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Russian lawyer at heart of Trump Tower meeting charged with obstruction by New York prosecutors

The SDNY’s indictment provides fresh evidence that Natalia Veselnitskaya had far closer ties to the Russian government than she'd admitted.

by Greg Walters
Jan 8 2019, 4:14pm

The mysterious Russian lawyer who met with top Trump campaign brass months before the 2016 election just got charged with obstruction of justice.

Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer from Moscow billed as bringing dirt on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was accused of clandestinely working with a senior Russian prosecutor to stymie a Department of Justice civil fraud investigation into money laundering.

The charges brought by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York aren’t directly tied to Veselnitskaya’s meeting with senior members of Trump’s campaign in Trump Tower in June 2016 at the height of the campaign.

Instead, they relate to a separate investigation involving a Russian investment firm.

The indictment, unsealed Tuesday, accuses Veselnitskaya of secretly helping a senior Russian prosecutor draft Russia’s official response to a U.S. request for help with that investigation. The Russian government ultimately refused the DOJ’s request.

The indictment, which was initially filed under seal on December 20th last year, accuses Veselnitskaya of falsely claiming she hadn’t helped prepare that official Russian response.

“In truth and in fact, and as Veselnitskaya well knew but concealed from the court, Veselnitskaya… had participated in drafting those supposed independent investigative findings in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor,” the indictment reads. “In so doing, Veselnitskaya obstructed the civil proceeding.”

The criminal charge against Veselnitskaya represents a new twist in the unfolding narrative of what really happened at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, an incident that has been poured over with painstaking detail by investigators and journalists since it was first uncovered about a year after it occurred.

The public explanation by the Trump campaign and White House for the meeting has been a moving target ever since. In July 2017, Trump’s son Don Jr. released a statement saying the meeting had largely been centered on “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” But Don Jr.’s official explanation, which Trump’s lawyers later acknowledged the president dictated on his son’s behalf, immediately came under intense scrutiny when emails revealed he embraced the idea of receiving dirt on his father’s opponent.

By August 2018, President Trump acknowledged that the meeting was “to get information on an opponent,” but “went nowhere” — and insisted he didn’t know about it at the time.

Yet skeptics have argued that the involvement of Trump’s son and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, suggest Trump surely must have been informed. Also present at the notorious meeting was Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who has since pleaded guilty to tax and bank fraud charges and is currently awaiting sentencing from judges in both Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

The SDNY’s indictment provides fresh evidence that the Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, had far closer ties to the Russian government than she has previously admitted — and had them well before she met with Trump’s children and campaign chairman in the summer of 2016.

Veselnitskaya has long insisted she was a private attorney, and not a secretive Kremlin operative sent to penetrate the Trump campaign. But press reports, and now this latest indictment, have chipped away at that explanation to the point where her clandestine link to a Russian government official has resulted in a criminal charge.

In one exchange with The New York Times in April, Veselnitskaya described herself as an “informant” for a top Kremlin official, Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika.

“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” said Veselnitskaya, 43, who is thought to be living in Russia. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”

The accusation in the SDNY indictment that she secretly collaborated with a top Russian prosecutor to thwart the U.S. Justice Department in 2015 raises fresh questions about who in Moscow she was really working for when she met with senior members of the Trump campaign the next year.

The obstruction charge relates to a case that was settled by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney in 2017 after the Russian company Prevezon Holdings Ltd., which Veselnitskaya had been representing, agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle a money laundering and civil forfeiture action. The case involved allegations that questionable Russian money had been hidden away in New York real estate, including luxury Manhattan apartments.

That settlement was seen as a surprise move at the time, prompting a letter from all 17 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking answers, and questioning whether the settlement may have been somehow linked to the Trump Tower meeting.

“Last summer, Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected attorney in an attempt to obtain information ‘that would incriminate Hillary,’” the House Democrats wrote. “Earlier this year, on May 12, 2017, the Department of Justice made an abrupt decision to settle a money laundering case being handled by that same attorney in the Southern District of New York. We write with some concern that the two events may be connected — and that the Department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts.”

Cover: In this file photo taken on April 22, 2018, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov, File).