Lessons from the Veselnitskaya affair

It’s clear that Natalia Veselnitskaya pulled a bait-and-switch on Donald Trump, Jr. She induced him to a meeting with the promise of information that could be used against Hillary Clinton, but delivered no such information. Instead, she used the meeting to lobby the son of the presumptive Republican nominee for president on the supposed evils of the Magnitsky Act.

That Act blacklists Russians who were determined to have engaged in certain human rights violations. It is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who, after reporting large-scale Russian corruption, was arrested and died in custody under suspicious circumstances.

All of this has been widely discussed. What’s less noted, presumably because it’s not part of the “collusion” story, is the wide-ranging nature of Veselnitskaya’s anti-Magitsky Act lobbying effort around the same time she met with Trump, Jr.

The Hill’s John Solomon has the details:

Just five days after meeting in June 2016 at Trump Tower with Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. . .Veselnitskaya showed up in Washington in the front row of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Russia policy, video footage of the hearing shows.

She also engaged in a pro-Russia lobbying campaign and attended an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where Russian supporters showed a movie that challenged the underpinnings of the U.S. human rights law known as the Magnitsky Act, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has reviled and tried to reverse. . . .

And Veselnitskaya also attended a dinner with the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing Russia policy, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and roughly 20 other guests at a dinner club frequented by Republicans. . . .

Rohrabacher said he believed Veselnitskaya and her U.S. colleagues, which included former Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), were lobbying other lawmakers to reverse the Magnitsky Act and restore the ability of Americans to adopt Russian children that Moscow had suspended.

It’s not clear how Veselnitskaya was able to be in the U.S. during this period. Apparently, her visa had expired and she was not granted an extension or a waiver. Yet there she was. I discussed this mystery here.

Regardless, Solomon’s reporting gives rise to the following thoughts:

First, Putin really seems to hate the Magnitsky Act. That’s a good thing. We want it to sting.

Putin’s displeasure doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctions are causing as much pain as we would like. Solomon’s article gives the impression that what rankles Putin most is the fact that it is named after Magnitsky. Veselnitskaya’s mission appears to have been to assist in the lobbying effort to have the law repealed or, failing that, at least to get its name changed.

Second, the pro-Russia element in Washington, D.C. is substantial and cuts across party and ideological lines. Dana Rohrabacher, dubbed Putin’s favorite congressman, is a conservative. Ron Dellums was among the most liberal members of Congress.

The anti-Magnitsky Act movie at the Newseum drew an audience of about 80, including congressional staffers and State Department employees. That’s not bad for a Russian propaganda piece. Why the Newseum, which touts itself as dedicated to free press and free speech, was a party to the propaganda efforts of a government that sharply restricts these freedoms is not clear.

Third, President Trump will be hard-pressed now to support the repeal or alteration of the Magnitsky Act. I have no reason to believe he would have been inclined to support this absent his son’s encounter with Veselnitskya. Now, he has an additional reason not to do so. The optics would be terrible.

Finally, I hope Trump is drawing the right conclusions from this affair. The right conclusion isn’t that the Russians are to be admired for the clever ways in which they advance their interests. The right conclusion is that these guys are sharks who think they can play Trump and his team, as they played President Obama. Indeed, Putin tried to play Trump after their meeting when his team claimed that the president accepted as true Putin’s denial of election interference.

Trump’s working assumption should be that Putin is almost always up to no good and that he cannot be trusted.

I don’t blame Trump, Jr. much for not appreciating this in June 2016 when he was preoccupied with the presidential campaign. He must have figured he had nothing to lose by seeing if Veselnitskya had anything damaging to provide about Clinton. He could not have realized back then that the Democrats and the mainstream media would build a religion around “collusion.”

Now, however, there are no excuses for being other than extremely wary of any overtures by Putin or his agents.

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