Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya now says that Donald Trump, Jr. offered an explicit quid pro quo during their Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016.
In exchange for written evidence that Hillary Clinton had received illegal money, Trump Jr. offered a reconsideration of the Magnitsky Act. Overturning that legislation, which punishes many of Vladimir Putin’s allies, has been a primary foreign policy goal in Moscow since 2012.
“Looking ahead, if we come to power, we can return to this issue and think what to do about it … I understand our side may have messed up, but it’ll take a long time to get to the bottom of it,” Veselnitskaya recalled him saying in an interview with Bloomberg.
Veselnitskaya said she sent her memo to [Trump family fiend Rob] Goldstone in advance so Trump Jr. could familiarize himself with the issues, but he seemed not to have done so. When she began laying out the case against the Ziffs, she said that he asked: “This money the Ziffs got from Russia, do you have any financial documents showing that this money went to Clinton’s campaign?”
She didn’t and the meeting quickly fell apart. Kushner left after a few minutes and Manafort appeared to have fallen asleep. “The meeting was a failure; none of us understood what the point of it had been,’’ Veselnitskaya said, adding she had no further contacts with the Trump campaign.
Trump Jr. seems to have expected to receive so-called “missing” emails from Clinton’s private server, and indeed his father first tweeted about them just hours after the meeting. As we now know, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had already told the campaign that Russia had “thousands of emails” to share weeks before the meeting.
So while Veselnitskaya describes the Trump Tower meeting as a “failure,” it clearly did succeed in communicating that both sides were interested in an exchange where campaign dirt on Clinton would be rewarded with sanctions relief.
It is notable that even though the Magnitsky Act remains law today, the Trump administration began efforts to drop sanctions on Russia as soon as they arrived in Washington. They have still not instituted any new sanctions despite bipartisan legislation requiring Trump to do so. Instead, the president has shuttered the State Department office in charge of sanctions enforcement.
That is the most an American president could possibly do for the Kremlin without the help of Congress.
Veselnitskaya says she has received almost 100 questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that she is willing to answer them — but only if her answers are made public. Her condition should not be seen as transparency, but an effort to control the narrative in the Kremlin’s favor.
Furthermore, Don Jr’s meeting at Trump Tower has all the hallmarks of a Russian influence operation — a classic example of exploitation directed from Moscow. Just by putting Trumps in the same room with spies and money launderers and anti-Magnitsky lawyers, Putin compromised a future American president’s family and fostered American political turmoil, which is his ultimate goal.
Some observers are puzzled by the news today. They wonder whether Putin is “throwing Trump under the bus.” But the target here is American democracy, which Putin wants to discredit before the eyes of the world so as to make the world safe for despotism.
Having a friend in the White House is secondary.
Veselnitskaya offers just enough information to polarize American politics and cement divisions. Trump’s apologists will take what they want from this information (“failed meeting”) and ignore the clear implications of collusion. Putin hopes we will remain paralyzed, unable to throw off his puppet even while our Constitution sinks into dysfunction. And he may be right about that.
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