Natalia Veselnitskaya: ‘My meeting with Trump’s son was a private meeting; nobody in the government had anything to do with it.’
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the woman at the centre of the latest Russia-linked scandal to hit Donald Trump’s presidency, has been described in headlines as everything from a “fearsome Moscow insider” to a “low-level” lawyer.
In the email introduction setting up her meeting with Donald Trump Jr, she was referred to as a “Russian government attorney” with sensitive information on Hillary Clinton. But Veselnitskaya herself has claimed to the Guardian that she knows nobody influential in the government and is a simple defence lawyer.
So is she a well-networked insider relaying secret Kremlin information, or a chancer who somehow managed to get into the room with three top Trump advisers in the midst of a presidential campaign?
The truth may end up being a blurry combination of both. Veselnitskaya is no Kremlin power broker, having spent most of her career working on business disputes in the courtrooms of the Moscow region, a province that surrounds but does not include the city itself.
Nevertheless, in recent years she had taken on a high-profile case that aligned with Kremlin objectives and was followed closely by top officials. A source who knows her also told the Guardian she has a long-standing personal connection with Yuri Chaika, Russia’s powerful prosecutor-general.
Chaika’s name is particularly relevant, because it seems likely that Rob Goldstone, the publicist who emailed Donald Trump Jr suggesting he meet with the Russian lawyer, was referring to Chaika as the potential source of the information on Clinton.
According to the email chain that Trump Jr himself published on Twitter, Goldstone said he was making the proposition after a Russian businessman, Aras Agalarov, had met “Russia’s crown prosecutor” and received information about Hillary Clinton. Goldstone wanted Trump Jr to speak with Agalarov’s son Emin – a businessman and pop singer – to help set up the meeting.
As per Goldstone’s email to Trump Jr, the Agalarovs were helping the Russian government to help Trump. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information, but it is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin,” he wrote.
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There is no such position as “crown prosecutor” in Russia, but Chaika is the most powerful prosecutor. After opposition politician Alexei Navalny made explosive corruption allegations against Chaika and his family in 2015, Agalarov paid to place a column in the business daily Kommersant in defence of Chaika, suggesting the two may also have a relationship.
Goldstone told the Wall Street Journal his reference to the “crown prosecutor” meant Veselnitskaya, which seems unlikely as she is a defence lawyer and has never been a prosecutor. In the same exchange Goldstone referred to her as an “attorney”.
The Agalarovs were Trump’s partners in Russia during the 2013 Miss Universe contest hosted in Moscow, and Trump had even appeared in one of Emin’s music videos. Goldstone had worked as Emin’s agent.
Agalarov told a Russian radio station on Wednesday that he was not involved in setting up the meeting. “What’s Hillary Clinton got to do with this? I don’t know. I don’t know Rob Goldstone at all,” he said. He did admit that Goldstone had worked for his son.
Veselnitskaya’s meeting at Trump Tower took place on 9 June 2016. Trump Jr was present along with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then campaign chief, Paul Manafort.
In written comments to the Guardian early on Wednesday, Veselnitskaya insisted the meeting was purely about the Magnitsky Act, which placed US sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses – and was in turn countered by Moscow with a ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
She was the defence lawyer for Denis Katsyv, a Russian businessman accused of laundering a portion of the proceeds from a $230m tax fraud uncovered by the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who later died in jail and whose name was used in the sanctions act.
Veselnitskaya said that nobody in the Russian government was involved with setting up the Trump meeting and she did not seek approval from Russian officials. She said she did not even know any significant figures in Russia.
“My meeting with Trump’s son was a private meeting; nobody in the government had anything to do with it,” she said. “Not only did I not agree the meeting with anyone, but I actually don’t know anyone, however flattering it would be if the headlines saying the opposite were true.”
But one source acquainted with Veselnitskaya said that she knew Chaika personally, suggesting that the acquaintance was likely to have originated through her ex-husband, the deputy prosecutor of Moscow region.
Veselnitskaya did not respond to follow-up questions about whether she knew Agalarov or Chaika. Nor did she answer a question about who set up the Trump Tower meeting or how.
Two people who know Veselnitskaya said she was extremely passionate about the Magnitsky case and was on a mission to get the sanctions lifted, using as many sources and contacts as she could. She may have seen the Trump campaign as a good opportunity to be heard by a potentially sympathetic ear in the US, and tried to call in a favour with Chaika.
In this scenario, Veselnitskaya could have asked Chaika for an introduction to the Trump camp via Agalarov, who was known to be close to the Trumps.
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This sequence of events would fit with Goldstone’s email to Trump Jr asking him to meet Veselnitskaya, but it would not explain why Goldstone described her as a “Russian government attorney”, nor would it explain his description of the meeting as being about sensitive information on the Clinton campaign.
One theory is that in return for setting up the meeting for Veselnitskaya to discuss her own issues with the Trump camp, Veselnitskaya was also asked to pass on other information.
That some part of the Russian elite used the Agalarovs – well-connected in Moscow and with known links to Trump – as a potential conduit of information is a theory that makes sense to some. In a blog on Wednesday, opposition politician Navalny wrote: “It looks very plausible. I don’t doubt that the Chaika-Agalarov link could have been used by Putin (or the security services) for contacts with Trump and for passing him information through a trusted channel.”
Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that the Kremlin had no links to Veselnitskaya, and likened the media storm to a soap opera that had run too long.