her in the lobby of the Trump hotel, the lawyer said.
Veselnitskaya told NBC that the meeting lasted for about 30 minutes, and that Trump Jr.'s brother-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump Sr.'s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, were also in attendance.
“Imagine yourself in my shoes. One morning you wake up and all of a sudden you are the focus of all the high-ranking, upstream media of the world,” she said. “Those were not the happiest days of my life, I have to say. I have to break up my holiday. I have to take a trip back to Moscow, because I just wanted to be able to answer the questions myself.”