The Russian Lawyer And The Lobbyist From The Trump Jr. Meeting Had A Busy Month In America Last Summer
Natalia Veselnitskaya was not only at the Trump Tower meeting that's dominated the news this week. She spent the first half of June appearing at several key moments for Russian relations in the US — often with the lobbyist revealed on Friday also to have been at the meeting with Donald Trump Jr.
The meeting at Trump Tower was just one moment of a busy series of days in June 2016 for Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer at the center of the story that has dominated the past week with new revelations daily.
In the days surrounding June 9, 2016, Veselnitskaya, here on a visitor's visa, traveled between New York and Washington — going to court and Trump Tower and then attending a reception for and screening of a controversial documentary at the Newseum in DC and, later, a hearing on Capitol Hill.
She had company: Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian-American lobbyist who it was revealed on Friday also attended the Trump meeting, also went to both DC events.
Akhmetshin, 49, is a longtime DC operator. Since the Associated Press first reported his attendance at the June 2016 meeting the Donald Trump Jr., later confirmed by BuzzFeed News, he has been widely reported as having ties to Russian intelligence. But he has denied an ongoing relationship with the Russian government — though he did tell Politico that he had been drafted to work as a Soviet counterintelligence officer.
Akhmetshin’s work in the US has covered a range of largely unregistered work to influence the US government. In 2011, he arranged a series of meetings with Congress and the State Department meant to undermine political opposition in Kazakhstan. In 2015, he was working to undermine the asylum application of Ashot Egiazaryan, a former Russian parliament member who was facing fraud charges in his home country.
Many of the events of June 2016 dealt, at least in part, with complicated lobbying or legal proceedings related to the Magnitsky Act — a US law imposing sanctions on those responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the United States, various American lawyers and lobbyists have taken up work related to defending or dismantling the Magnitsky Act, as well as similar laws — and Russians like Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin are a frequent presence on matters like this, showcasing just how active Russian interests are, and how enmeshed they are in New York and Washington culture, when it comes to US sanctions.
On the day of June 9 — the day of the meeting at Trump Tower — Veselnitskaya was going to be in court until 3 p.m., according to one of the emails released by Trump Jr. earlier this week.
That seems likely to have been proceedings that day over a Russian-owned company that was fighting to keep its lawyers from being disqualified from a case brought by the US government.
The US was suing Prevezon, a Cyprus-based real estate company owned by a Russian national, for money to offset an alleged more than $200 million financial fraud that included alleged fraudulent real estate transactions in New York City.
Hermitage Capital — whose information was used to conduct the alleged fraud — had uncovered the fraud allegations. Its lawyer at the time, Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison after exposing the fraud. Hermitage Capital CEO, William Browder, has led effort to fight back against his death.
Meanwhile, Veselnitskaya has represented Prevezon, and was an active participant in the case. Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009, formally joined the defense team for Prevezon Holdings on Feb. 5, 2016.
The dispute of last June concerned representation in court: Hermitage Capital had previously been represented at one point by John Moscow, one of the lawyers with the firm Baker Hostetler, which represented Prevezon in 2016. Hermitage pushed back in court, asking for Baker Hostetler to be disqualified.
On June 9, Mukasey argued before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that Prevezon's lawyers from Baker Hostetler should not be disqualified from representing the company in a case that resulted from allegations of fraud.
The hearing at the Second Circuit, set for 10 a.m. June 9, 2016, was Mukasey's only argument for the company. He no longer represents Prevezon. (The Second Circuit ruled against Prevezon in October 2016, so Baker Hostetler had to withdraw representation.) A spokesperson for Mukasey, who is of counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, did not respond to a request for comment. Moscow also did not respond to a request to discuss the matter.
According to emails made public earlier this week by Trump Jr., Veselnitskaya was going to be "in court until 3." There was no other apparent activity in the case that day.
Rinat Akhmetshin, who was revealed Friday as also having attended the afternoon meeting, told the Washington Post that he wasn't involved in setting up the afternoon meeting and did not know how it was set up. According to the Post, "He said he had lunch with Veselnitskaya that day and she asked his advice on what to say at the session." She then, by his telling, asked him if he wanted to join her at the meeting. He did so.
At 4 p.m., the pair were joined by Emin Agalarov's publicist, Rob Goldstone, for the meeting — along with a translator. According to CNN, another representative of the Agalarov family also attended the meeting. (Emin's father, Aras Agalarov, is the billionaire developer who teamed up with Trump to bring the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. The Trump and Agalarov families have interacted many times in recent years.)
Along with Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were in the meeting that afternoon.
The discussions, which Goldstone had presented initially as being about potentially damaging information against Hillary Clinton, reportedly veered into discussions about Veselnitskaya's work against the Magnitsky Act — the US law imposing sanctions on those involved in the death of Magnitsky — and other similar laws. (Russian President Vladimir Putin is a vigorous opponent of the laws. After the law was passed, Russia retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.)
In Trump Jr.'s initial response to news of the meeting, he said it "primarily" was about the Russian adoption issue and did not mention the Magnistky Act at all. The story has shifted multiple times since then. On Tuesday, when he released the emails associated with the meeting, Trump Jr. said in his statement that Veselnitskaya "wanted to talk about adoption policy and the Magnitsky Act." Akhmetshin said on Friday that Veselnitskaya also left a document with Trump Jr. at the meeting.
The film screening
Four days after the Trump Tower meeting, the Newseum hosted a film presenting the Russian government's view of the Magnitsky affair.
Directed by Andrei Nekrasov, Veselnitskaya supported the film. BuzzFeed News has learned that staff from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's office were sending invitations to the June 13, 2016, evening event.
Among those attending the event that night were the director, Nekrasov — but also Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin. An activist who opposed the film secured admittance to the film screening, which was by invitation only, after having one of the invitations from a Rohrabacher staffer forwarded to her.
The woman, Natalia Arno, is president of the Free Russia Foundation and provided BuzzFeed News with a copy of the invitation and photographs that she took at the event.
A complaint filed by Hermitage Capital with the Justice Department in July 2016 alleges that the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF) violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act 1995 (LDA) and the Foreign Agents Registration Act 1938 (FARA).
Akhmetshin is a lobbyist for the group, and the complaint also alleges that Veselnitskaya "ha[s] been involved in HRAGIF's lobbying activities" — without being listed as such.
Although the group claims to be focused on "overturning the Russian adoption ban," the Hermitage Capital complaint alleges the group's goals include repealing the Magnitsky Act and "discredit[ing] the established version of events regarding the theft of $230 million from the Russian Treasury and the death of Sergei Magnitsky as told by William Browder, CEO of Hermitage." The screening is one of the instances the complaint cites as evidence of the group's true goals.
Browder is due to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 19 about FARA enforcement issues.
The next day, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on "US Policy Toward Putin's Russia."
Veselnitskaya can be seen front and center in the now-infamous photo of the hearing — the basis for a false conspiracy theory alleging a link between Veselnitskaya and Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia. Two rows back, Nekrasov (the film director) is there as well. In between them, to the left, is Arno.
Not seen in the public photos or video from the hearing, but also in attendance — a photo provided by Hermitage shows — was Akhmetshin.
Otillia Steadman contributed to this report.