The photograph is striking: There sits Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and others at Trump Tower in Manhattan on June 9, 2016, seated a few days later in the front row of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing at which witnesses discussed U.S. sanctions against her country.
The day before, Veselnitskaya was at Washington’s Newseum, attending the screening of a film that criticized U.S. sanctions.
In the course of a week — from New York to Washington — Veselnitskaya showed up at several events that go to the heart of the investigation of questions about whether Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Veselnitskaya’s role has raised questions about how close she is to the Kremlin, and why the Trump campaign — which has denied colluding with Moscow — agreed to a meeting with a person described to them as a Russian government attorney who could provide information detrimental to Clinton. The lawyer told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday that she has no connection to the Kremlin.
Veselnitskaya, while familiar to those who follow the issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia, was otherwise little known until revelations this week that she played a pivotal role at the Trump Tower meeting attended by three close associates of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: his son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; and his then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
The story of how she ended up in the meeting can be traced to her role as an attorney representing a Russian-owned company, Prevezon Holdings.
Veselnitskaya, 42, has deep experience in Russian political and legal matters. She has practiced law since 1998. She served in the prosecutor’s office of Moscow Region for three years, where she has said her work included “overseeing the legality of statutes” adopted by legislators. She founded a law firm, Kamerton Consulting, specializing in corporate and property disputes. She has said that her firm’s clients include “large state-owned and private corporations, as well as clients from the real estate and banking sectors.”
She said in a court declaration that she has won more than 300 cases and that she represents “victims in many criminal cases involving economic crimes.”
It was one of her most high-profile cases that brought her to New York City in June 2016, as the U.S. presidential campaign was underway. At the time, Donald Trump had sealed the Republican nomination but was trailing far behind his Democratic rival, Clinton.
Veselnitskaya, meanwhile, represented Prevezon, which had been sued by the U.S. attorney in New York’s Southern District in a money-laundering case. It was while she was in that role that she also became an outspoken advocate for lifting economic sanctions imposed by Congress against Russia for human rights violations.
The sanctions stemmed from the death of a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. He worked for a U.S.-born businessman, William Browder, who runs a company called Hermitage Capital Management. The company once was one of the largest foreign investors in Russia, but Browder became critical of corruption under Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged reforms. He was banned from entering Russia in 2005 on grounds that he was a threat to national security.
Two years later, Browder said, his company’s offices were raided, documents were seized and Hermitage companies were illegally taken over. Subsequently, those who arranged the takeover applied for a tax refund of $230 million, which was granted, Browder said. Browder hired Magnitsky to investigate. Magnitsky determined that fraud had occurred and testified against Russian officials in the matter, Browder said.
Magnitsky was arrested by those he had testified against and was found dead in jail a year later. Russian officials said he died of a heart attack, but Magnitsky’s family said he had injuries consistent with a severe beating.
Browder, who is now a British citizen, accused Russian officials of being culpable for Magnitsky’s death, and he said Moscow was trying to cover up corruption. He launched an effort to impose U.S. economic sanctions against Russia, and Congress approved them in 2012 legislation named the Magnitsky Act. Russian officials, in turn, accused Browder of colluding with the CIA and fabricating key pieces of his story. The passage of the act infuriated Putin, leading the Russian leader to retaliate by halting American adoption of Russian children. The adoption issue is frequently used as a talking point by opponents of the Magnitsky Act.
As accusations flew and the Magnitsky Act took effect, Prevezon was accused by U.S. officials of buying real estate with laundered funds from some of the proceeds of the $230 million tax refund. Prevezon, owned by a Russian named Denis Katsyv, fought the charges in federal court in New York. The company, in addition to hiring American lawyers, brought on Veselnitskaya to help make its case.
Veselnitskaya’s visa for U.S. entry was denied, but she received special permission — in what is known as a “parole letter” — to come to New York specifically to defend Prevezon and Katsyv. She said in a court statement, however, that when she tried to reenter the United States, she was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport and “unjustifiably subjected to a strip search, for no apparent reason.” She eventually received permission to come to the United States to continue her work for Prevezon.
That set the stage for Veselnitskaya to be in New York City in June 2016, where a hearing related to Prevezon case was being held in federal court. (Prevezon paid $6 million to settle the case in May; Reuters reported that Prevezon said it was a victory because no guilt was declared and the amount was far less than initially sought by the U.S. government.) While Veselnitskaya was in the city, she had an opportunity to try to get her message against the Magnitsky Act to the Trump campaign.
The meeting was arranged by a publicist named Rob Goldstone, who wrote to Donald Trump Jr. that he could arrange a meeting with “the Russian government attorney” who could convey “information that incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Trump Jr. responded that “if it’s what you say I love it.”
Goldstone then wrote in a June 8 email to Donald Trump Jr. that Veselnitskaya “can’t do today as she hasn’t landed yet from Moscow.” Goldstone then said it would need to be the following day, late in the afternoon, because Veselnitskaya “is in court until 3” p.m.
Veselnitskaya, who has said she cannot read or write English, did not speak at the hearing. She then went to the Trump Tower meeting, bringing an interpreter with her. Trump Jr. has said that Veselnitskaya had no information to share about Clinton and that she talked about her opposition to the Magnitsky Act. The legislation preceded sanctions imposed against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine; overturning the Magnitsky Act is seen in Russia as a first step to ending all sanctions.
“We sat and talked to each other for a few minutes, and it was clear we were talking about two different things,” Veselnitskaya said in an interview with The Post in Moscow on Tuesday.
Veselnitskaya said that Goldstone’s statement that she was a government attorney is wrong. She told The Post that she once worked in the prosecutor’s office of the province that surrounds but does not include Moscow. “A regional prosecutor is not the Kremlin,” she said. A Kremlin spokesman has said that she was not speaking to the Trump campaign on its behalf and that “we don’t know who she is.”
Trump Jr., in explaining why he met with Veselnitskaya, said he was told “the woman would be in New York and asked if I would meet. I decided to take the meeting. The woman, as she has said publicly, was not a government official.”
Veselnitskaya’s stay in the United States was only beginning. Four days after her meeting at Trump Tower, she attended the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, which focused on sanctions and overall U.S.-Russia relations. She secured a seat in the first row, directly behind the witness table. She was photographed by a committee staffer as she listened intently to a witness, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who testified that many Russians “quietly believe that Putin’s current course of confrontation with the West” does not serve its interests.
Opponents of the Magnitsky Act had hoped to show a film about the issue to members of Congress, but they were rebuffed. Instead, the film was screened the night before at the Newseum. Veselnitskaya took a seat at the screening, according to a congressional official who attended the event, but she did not speak to the audience. She later returned to Russia, where she is raising four children, and she seemed to fade from public notice until her role surfaced in Trump Tower meeting.
On Tuesday night, she was by turns tearful and angry about her sudden prominence. She defended her role, and stood steadfast in her belief that the Magnitsky Act is unfair and that her appearance at Trump Tower had nothing to do with the Russian government.
“I did not have an assignment from the Kremlin. There were no orders from the government,” she said.
David Filipov and Natalya Abbakumova reported from Moscow. Aaron Davis contributed to this report.