Democracy & Government

Follow the Money: They Say It Was About Russian Orphans. They’re Lying.

Repealing the Magnitsky Act has become one of Putin’s top foreign policy objectives. Why? Money. Steven Harper digs in.

They Say It Was About Russian Orphans. They're Lying.

Donald Trump Jr., son of US President-elect Donald Trump, stands in the elevator at Trump Tower in New York, on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. (Photographer: Justin Lane/Pool via Bloomberg)

Another Trump cover-up collapses. Like its predecessors, it involves Russia. Also like its predecessors, Trump is at the center. People lie for a reason. What was Trump’s reason this time?

Perhaps President Trump had hoped that the public would never learn about the three Russian participants at the infamous June 9, 2016, meeting with his top campaign advisers. Maybe he thought that branding the episode as an innocuous discussion about a moribund Russian adoption program would glide him past another scandalous event in the Trump-Russia saga. What he probably sought most was to deflect attention away from what actually occurred on June 9: Putin’s self-interested desire for relief from US sanctions converged with Trump’s self-interested prior Russian business dealings to solidify Trump’s position as the Kremlin’s candidate for president of the United States.

Russian Adoptions?

Repealing the Magnitsky Act has become one of Putin’s top foreign policy objectives.

In 2012, Putin stopped the Russian adoption program in retaliation for US sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. The law originated with Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230 million scheme involving Russian officials stealing tax money and plowing some of it into private assets in Western countries. Shortly after Magnitsky testified against those officials in 2008, the Russians arrested him, put him in prison, and abused him until he died a year later at age 37. Magnitsky’s client in the tax investigation, American financier William Browder, sought justice. His efforts culminated in getting Congress to pass a law that, among other sanctions, freezes and seizes assets belonging to Russian human rights abusers — including those responsible for Magnitsky’s death.

Repealing the Magnitsky Act has become one of Putin’s top foreign policy objectives. Two of the three Russians in the June 9, 2016, meeting with top Trump campaign advisers have been central players in Putin’s efforts: attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin.

Veselnitskaya’s clients have included state-owned businesses and the successor to the KGB. She was also helping a defendant in the Prevezon case, which alleged money laundering of some of the $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky had uncovered. According to then-US Attorney Preet Bharara’s 2013 announcement of that civil forfeiture action, the laundering occurred through “pricey Manhattan real estate.”

Rinat Akhmetshin later confirmed to the Associated Press that he had served in a Soviet military unit that was part of counterintelligence (but said he was never formally trained as a spy). He’s now a lobbyist seeking repeal of the Magnitsky Act.

The third Russian in the meeting provided a link to Trump’s prior Russian business interests. Ike Kaveladze is vice president of Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov’s company, Crocus Group. Agalarov and his son, Emin, were instrumental in bringing the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Trump earned almost $20 million for that event. The Agalarovs had also worked on developing a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Another Botched Cover-Up

On July 8, 2017, The New York Times told Donald Trump Jr. that it was about to run a story on the June 9 meeting. Weeks earlier, Jared Kushner’s attorneys had discovered Don Jr.’s email chain that set up the session, which included Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

The subject line read: “Russia-Clinton-private and confidential.”

The initial message — from the publicist for Emin Agalarov (Aras Agalarov’s son and a pop star) — said that Russia’s top prosecutor was offering “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump….”

Seventeen minutes later, Don Jr. responded: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Long before the Times called, the Trump and Kushner legal teams had been debating the best way to deal with this ticking timebomb. Returning from the G-20 summit aboard Air Force One on July 8, Trump and his team knew that the Times story required a decision: transparency or obfuscation? Trump cast the only vote that counted. Transparency lost.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Trump helped draft Don Jr.’s misleading statement that read, in pertinent part:

It was a short introductory meeting. 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….

After Don Jr. issued a second incomplete statement, he finally released his June 2016 email chain. Immediately, his initial statement came under attack as deceptive at best. But in the ultimate irony, Trump praised his son’s transparency:

[Trump’s] tweets sucked all of the oxygen from the day’s news cycle and suffocated Browder’s testimony, which should have made headlines.

On July 25, 2017, things became stickier. William Browder released his prepared remarks for the Senate Judiciary Committee. His statement and subsequent appearance on July 27 didn’t receive much coverage because, at 8 a.m. on July 26, Trump tweeted out a transgender military ban that his senior military officers immediately disavowed. In addition to isolating already vulnerable citizens, those tweets sucked all of the oxygen from the day’s news cycle and suffocated Browder’s testimony, which should have made headlines.

Browder connected dots that put the June 9 meeting in a stunning new light. He explained why Putin was so focused on repealing the Magnitsky Act: “Since 2012 it’s emerged that Vladimir Putin was a beneficiary of the stolen $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky exposed.” Browder testified that this worries Putin because “he keeps his money in the West and all of his money in the West is potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation. Therefore, he has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.” According to Browder, the sanctions create another problem for Putin because they “destroy the promise of impunity he’s given to all of his corrupt officials.”

Eroding Defenses

Trump’s latest cover-up ended on July 31, 2017, when The Washington Post’s headline proclaimed: “Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian lawyer.” Even press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted that Trump “weighed in” on Don Jr.’s statement before it went out.

The revelation was just another of the presidential lies permeating the Trump-Russia story. For months, Trump and his minions insisted that there had been no contact with Russians during the campaign. They were lying.

Trump’s second defense admitted to such contacts, but asserted there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. A related talking point was that Russia actually wanted Hillary Clinton to win because Putin feared that Trump would be tougher on Russia. Don Jr.’s email chain obliterated those positions.

While trying to explain away Don Jr.’s emails, Trump tried a third defense: Anyone would have taken the June 9 meeting. “It’s called opposition research,” Trump said. That defense quickly became counterproductive because accepting help from a foreign adversary is illegal.

Trump and his minions then moved to defenses four and five: The Russians didn’t offer anything helpful, and whatever they did to help Trump hadn’t made a difference. Those “believe me,” “trust me” assertions from a serial liar aren’t working.

We’re now at defense number six: Ignore whatever happened. Trump is still a legitimately elected president. But the evaporation of defenses one through five is making that a tough sell.

As the facts seep out, Trump uses every available obstacle — even prevarication from his son’s mouth — to block pathways to the truth. The inference is unavoidable: That truth must be worth hiding.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1