Just How Closely Linked Is The 'Kremlin-Linked' Lawyer?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The president's son now finds himself at the center of the ever-widening circle of questions about ties between the president's closest advisers and Russia. The New York Times is reporting that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting last summer with a Russian lawyer - a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton and - this is the latest twist - that the younger Trump knew the dirt was part of a Russian government effort to help his dad. The name of that Russian lawyer is Natalia Veselnitskaya. She talked about the Trump meeting this morning on NBC.
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NATALIA VESELNITSKAYA: (Through interpreter) I never knew who else would be attending the meeting. All I knew that Mr. Donald Trump Jr. was willing to meet with me.
KELLY: NBC reporter Keir Simmons asked her about her ties to the Kremlin.
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KEIR SIMMONS: Have you ever worked for the Russian government? Do you have connections to the Russian government?
VESELNITSKAYA: (Through interpreter) No.
KELLY: We've called on Julia Ioffe. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic and a longtime Russia watcher. She joins us via Skype. Good morning.
JULIA IOFFE: Good morning.
KELLY: Let me ask you what is actually known about this lawyer who is emerging at the center of this latest twist in the controversy. Is this somebody who had crossed your radar before?
IOFFE: No, she hadn't actually. I think a lot of us Russian journalists have not heard of her. It was only people who dug into very specialized cases that heard of her. She is very well connected to the world of transport and the business around that through her husband and through one of her clients, who was the son of a transport minister first in the Moscow region, where she herself is from and where she seems to have been connected to some organized crime and government structures who raided and took over private businesses. Then those people became integrated into the federal Russian government. And she seems to have risen with them.
KELLY: To be clear, she doesn't hold any government official position.
KELLY: And she's denying any connection to the Kremlin. Do we know what her ties to the Kremlin, highest levels of the Russian government, may or may not be?
IOFFE: Well, it doesn't seem that she has any overt ties to the highest levels of the Kremlin. But the thing about Russia is that if you're doing business there, you are dealing with the government. The government is so involved in every aspect of business, you can't not have any dealings with them. So that's a little bit of dissembling. The other bit of dissembling there is that she is working on a case representing a private businessman, Russian, who has a company based in Cyprus, who was alleged to have laundered money from a Russian government corruption scheme that became the subject of American sanctions in 2012, the Magnitsky Act.
And that is a very highly-charged thing in Russia. The Kremlin was very upset about it and still is. The Kremlin was so upset about it that they punished their own orphans by not allowing them to be adopted by Americans. So it was such a highly politically-charged event, that somebody working even on the outer edges of getting that effort - those American sanctions repealed likely has some connections to the Russian government.
KELLY: Well, let me come at it from another direction. Veselnitskaya says she had no damaging information that she was trying to push out to the Trump campaign. Is it plausible to you that this meeting could have been entirely about the Magnitsky Act, adoptions, other issues?
IOFFE: I think that's entirely plausible that she kind of set up a bait-and-switch, that she - you know, she said in the interview that she gave this morning to the "TODAY" show that she felt that the Trump campaign wanted this information so badly. She seems to have had a different agenda that she wanted very badly.
And she figured, you know, let me get in the door with issue number one and then very quickly transition to issue number two, which is what we heard from Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, who said that she wasn't really talking about the damaging information on Hillary Clinton. She very quickly transitioned to the Magnitsky Act and getting it repealed, which he had - he seems to have very quickly lost interest in that and felt kind of duped by the meeting.
KELLY: So a lot of questions still about what exactly was said in this meeting, how exactly it came to pass. But let me ask you this - I'll call it the so-what question. A lawyer for Donald Trump Jr. says this is all much ado about nothing. Having tracked the Russia story for this last year, Julia Ioffe, how big a deal is this?
IOFFE: This seems like a pretty big deal. This is, I mean, in a long season of bombshells and cliffhanger endings of this reality show that we call our political life right now, this seems to be, like, one of the biggest deals...
KELLY: And why?
IOFFE: ...Of them all. Because it, you know - and again, the - it seems like the significance of this isn't on the Russian side because a lot of the story isn't just from the - what Russia did and what motivated Russia. It's what happened on the American side and whether or not there was collusion from the Trump campaign. And this seems to show that at least there was intent, that Donald Trump Jr...
KELLY: That there was openness to receiving information.
IOFFE: Right, that there was a openness, desire, even - you know, there was The New York Times story that there was an email saying, this person is coming to you from the Russian government bearing this information. And that didn't seem to stop a very, you know, the highest level surrogate of the Trump campaign. So that is extremely problematic, to say the least.
KELLY: That's Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic magazine. She's a longtime Russia watcher. And she joined us via Skype. Thanks so much.
IOFFE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.