This article has been updated.
At 4 p.m. on June 9, 2016, a Russian attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Donald Trump Jr., President Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Joining Veselnitskaya was her colleague Rinat Akhmetshin and an interpreter named Anatoli Samochornov.
This meeting was proposed by a publicist named Rob Goldstone, who also attended. Goldstone had emailed Trump Jr. a few days before on behalf of his client Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop singer and real estate developer who had met the Trumps when the then-Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant was held in Moscow in 2013. Goldstone told Trump Jr. that Agalarov’s father, Aras Agalarov, had met with Russia’s crown prosecutor, who had offered to give the Trump campaign incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. (The offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote.) There is no “crown prosecutor” in Russia. The person who would fit such a description was Yury Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general.
Update: In his recently published book, Goldstone writes that he didn’t mean Chaika but was using “puffed-up language to describe a government attorney" -- Veselnitskaya.
Trump Jr. appears to have spoken with Emin Agalarov, after which he spoke with Manafort and Kushner and set up the meeting. (Trump Jr. also spoke with someone who called from a blocked number, possibly his father.) The meeting was set for 3 p.m. but was kicked back to 4 because Veselnitskaya had to be in court until early that afternoon.
When they met, Trump Jr. didn’t get what he was hoping for. Veselnitskaya, working from prepared notes, walked through an intricate and tangential accusation that a businessman named William Browder had allegedly committed tax fraud in the United States and Russia, as had one of Browder’s partners, Ziff Brothers Investments, owned by Dirk, Edward and Daniel Ziff. (Notes Manafort took during the meeting and provided to investigators match the narrative above.) The connection to Clinton? The Ziffs had given to President Barack Obama’s two campaigns, and it “cannot be ruled out that they also financed [the] Hillary Clinton campaign.”
In a news conference after his meeting with Trump earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that “business associates of Mr. Browder ... sent a huge amount of money — $400 million — as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” That was obviously untrue, and a Putin spokesman later walked it back. Putin may have been referring to contributions made by Browder and the Ziffs to the Clinton Global Initiative; he may have been making things up.
The implication, anyway, is that the intent of the Veselnitskaya meeting was not to disparage Clinton but, instead, to disparage Browder and the Ziffs. Why? Because Browder’s conflicts with the Russian government, including those allegations of criminal behavior, have significant international ramifications.
About a decade ago, a number of Browder’s Russian investment companies were seized by Russian authorities and given to new owners, who alleged fraud by Browder that meant his companies had earned no real profits — and allowed the new owners to demand huge refunds for the taxes paid on those now-nonexistent profits. Browder and a forensic accountant named Sergei Magnitsky investigated the Russians' actions, finding links to law enforcement and organized crime. Magnitsky was arrested and died in prison under questionable circumstances. Browder then pushed for a new law imposing sanctions against those he had identified as responsible for the takeover of his businesses. The United States passed a law imposing sanctions, many of which targeted Putin allies.
That is why Veselnitskaya (and, this year, Putin) disparaged Browder. It wasn't about Clinton — which is why the results of the meeting would have been frustrating to Trump Jr.
All of this has been known for a while. On Thursday, though, we got a new layer.
BuzzFeed News reported that officials with the Treasury Department had, during and after the campaign, worked with Russian officials to try to target members of the Islamic State. The Russians reportedly went further, though, requesting “sensitive documents” from Treasury about a number of Russia’s political opponents — including the Ziffs.
"That request was made weeks before a Russian lawyer showed up at Trump Tower offering top campaign aides 'dirt' on Hillary Clinton,” BuzzFeed's Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold wrote, “including her supposed connection to the Ziff brothers."
It immediately raises the question: Did the Russian government get information that ended up being handed back to the campaign of the man who would soon be president?
The answer isn’t clear. But things nonetheless quickly get more complex. In an email to The Post, Leopold shared that the date of the request from the Russians was May 20, 2016, about three weeks before the meeting. It was also a day after the Russian government had announced new criminal cases targeting Browder for tax evasion — along with “the venture capital firm Ziff Brothers Investments, a U.S. tax resident, which is owned by the New-York billionaire Ziff brothers.”
Veselnitskaya, despite initially denying links to the Russian government when the Trump Tower meeting came to light, has indirect but clear links to Putin. She admitted earlier this year having done work directly for Yury Chaika, the Russian prosecutor general.
Last year, Business Insider obtained a memo from Chaika’s office that had been provided to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) when he was in Moscow in April 2016. It makes similar arguments about Browder and the Ziffs as Veselnitskaya’s memo, citing “[g]overnmental and legal investigations.” The timing of that memo — April — means that the governmental investigations didn’t include any information that might have been shared by the Treasury Department. But it does reinforce the Russian government’s interest in digging up whatever dirt it could.
As for those legal investigations that offered information about Browder and the Ziffs? That appears to be a reference to a criminal case in which Veselnitskaya was involved. She did work for Denis Katsyv, owner of a company, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., that was accused by Justice Department attorneys for the Southern District of New York of being involved in a money laundering effort.
The person who discovered that alleged money laundering? Sergei Magnitsky.
As part of that action, Veselnitskaya hired a U.S. law firm called Baker Hostetler. It, in turn, hired an investigative agency to aid its defense.
That firm was Fusion GPS — which, months later, would begin investigating Donald Trump at the request of the Washington Free Beacon, and then, working for a law firm employed by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, hire former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to compile a now-infamous dossier of reports about possible coordination between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign.
When Fusion's co-founder Glenn Simpson appeared on Capitol Hill last year as part of congressional investigations into Russian interference in 2016, he was pressed on his relationship with Veselnitskaya.
At the time of the Trump Tower meeting, he had been investigating Trump for eight months, he said, and had already retained Steele. (Steele’s first report was filed on June 20.) He had been acquainted with Veselnitskaya since 2014 and, as part of his firm’s work for Baker Hostetler, had investigated both Browder (as a “central figure” in the litigation) and the Ziff brothers.
Simpson indicated that he didn't know at the time that his research may have been passed on to the Kremlin.
"She did say to me at one point,” he said in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last year, “that she thought the Ziff Brothers information was important. And l didn't really understand what she was talking about. It didn't seem that important to me."
Veselnitskaya admitted in an interview with NBC News last year that she was feeding information to the Russian government. In November 2017, Reuters reported that Fusion’s research formed at least some part of the Veselnitskaya presentation to Trump Jr. and others. Veselnitskaya told NBC that Chaika hoped to “verify it through his own investigation.”
“At present, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is drafting a request for international legal assistance to our colleagues from the United States,” a spokesman from Chaika’s office said in a statement on May 19, 2016, “asking them to check the mentioned transactions for compliance with the U.S. financial and tax laws, and to provide necessary information on the Russian assets' withdrawal pattern for the completion of the inquiry in Russia and sending the case to court.”
The next day, Leopold indicates, they reached out to their back channel at Treasury.
During his testimony in Washington, Fusion’s Simpson was asked when the last time was that he had seen Veselnitskaya before the Trump Tower meeting (which he indicated he didn’t know about until it was reported in the news). He described two dinners with Veselnitskaya at that time — one, on June 10, 2016, including Akhmetshin as well. (Akhmetshin is a former intelligence officer who served in the Soviet Union.)
But the last time Simpson saw Veselnitskaya before the meeting was in a court hearing about the Prevezon case in New York.
That was on June 9, 2016. It was apparently the hearing that forced the meeting in Trump Tower to be moved back to 4 p.m.