It's The Sanctions, Stupid
In his first public attempt at damage control, Donald Trump Jr.’s appearance last week with Fox News’ Sean Hannity may have provided more evidence of the campaign’s collusion with Russia during the election. His exclusive interview to discuss his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya came only one day after Trump Jr. released copies of his own emails leading up to the encounter, corroborating the account of events detailed in a recent New York Times article. Downplaying it as a “total waste of time”, he confirmed that it was arranged by an associate, Emin Agalarov, and attended by then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser Jared Kushner. In the pitch, Agalarov tells Trump Jr. that the the meeting's instigator intends to provide them with potentially damaging material regarding the Clinton campaign and its ties to Russia.
But rather than providing the compromising information on Clinton, all Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss was “Russian adoptions and how we could possibly help.” Portraying himself as the victim of a bait-and-switch, he dismissed the growing criticism as “Russian fever”.
For Veselnitskaya, a lawyer and lobbyist who has a number of high profile clients in Moscow, restarting Russian adoptions means one thing: the reversal of the Magnitsky Act sanctions enacted by Congress that spurred Russia to ban them in the first place. The meeting wasn’t a bait-and-switch, it was an offer of a quid pro quo.
The Magnitsky Act has become something of a personal vendetta for Veselnitskaya, she has acted as the Russian government’s proxy to challenge the law and its proposed expansion to include even more countries as signatories. A non-profit she founded to push for its repeal has organized screenings at D.C.’s Newseum of a controversial film on Magnitsky that portrays him as a thief and a criminal.
At the time of his death, Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was investigating a tax fraud scheme against an American investment group operating in Russia which netted over $230 million dollars. His work detailed the involvement of several government officials who enabled the fraud. Magnitsky was arrested, imprisoned, and died under suspicious circumstances while in the custody of law enforcement, prompting Congress to enact sanctions against the officials suspected of involvement. Putin later retaliated by freezing the adoption of Russian children by American citizens.
Veselnitskaya has since worked diligently to roll back the restrictions, citing the resumption of Russian adoptions as her rationale. The simplest way in her mind to rectify this situation is for Congress to revisit the sanctions, repealing or softening the language, dangling the children stuck in limbo since the adoption freeze as bait. Which brings us to the subject of her meeting with the Trump campaign in June of 2016.
Emails released by Trump Jr. detail the gist of the offer: acting through an intermediary, a “Russian government attorney” wants to schedule a meeting, “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” which was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” He has further confirmed that at the meeting, Veselnitskaya discussed Russian adoptions and how the campaign could be of assistance. Given Veselnitskaya’s work opposing the Magnitsky Act, and the fact that the United States did not ban adoptions from Russia, the only way the campaign would be of any use is to push for the repeal of the legislation.
The fifth named participant at Trump Tower that day was Veselnitskaya’s longtime business partner Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet counterintelligence officer turned consultant, who frequently dabbles in congressional lobbying. Few will claim him as an associate; Akhmetshin has been sued in federal court for allegedly organizing the hacking of the personal communications of one of his client’s competitors. The information was later used in a black PR campaign to smear the organization.
But at least one congressman has managed to find time for him. Labeled ‘Putin’s Favorite Congressman’ by Politico, one of Akhmetshin’s regular contacts is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. Rohrabacher is the most reliably pro-Kremlin lawmaker in the country. Even his own colleagues in the Republican party seem to think his defense of Putin is too much; in a recording leaked from one GOP meeting, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy can be heard saying, “there’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
Occasionally, their meetings pop up in unusual venues, such as in the lobby bar of the Westin Grant Hotel in Berlin, while Rohrabacher was overseas this past April examining marijuana legalization in Europe. The two reportedly discussed the legal troubles of one of Akhmetshin’s clients, Prevezon Holdings, Ltd, and the federal money-laundering case brought against them in the Southern District of New York. Prevezon had been accused of transferring $230 million dollars through subsidiaries and real estate assets in New York, money which had been stolen during the tax fraud Sergei Magnitsky died investigating.
Rohrabacher is a curiously vocal critic of the Magnitsky case, and notably perhaps the only U.S. government official who publicly supports the Kremlin’s theory that cases stemming from Magnitsky's death are instead an elaborate hoax designed to provoke and inflame relations with Russia.
The theme of the Trump campaign’s ties and questionable choice of associates and contacts continues to be their relationship to U.S. sanctions. By all appearances, Russia has successfully cultivated relationships inside the campaign who have the influence necessary to shift policy in a more favorable direction. In this case, the reciprocal nature of the arrangement is clear: individuals presenting themselves as representatives of the Russian government offered damaging information to the Trump campaign in exchange for their assistance in softening sanctions imposed in retaliation for gross human rights violations.
Outside of Trump’s inner circle, the theme persists. Many of the highest profile departures were involved in legal action against Russian government officials or businessmen. Shortly after advising the administration of Michael Flynn’s omissions regarding his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak, acting Attorney General Sally Yates was relieved of her duties. Interceptions of the Ambassador’s calls revealed that they had discussed the Obama administration’s newest round of sanctions on Russia, enacted in response to their interference in the 2016 election. Many inside the intelligence community suspect that through these communications, Flynn may have played a role in Putin’s decision not to retaliate in kind. Former FBI Director James Comey was fired by Trump in May for his unwillingness to shelve the investigation into Flynn and the campaign’s ties to Russia, and active investigations into Trump’s officials continue.
Worryingly, this is not the only point of overlap between Ms. Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin, and the Trump administration. At the time of the scheduled meeting with Trump Jr., she was in New York to represent her client Prevezon Holdings, Ltd. in federal court, in the case Akhmetshin discussed with Rep. Rohrabacher in April. The complaint was filed by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against Prevezon and its subsidiaries, freezing assets allegedly used to launder the fraudulently acquired money. It was the first case brought to court stemming from the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Shortly after Bharara was fired by Trump in March, the case was settled for less than $5 million dollars, a resolution Veselnitskaya described to Russian news outlets as “almost an apology from the government.”