The Curious Case of Natalia Veselnitskaya

Family Security Matters


Obama-administration officials arranged for her entry – for reasons that have nothing to do with Trump Jr. or the presidential campaign.

She is relentlessly described as a “Russian lawyer” in media reporting. It should not escape our notice, then, that Natalia Veselnitskaya is not an American lawyer. She is not admitted to practice law in the United States.

So why was she admitted into the United States when she was not qualified to do the job that was the rationale for her admission?

We’ll get to that. To cut to the chase, however, it had nothing to do with the Trump campaign.

Veselnitskaya’s arrival at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, after being heralded in Donald Trump Jr.’s e-mails as a Putin-regime emissary bearing dirt on Hillary Clinton, is the first concrete indication of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Collusion in what remains to be seen, there still being no evidence of the collusion scenario initially alleged: Trump’s complicity in Russia’s “cyberespionage” – the hacking by which Putin attempted to influence the 2016 election (and succeeded in paralyzing the U.S. government in the election’s aftermath).

This being politics, the Trump camp has attempted to deflect attention from the Trump Tower meeting by pointing out that it was the Obama administration that enabled Veselnitskaya’s admission into the country. At a press conference in Paris last week, President Trump himself claimed that Veselnitskaya’s entry had been “approved by Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch.”

Of course, the question of why Obama-administration officials permitted Veselnitskaya to enter is likely to be of less consequence than what Veselnitskaya did once she got here. But it is important. Obviously, the Trump camp is intimating that the June 9 meeting was a set-up and that the Obama administration may have been in on it.

I happen to think there is a good chance the Trump campaign was being played. If so, though, the playing was done by Vladimir Putin.

Veselnitskaya probably should not have been allowed into the country, though that is one of those criticisms conveniently offered in 20-20 hindsight. Either way, the Justice Department had nothing to do with Veselnitskaya’s meeting with the Trump campaign. It is unlikely that top Obama officials knew about it, either, much less that they consciously facilitated it.

I suspect the Justice Department – specifically, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan – reluctantly green-lighted Veselnitskaya’s entry to appease the court in a hotly disputed case with significant foreign-relations ramifications. Prosecutors may have been wrong to do this – it’s a judgment call – but it was clearly unrelated to the Trump Tower meeting, which happened months later under a different visa authorization.

In 2013, the Justice Department filed an asset-forfeiture lawsuit that was sensitive because it focused on Russian corruption. It arose out of a $230 million fraud orchestrated by the Putin regime, and involved the detention, torture, and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian investigator who exposed the scheme. (I will have more to say about the case in a subsequent column.) At the center of the case was Veselnitskaya’s client, Denis Katsyv.

He is the son of Pyotr Katsyv, a powerful Putin crony – similar to Aras Agalarov, the billionaire Russian real-estate magnate who, according to Trump Jr.’s e-mails, arranged Veselnitskaya’s Trump Tower meeting. Pyotr Katsyv was a powerful transportation minister for many years, and he is now vice president of the regime-owned national railroad system. As related in this useful New York Times profile of Veselnitskaya, her rise in Russia owes to the ties she forged with Katsyv. I do not buy the Kremlin’s claim that Putin had never heard of Veselnitskaya prior to the Trump Jr. controversy, but his chum Katsyv appears to be her patron in any event.

Denis Katsyv owns a Cyprus-based investment company called Prevezon Holdings Ltd. The company was the main defendant in the Justice Department’s lawsuit, in conjunction with which Justice froze about $14 million in property. Katsyv was not a defendant personally (asset-forfeiture cases technically target the asset, not its owner). But the case was highly significant to him and to Russia.

An international litigation can be tricky because our government and its courts often lack jurisdiction to compel the testimony of critical foreign witnesses. In order to get the cooperation necessary to move the case along, accommodations must be made, especially when the foreign government involved is not being helpful. In this instance, Russia was downright hostile.

It was important to the Prevezon case that Denis Katsyv be deposed in New York. Trying to do it in Moscow was out of the question, since lawyers, investigators, and witnesses in probes of Russian activities have a habit of ending up imprisoned, defenestrated, or dead there. Evidently, Katsyv was willing to be deposed and otherwise cooperate, or at least feign cooperation. If he was going to do that, though, he had a condition: He wanted the assistance of his Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in addition to the top-flight American law firm, BakerHostetler, that was formally representing his company in the case.

In 2015, Veselnitskaya attempted to get a visa to come to the United States. The State Department denied her, and it is not farfetched to believe that one factor in the denial was a suspicion that she is a Putin-regime operative. Subsequently, however, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan arranged for Veselnitskaya to be admitted through a rarely used immigration-law provision that allows aliens to be “paroled in” if they will perform some service of extraordinary benefit to our country.

It appears that this was done under pressure from the court. Indeed, according to a Daily Beast report, the Justice Department was even directed to reimburse Veselnitskaya’s expenses. The parole lasted just three months, from October 2015 through early January 2016 – meaning that the Justice Department parole had nothing to do with the Veselnitskaya-Trump Jr. meeting six months after the parole ended.

Readers know I am no Loretta Lynch fan, but Trump-camp suggestions that the then-attorney general had a meaningful role in Veselnitskaya’s entry are off base. The timeline does not work. Plus, while unusual, similar immigration complications do come up from time to time, and district U.S. attorneys’ offices generally resolve them without the personal involvement of the attorney general (even though the trial prosecutors may invoke “the attorney general,” “the Justice Department,” or “the United States” in exercising their legal authority).

Should the U.S. attorney’s office have made this accommodation for Katsyv and Veselnitskaya? Probably not.

By her own account, Veselnitskaya is not admitted to practice law in the United States. In a January 2015 declaration filed in the asset-forfeiture case, she claimed to have graduated from the Moscow State Legal Academy in 1998, and then to have worked as a regime prosecutor for a few years before moving “into private practice,” a laughable term as applied to Russia, where Putin’s circle of oligarchs runs the private sector . . . and the country.

Veselnitskaya purports to have extensive experience in Russian criminal, corporate, and property law. In the declaration, however, she did not even pretend to familiarity with American law, much less with the complexities of federal money-laundering and asset-forfeiture litigation. She did not attend an American law school. She is not a member of any state bar, let alone the bar of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She would not have been eligible to appear in court as counsel for Prevezon Holdings, the Katsyv company in the case. And Prevezon, as already noted, was more than adequately represented by the BakerHostetler law firm.

Moreover, as we’ve also seen, the parole provision is supposed to be reserved for aliens whose presence will be beneficial to our country. Whatever positive effect Veselnitskaya may have portended for moving the case along was outweighed by the facts that (a) she was not qualified to perform the function that was the rationale for her admission; (b) there was reason to believe she was an agent of a hostile government that obstructed the investigation that led to the case; and (c) she was the spearhead of a Kremlin-backed lobbying campaign against the Magnitsky Act – the human-rights provision Congress enacted in response to Russia’s imprisonment, torture, and murder of Sergei Magnitsky.

When Veselnitskaya’s parole ended in January 2016, the U.S. attorney’s office refused to extend it. In explaining this position to the court, prosecutors recounted that she and others in Katsyv’s defense team had run up $50,000 in expenses in connection with his deposition. Veselnitskaya did not even attend the deposition, though she did bill U.S. taxpayers nearly $2,000 for a two-night stay at the Plaza the weekend after the deposition was concluded.

When Veselnitskaya made subsequent trips to the U.S., including the one in June 2016, during which she visited with Donald Trump Jr., she was traveling on a non-immigrant work visa. The process for issuing such a visa involves the Homeland Security and State Departments, not the Justice Department.

It is certainly worth asking why that visa – a work visa for a lawyer unqualified to work as a lawyer in the U.S. – was granted, especially in light of Veselnitskaya’s track record by that point in time.

As for the three-month immigration parole the Justice Department arranged in October 2015, I confess to sympathy for the prosecutors, having been in similar binds when, for many years, I was a prosecutor in the same office. Nevertheless, it is certainly fair to question the wisdom of supporting immigration parole for Veselnitskaya under the circumstances that obtained.

It is crystal clear, however, that the parole grant was strictly related to the Prevezon asset forfeiture case. It had nothing to do with the Trump campaign.

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