The Russian lawyer at the center of Donald Trump Jr.’s scandal over possible collusion with Kremlin election meddlers has denied she has ties to the Russian government.
But she threatened action by the Russian security service, the FSB, against a rights group working to expose corruption by Russian government officials, according to information in the possession of U.S. prosecutors who had been investigating a large and complex money laundering case involving Russian funds.
The New York Times first reported over the weekend that Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met in June 2016 with Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law Jared Kushner and incoming campaign chief Paul Manafort at Trump Tower.
In emails, an acquaintance billed the meeting as an opportunity for Trump Jr. to obtain — courtesy of the Russian government — damaging material about Hillary Clinton, his father’s Democratic rival. Trump Jr. responded excitedly: "If it’s what you say I love it," he wrote back. The emails were released Tuesday by Trump Jr. as The New York Times was about to print them.
Veselnitskaya was described in the emails as a Russian government attorney. In interviews on Tuesday, she denied that. "I have never worked for the [Russian] government," she told NBC Nightly News.
There is reason to doubt that, given her alleged actions several years earlier.
Veselnitskaya was in the United States at the time of the Trump Tower meeting to provide legal defense help to Denis Katsyv, accused in a New York court of helping launder through New York real estate some of the $230 million in Russian government money allegedly pilfered.
But prosecutors in that case knew that Veselnitskaya had allegedly threatened a lawyer working in Moscow in 2009 to expose the corruption, McClatchy has learned, warning his efforts would face consequences from the FSB. The FSB is Russia’s intelligence agency, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
The New York prosecution involved a Cyprus-based company called Prevezon Holdings and the case threatened to expose how Russian government officials had moved money out of their country and into safe havens — something also documented in the now-famous Panama Papers.
Efforts by some in Russia to expose the corruption made their lives extremely difficult. In 2009, the Kremlin attacked lawyers from a Russian-based nongovernmental organization called Spravedlinost, the English translation of which is Justice.
It was in that context that Veselnitskaya allegedly warned attorney Andrey Stolbunov, the leader of Spravedlinost, that the FSB would punish the rights group for its investigation — implying that he should work with the government.
Stolbunov fled Russia in 2013, saying in a 2014 interview with Radio Free Europe that he was being persecuted over his efforts to expose financial misdeeds.
Russian prosecutors by then had accused him and his partners of trying to extort more than $20 million from Pyotr Katsyv, the father of Denis. Two of Stolbunov’s legal partners — Andrey Karasyov and Maxim Roslyakov — were jailed in 2010 despite denials in the matter.
After arriving in the United States in 2013, Stolbunov provided support to U.S. prosecutors in the Southern District of New York in the case against Denis Katsyv. Stolbunov won U.S. asylum earlier this year.
Reached by McClatchy, Stolbunov declined to comment for this story, citing fears of retribution back in Russia against colleagues and family.
When news of Veselnitskaya’s meeting with Trump campaign officials broke, no one immediately connected her name to the Kremlin. The Putin government in the past had hired big-name global lobbying firms to press matters of interest in Washington. Her relatively small law firm, located in the Moscow Oblast region, was hardly a heavy hitter.
But Veselnitskaya was involved in the founding of a group called Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative. That group lobbied the U.S. Congress to help lift Russia’s ban on adoption by ending U.S. sanctions imposed after the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was jailed in Russia for investigating corruption. Magnitsky had been looking into Prevezon among other things.
In May, CNN reported that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., confirmed that the group’s lobbyist had discussed the Prevezon case with him a month earlier.
The CNN report aired eight days before a surprise announcement on May 12 that federal prosecutors, about to begin the trial, had settled the Prevezon case for $6 million, far less than the $20 million they sought to claw back from Katsyv, who was not forced to admit guilt.
Veselnitskaya celebrated the settlement on her Facebook page, noting in Russian on May 15, "For the first time, the U.S. recognized that Russia is right!"