Putin’s ‘incredible’ offer to Trump tied to 2016 campaign meeting on tax evasion case
President Vladimir Putin’s offer to help the U.S. investigate alleged Russian election meddling, hailed as an “incredible” gesture by Donald Trump, included the same allegations made by a Kremlin-linked lawyer at a controversial 2016 meeting with top campaign officials of the future president.
Putin said at his summit with Trump in Helsinki on Monday that he’s ready to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team attend interviews of 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted for alleged election hacking. In return, he said, Russia wants to question a number of U.S. citizens as well as British financier and Putin critic Bill Browder over an alleged $1.5 billion tax evasion, part of whose proceeds Russia says went to the Democratic Party.
Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya made the same claims at Trump Tower in New York on June 9, 2016, when she met with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and other top campaign officials including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser. The encounter, a key element of accusations that Russia helped to elect Trump as U.S. president, ended in failure after Veselnitskaya said she had no documents proving the money from the tax evasion had gone to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
That meeting took place after British publicist Rob Goldstone asked Trump Jr. to see Veselnitskaya, calling her a Russian government lawyer with information and documents that would incriminate Clinton. In an email to Trump Jr., he described the information as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election overshadowed the summit between Putin and Trump. The U.S. leader provoked a political backlash at home, including from within his own Republican party, for siding with his Russian counterpart’s denial of American intelligence conclusions that the Kremlin meddled.
Trump retracted his comment on Tuesday, though he immediately undercut that, adding: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
Russia has a list of people it wants to question over the alleged $1.5 billion tax evasion on funds gained from Russian investments, including by the wealthy Ziff brothers, a spokesman for the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, Alexander Kurennoy, said Tuesday. Some $400,000 of that money was donated to the Democrats, Kurennoy said on state television, adding that prosecutors have documentary evidence to support the assertions.
The figure for the donation was 1,000 times less than the one Putin provided at the Helsinki news conference of $400 million, which Kurennoy described as a mistake.
The Russian list includes Browder, the Ziff brothers and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, as well as an ex-MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, who compiled an explosive dossier alleging connections between Russia and the Trump campaign and warning that the Kremlin had compromising information on the president. U.S. law enforcement agents, lawmakers and officials are also mentioned.
“I hope the U.S. government that I served faithfully for five years will stand up and defend us with public outrage over these ridiculous accusations,” McFaul said on Twitter. Putin “feels that he has an ally in” Trump “in going after me and the other U.S. government officials on that list. President Trump could clear that up in one tweet or statement,” McFaul said.
Browder has been a thorn in Putin’s side since he campaigned successfully for a 2012 U.S. law that targeted Russian officials for sanctions over the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax accountant who worked for the fund manager’s Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after uncovering what he said was a $230 million tax fraud by Russian officials. The U.S.-born Browder, who’s now a British citizen, has campaigned to persuade other countries to adopt similar laws penalizing Russian officials.
Veselnitskaya originally claimed she was acting in a private capacity and not as a Russian government representative. But she brought to Trump Tower a talking-points memorandum that was very similar to a document she had provided to Russian prosecutors a year earlier. In April, she told NBC News she was an “informant” for the Prosecutor General’s Office.