President Donald Trump's outside legal team has changed their defense against a New York Times report which said his son and top members of his campaign team met with a Russian lawyer with strong ties to the Kremlin in June 2016.
The meeting was between Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign manager at the time.
Veselnitskaya waged a harsh campaign against the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which blacklisted Russians suspected of human-rights abuses. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the law "outrageous" and retaliated by blocking Americans from adopting Russian children.
The Trump campaign's meeting with Veselnitskaya was only recently disclosed to government officials, when Kushner filed a revised security clearance form after The Times reported in April that he had failed to disclose his contacts with Russian officials before joining the Trump administration.
Trump Jr. initially said the meeting had been to discuss the adoption program. "It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by," Trump Jr. said in a statement to The Times. "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."
The Times reported late Sunday afternoon, however, that Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about then-candidate Hillary Clinton when he agreed to meet with Veselnitskaya.
In a statement released hours after The Times published its first story on Saturday, Trump's legal team painted the meeting as part of a Democratic effort to use Russian operatives to undermine 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, a spokesperson for Trump's team, said in the statement. "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," he continued.
After the Times published its second story on Sunday, Corallo said only that "the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting."
The Steele dossier is an unverified report compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele which contains damning and at times salacious allegations about Trump and his ties to the Kremlin. Fusion GPS was the firm that retained Steele.
There is no evidence that Veselnitskaya is connected to Fusion GPS, but there have been unconfirmed reports in conservative media circles that Fusion's CEO, Glenn Simpson, was hired by Veselnitskaya's client, Denis Katsyv, as part of a team tasked with lobbying government officials to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
Katsyv is the son of senior Russian government official Pyotr Katsyv and owner of the Cyprus-incorporated real-estate company Prevezon, which was being investigated by the Department of Justice at the time of the meeting over money laundering charges. Simpson has denied the rumors about him.
The Prevezon case, which was settled for approximately $6 million in May, garnered high-profile attention given its ties to the $230 million Russian tax-fraud scheme uncovered by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose suspicious death aroused international media attention in November 2009.
Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, which became one of the biggest corruption scandals of Putin's presidency, in 2008 on behalf of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky was later thrown in jail and died in custody, and an independent human-rights commission found he had been illegally arrested and beaten. The Kremlin maintains that Magnitsky died of a heart attack.
The founder of Hermitage, William Browder, sought justice for Magnitsky in the US and Europe after Magnitsky died. In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act.
Browder said in an interview on Saturday that fighting against the Magnitsky Act was Veselnitskaya's "main project last year. And "there was no obvious reason," Browder said, for Veselnitskaya and her team to engage in this lobbying "as part of their defense for Prevezon."
"It wouldn't have helped the company address the money laundering allegations mounted by the US Department of Justice," Browder said. "The only reason for them to do this would have been at the behest of the Russian government."
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