(LONDON) — The Moscow lawyer said to have promised Donald Trump’s presidential campaign dirt on his Democratic opponent worked more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously let on, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
Scores of emails, transcripts and legal documents paint a portrait of Natalia Veselnitskaya as a well-connected attorney who served as a ghostwriter for top Russian government lawyers and received assistance from senior Interior Ministry personnel in a case involving a key client.
The data was obtained through Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s London-based investigative unit, the Dossier Center, that is compiling profiles of Russians it accuses of benefiting from corruption. The data was later shared with journalists at the AP, the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Greek news website Inside Story and others.
The AP was unable to reach Veselnitskaya for comment. Messages from a reporter sent to her phone were marked as “read” but were not returned. A list of questions sent via email went unanswered.
Veselnitskaya has been under scrutiny since it emerged last year that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., met with her in June 2016 after being told by an intermediary that she represented the Russian government and was offering Moscow’s help defeating rival presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Veselnitskaya has denied acting on behalf of Russian officialdom when she met with the Trump team, telling Congress that she operates “independently of any government bodies.”
But recent reporting has cast doubt on her story. In an April interview with NBC News, Veselnitskaya acknowledged acting as an “informant” for the Russian government after being confronted with an earlier batch of emails obtained through the Dossier Center.
The new documents reviewed by AP suggest her ties to Russian authorities are close — and they pull the curtain back on her campaign to overturn the sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russian officials.
The source of the material is murky.
Veselnitskaya has previously said that her emails were hacked. Khodorkovsky told AP he couldn’t know where the messages came from, saying his group maintained a series of anonymous digital drop boxes.
The AP worked to authenticate the 200-odd documents, in some cases by verifying the digital signatures carried in email headers.
In three other cases, individuals named in various email chains confirmed that the messages were genuine. Other correspondence was partially verified by confirming the nonpublic phone numbers or email addresses they held, including some belonging to senior Russian officials and U.S. lobbyists.
Friends in high places
Veselnitskaya’s role in the drama over the Trump campaign’s Russian connections is rooted in her fight against Bill Browder, the American-born British businessman who has become a leading critic of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Browder’s decade-plus crusade against the Kremlin has so enraged Russian officials that Putin demanded his extradition to Moscow during his press conference with President Trump in Helsinki earlier this month.
The feud took off in 2009, when a lawyer working for Browder, Sergey Magnitsky, died in a Moscow prison under suspicious circumstances. Magnitsky had been investigating a multimillion dollar embezzlement scheme allegedly involving Russian tax officials when he was arrested, and Browder turned his death into a cause celebre, successfully lobbying Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that slapped the officials implicated in the scandal with visa bans and asset freezes.
Moscow has responded with a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans and by an unrelenting campaign against Browder, who says he’s been the subject of more than a half-dozen attempts to extradite him to Russia through Interpol.
Browder has refused to back down, pushing for copycat legislation across the world. Veselnitskaya has taken the counteroffensive, battling him in court across Europe and the U.S. and organizing a media and lobbying campaign to undercut his credibility in Washington.
Veselnitskaya told Congress last year that her interest in Browder was “all part of my job defending a specific person” — her client Denis Katsyv, who Browder accuses of laundering money through the company Prevezon.
But the documents obtained through the Dossier Center show she both received Russian government support and provided assistance to high-level authorities in Moscow.
When Swiss officials investigating Prevezon arrived in Moscow on September 2015 to interrogate Katsyv, for example, they were met not just by Veselnitskaya but by Lt. Col. A. V. Ranchenkov, a senior Interior Ministry official previously known for his role investigating the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
Ranchenkov devoted a chunk of the interview to questions about the legality of Browder’s actions, according to a transcript of the interrogation reviewed by email.
The Russian Interior Ministry did not return messages seeking comment.
Two years later, the emails show, Veselnitskaya was mixed up in the Russian government’s attempt to extract financial information from Browder’s former law firm in Cyprus.
An Oct. 31, 2017, email shows Veselnitskaya’s office preparing a draft version of Russian Deputy General Prosecutor Mikhail Alexandrov’s affidavit to Cypriot authorities. “This is needed by tomorrow,” she wrote a subordinate.
Two weeks later, a finalized version of the same document was sent by a Russian diplomatic staffer to a Cypriot counterpart, the Dossier Center’s files show.
Browder said this reinforced the idea that Veselnitskaya was enmeshed with Russian officialdom.
“If her office is drafting replies for Russian-Cyprus law enforcement cooperation, in my opinion that effectively shows that she’s an agent of the Russian government and not an independent lawyer as she claims,” he said in a telephone interview.
In a written statement, the Russian Embassy in Cyprus called the AP’s questions a “provocation” and that it had “no idea who is Nataliya Veselnitskaya and what she sends or doesn’t send to the Cypriot Officials.”
Alexandrov, reached at the prosecutor-general’s office, refused to speak to the AP.
‘My antennae were out’
Veselnitskaya tried to extend her influence to the United States.
The emails obtained through the Dossier Center show her at the center of a multipronged lobbying operation aimed at halting Browder’s momentum in Washington.
One prong was aimed at building a grassroots support for the effort to overturn the Magnitsky Act, or at least create the illusion of one.
A potential ally in this effort was the Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption Including Neighboring Countries, or FRUA, a charity that supports families who adopt children from former Soviet bloc nations.
Jan Wondra, the organization’s chairman, said she attended a meeting in Washington on June 8, 2016, that with a group of people including Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who was working with Veselnitskaya to overturn U.S. sanctions against Russia.
The group told her they had evidence that the Magnitsky Act had been propelled by bogus claims spread by Browder and his allies, Wondra said, a revelation the group said could lead to the overturning of the Russian adoption ban.
Wondra told the AP she was suspicious and feared that the lobbyists wanted FRUA’s endorsement for their own purposes.
‘My antennae were out. I looked at this as an attempt to put public pressure on Congress to rescind all or a part of the Magnitsky Act,” she said, emphasizing that she spoke only for herself, not her organization. “The conclusion I drew was that FRUA should not participate. And we didn’t.”
Akhmetshin, who would join Veselnitskaya at the Trump Tower meeting the next day, declined comment.
While the lobbyists were wooing Wondra, Veselnitskaya was overseeing the creation of a new organization called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation, or HRAGI, which billed itself as a grass-roots group devoted to overturning the Russian adoption ban.
A Bloomberg report shows the organization was in fact funded by Russian friends of Katsyv — something Veselnitskaya appeared eager to keep secret.
“Is it possible to open a Fund account here in Russia, so we can collect money from donations and then pay them into an account anonymously in the U.S?” she wrote Mark Cymrot, a lawyer at the U.S. law firm BakerHostetler, in a March 17, 2016, email.
Cymrot represented Prevezon, the Katsyv-owned company accused by Browder of being a conduit for the ill-gotten money Magnitsky was tracking before he died. But Cymrot did more than just fight Veselnitskaya’s corner in American court; he also helped her undercut Browder’s crusading image in the American media.
For this, Cymrot turned to Fusion GPS, a private intelligence firm that prepared a 660-odd page media dossier on Browder for circulation to journalists.
Fusion also was tasked with background research for Veselnitskaya’s work convincing elected representatives to push back against Browder’s campaign in Washington, where the Global Magnitsky Bill, an enlarged version of the 2012 law, was wending its way through Congress.
The emails capture Cymrot writing to Fusion to ask for damning material on Browder to send to a senior staffer on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“Any articles critical of Browder,” Cymrot told Fusion, saying the staffer had asked for “anything we have that could be helpful.”
“Time is of the essence,” he added, noting that the global bill was only two days from the beginning of the amendment process.
Cymrot said his work did not constitute lobbying.
“You’re misinterpreting what occurred,” he said in a telephone interview. When pressed for details, he asked for questions in writing. When these were provided, he did not respond. BakerHostetler also did not respond to written questions.
Whatever Cymrot’s role, Veselnitskaya’s modest American lobbying effort came to naught. The Global Magnitsky Act cleared the Committee on Foreign Affairs amid overwhelming bipartisan support. It was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2016.
The campaign to knock the wind out of Browder’s sails began to draw blowback as the political climate changed.
On July 16, 2016, Browder filed a formal complaint with the Justice Department accusing Cymrot, Akhmetshin, Fusion founder Glenn Simpson and many of their colleagues of acting as unregistered agents for Russia.
In October 2016, a judge threw BakerHostetler off the Prevezon case on the grounds of conflict of interest, since the firm had previously represented Browder. It eventually was replaced by Los Angeles-based Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
After Trump’s election in November, the once-discreet Fusion was thrust into the white-hot center of Trump’s Washington when it was revealed that the private intelligence company had commissioned the dossier containing explosive claims about the future president’s behavior in Russia.
Republican politicians seized on Browder’s 2016 complaint about Fusion to try to undermine the dossier’s authors, accusing Simpson, for example, of secretly working on behalf of the Russian state, or of letting his work for Prevezon overlap with his opposition research on Trump.
Simpson denied the charges in his testimony before Congress. In a statement Thursday, Fusion’s lawyer Joshua A. Levy said the company had provided litigation support — not lobbying — and that its Trump research had survived determined Republican efforts to discredit it.
Others in Veselnitskaya’s orbit took a little time to get their story straight, a document obtained through the Dossier Center suggests.
The April 2017 document initially has Robert Arakelian, the owner of the HRAGI organization working to overturn the adoption ban, explaining that he is exempt from the requirement to register as a foreign agent and saying he created the organization “at the request of Denis Katsyv.”
The document’s tracked changes suggest a BakerHostetler lawyer rewrote the charity’s origin story wholesale, deleting the reference to Katsyv and saying instead that the adoption group was established after Arakelian met Akhmetshin, the lobbyist, and “learned that the law is unjust and based on false information provided to members of the United States Congress.”
The BakerHostetler lawyer then inserted a sentence explaining that there were no agreements between the adoption group, Katsyv, Prevezon “or any other foreign persons or principals from the Russian Federation.”
The only foreign link, the document said, was an “informal representation” by Veselnitskaya.
Arakelian didn’t return an email seeking comment.
“A BAD LIGHT”
As the rewriting of the document shows, BakerHostetler was still involved with Prevezon and its entourage despite the judge having ordered the firm off the case months before.
Faith Gay of Quinn Emanuel told Veselnitskaya on May 1, 2017, that she was still in touch with BakerHostetler even though the firm couldn’t officially participate in trial preparations.
“We have been trying to talk with them informally as much as possible,” she wrote.
Gay no longer works for the firm and declined comment when approached by the AP. But several emails show her former colleagues copying counterparts at BakerHostetler on trial-related matters, as well as BakerHostetler lawyers offering their feedback throughout the first half of 2017.
Cymrot defended his continued work on Prevezon, saying the lawyers at Quinn Emanuel needed help navigating the complex case they had taken on right up until the moment Prevezon settled with the government on May 19, 2017.
“It was all under the transition period,” he said in his interview.
Cymrot refused to divulge whether he or others at BakerHostetler were paid for their work, calling that information privileged.
Worries about the behind-the-scenes assistance becoming public would prove a source of concern after news of Veselnitskaya’s meeting at Trump Tower became public.
Within weeks, she, Akhmetshin, Simpson and others were called before Congress and investigators subpoenaed their emails. Quinn Emmanuel warned Veselnitskaya that the email exchanges could be damaging and urged her to declare them off-limits.
Releasing the messages could result in “a question being raised about BakerHostleter representing Prevezon’s interests well beyond the district court’s disqualification of them as Prevezon’s counsel,” one lawyer wrote.
Veselnitskaya initially shrugged off the issue.
“I can see no reason to worry,” she wrote on Aug. 18.
But five days later, senior Quinn Emanuel lawyer Faith Gay reemphasized the point, arguing that the documents should be kept secret “as it seems to us that it could be your friends at BakerHostetler in a bad light.”
Quinn Emanuel did not respond to a list of questions.
Veselnitskaya’s final response isn’t captured in the messages obtained through the Dossier Center, but she appears to have relented.
The emails between BakerHostetler, Fusion and congressional staffers were never made public. Instead, a two-page email log was produced labeling the material “confidential communication performed at the direction of counsel in anticipation of litigation.”
The emails obtained by AP leave some unanswered questions.
In particular, the Dossier Center’s investigation turned up almost no messages about the Trump Tower meeting, its lead-up or its aftermath. The group said it received only a few messages dealing with the media queries when the meeting became public in mid-2017.
That could lend credence to arguments by the Trump campaign and Veselnitskaya that both sides quickly realized the get-together was a waste of time.
“I wanted to go away as soon as possible,” she told Congress. “And I felt Trump Jr. wanted the same too.”
The messages also carry no hint of the Trump dossier, and nothing in the material challenges Simpson’s testimony that Fusion’s work for Prevezon was kept separate from its work on Trump.
Finally, there’s no mention in the documents of the Russian hack-and-leak operation that began rattling the Democrats immediately following Veselnitskaya’s visit.
The only hints of cyberespionage in the documents appear to revolve around concerns that Veselnitskaya or members of her entourage might have their messages hacked by others.
About a week before the Trump Tower meeting, for example, Veselnitskaya’s translator warned Arakelian, the owner of HRAGI, the adoption group, that their emails were vulnerable and suggested switching to more secure channels.
“We need to think about how to send files via Telegram, Signal or PGP,” he said.