Natalia Veselnitskaya arrived at a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 hoping to interest top Trump campaign officials in the contents of a memo she believed contained information damaging to the Democratic Party and, by extension, Hillary Clinton.
The material was the fruit of her research as a private lawyer, she has said, and any suggestion that she was acting at the Kremlin’s behest that day is anti-Russia “hysteria.”
But interviews and records show that in the months before the meeting, Veselnitskaya had discussed the allegations with one of Russia’s most powerful officials, the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika. And the memo she brought with her closely followed a document that Chaika’s office had given to a U.S. congressman two months earlier, incorporating some paragraphs verbatim.
The coordination between the Trump Tower visitor and the Russian prosecutor general undercuts Veselnitskaya’s account that she was a purely independent actor when she sat down with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign chairman.
It also suggests that e-mails from an intermediary to the younger Trump promising that Veselnitskaya would arrive with information from Russian prosecutors were rooted at least partly in fact.
In the past week, Veselnitskaya’s allegations — that major Democratic donors were guilty of financial fraud and tax evasion — have been embraced at the highest levels of the Russian government. President Vladimir Putin repeated her charges last week at a conference of Western academics. A state-run TV network recently ran two special reports.
The matching messages point to a synchronized information campaign. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow with the nonprofit American Foreign Policy Council, said they indicate that Veselnitskaya’s actions “were coordinated from the very top.”
The Trump Tower meeting is of keen interest to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as he investigates Russian efforts to help Trump’s campaign.
The memo that Veselnitskaya brought to the Trump Tower meeting alleged that Ziff Brothers Investments, a U.S. firm, had illegally purchased shares in a Russian company and evaded tens of millions of dollars of Russian taxes. The company was a vehicle of three billionaire brothers, two of them donors to Democratic candidates including Clinton. Veselnitskaya said those donations were tainted by “stolen” money.
Kremlin officials viewed the charges as extremely significant. The Ziff brothers had invested in funds managed by William Browder, an American-born financier and fierce Kremlin foe. Browder was the driving force behind a 2012 law passed by Congress imposing sanctions on Russian officials for human rights abuses.
The law, known as the Magnitsky Act, froze Western bank accounts of officials on the sanctions list and banned them from entering the U.S.
In his speech, Putin said that U.S. authorities had ignored the allegations because the Ziff brothers were major political donors. “They protect themselves in this way,” he said.