So Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer walk into Trump Tower…
Stop us if you’ve heard this one.
What sounds like the setup to a not-particularly-funny political joke was actually the roster of a just-disclosed meeting held between the most trusted members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin.
The New York Times broke the story on Saturday, reporting that on June 9, 2016, roughly two weeks after Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, the president’s eldest son, his son-in-law, and the then-chair of his presidential campaign met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya—a powerful critic of an American law that blacklists Russian officials suspected of involvement in the death of a Russian lawyer.
Trump Jr. had previously denied meeting with any Russian nationals in connection with the campaign, and initially downplayed the meeting as a courtesy for an anonymous friend on behalf of orphaned Russian children.
“It was a short introductory meeting,” Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement. “I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.”
According to the president’s son, he “was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”
But the Trump team’s initial strategy of dismissing the Veselnitskaya meeting as an introductory chat about adoption quickly evolved to speculating something far more sinister: that the president’s most trusted advisor, the chairman of his campaign, and the man in charge of running his extensive business interests were all duped by the Russkis, the result of a nefarious Democratic operation meant to use Kremlin operatives to sink the Trump campaign.
“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Mark Corallo, spokesperson for Trump’s outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.
“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo continued, referring to the strategic intelligence firm hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to do opposition research on the candidate.
(Fusion GPS eventually retained former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele to research potential connections between Trump and Russia, an investigation that resulted in a dossier that alleged financial, political, and personal connections between the then-president-elect and the Kremlin—a dossier that Trump’s communications team might have preferred to go unmentioned.)
“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo concluded.
If Corallo’s suppositions were true, it would not be the first time that Trump has played victim to Russian trickery. After the White House allowed a Russian news photographer into the Oval Office for Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, a senior administration official told the Washington Post that officials had misled the White House about the photographer’s role.
Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Kushner, Trump Jr., and Manafort, is one of the country’s most prominent litigators. Her clients have included state-owned businesses, as well as a Russian holding company that was, at the time of the meeting, under investigation for laundering stolen Russian taxpayer money through American banks and Manhattan real estate.
The holding company in question, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., was a Cyprus-registered company accused by then-U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara—since fired by President Trump—of laundering $14 million of allegedly ill-gotten money through accounts in Bank of America accounts and Midtown condominiums. Such laundering would have been a violation of the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law intended to punish Russian officials allegedly responsible for the death of Russian national Sergei Magnitsky.
A tax attorney by trade, Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million tax scam involving Russian officials. Magnitsky was later arrested on the pretext that he was the perpetrator of a separate tax fraud himself, and died under mysterious circumstances.
It was the passage of the Magnitsky Act that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt the adoption of Russian orphans by American parents—the putative reason behind the Trump Tower meeting. Discussing the opening up of Russian orphanages to would-be U.S. adoptive parents, then, is inextricably linked with the ceasing of sanctions against Russian individuals and businesses linked with Magnitsky’s murder.
The White House did not return a request for comment. A lawyer for Kushner stated that the president’s son-in-law, who now serves as a senior advisor to the president, only “briefly” met with Veselnitskaya at the request of his brother-in-law.