A meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and a Russian-American lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, is the subject of ongoing inquiries by multiple congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya came to the meeting to press the case for repealing the Magnitsky Act, a law passed to sanction Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The American-born British financier William Browder drove the passage of this law and thus has become an unexpected figure in this story, testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 27. Browder, the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, invested in Russia from 1996 to 2005 with over $4 billion in Russian stocks. Browder was deported from Russia in 2005 and his company raided. He hired a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009 to investigate the cause of the raids. Magnitsky uncovered a massive fraud wherein he found that $230 million in taxes paid by Hermitage companies had been stolen by companies linked to the Russian government. Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and died in a Russian jail in 2009; the Kremlin’s own human rights council concluded he had been beaten and denied medical treatment. Browder lobbied Congress to pass the bill, which it did in 2012. The Russian government retaliated by banning adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Browder spoke with YJIA’s Luke Johnson on September 8.
YJIA: Virtually nobody had heard of Natalia Veselnitskaya or Rinat Akhmetshin prior to the New York Times story [about the meeting at Trump Tower] and subsequent reporting. What was your prior contact with them? 
Bill Browder: I think we need to go back a little bit in time to understand who they were and what their situation was. There have been two parts of our campaign to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky. The first part is the political part, which has led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act. The second part has been a very detailed and extensive money laundering investigation which we have conducted, in which we have tried to find who financially benefited from the $230 million crime that Sergei Magnitsky uncovered.
Over a number of years since Sergei was murdered, we have been working with different law enforcement agencies, different investigative journalists, different informants and whistleblowers, and we eventually found out that some of the money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky was killed over had flowed to New York to buy properties in Manhattan. Once we found that money, we alerted the U.S. Department of Justice to the existence of that money and the U.S. government froze the properties, and filed a federal forfeiture order in late 2013.
Those properties belonged to the son of a Russian government official, Denis Katsyv, and Denis Katsyv then appointed a very aggressive Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya to help him fight his corner against the government in New York.
The first time we became aware of the presence of Natalia Veselnitskaya was in her actions in this money-laundering case against her client, Denis Katsyv. She then expanded her activities not just to dealing with money laundering, but also to take on the Magnitsky Act. In early 2016, she began a huge, well-resourced campaign to repeal the Magnitsky Act. It was at that point that Rinat Akhmetshin showed up in the picture, in his job as a lobbyist and a smear-campaigner in Washington.
YJIA: Donald Trump Jr. first claimed the meeting was about adoption — in a statement dictated by his father — when he was asked about it by the Times. How does this translate to the Kremlin, this word “adoption”?
Bill Browder: The Magnitsky Act freezes assets and bans visas for Russian human rights violators, including the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made all of his money by stealing from the state and imprisoning and torturing and killing people and therefore he felt that his money was potentially at risk of being seized. So, Putin reacted extremely personally and vindictively against passage of the Magnitsky Act.
His first retaliation was a very strange law that was passed in Russia which forbade American families from adopting Russian orphans. The only thing that adoptions has to do with this whole story is that this was the vindictive response of Putin to U.S. financial sanctions against corrupt and nasty Russian officials.
YJIA: When Trump or Trump Jr. says the meeting was about “adoption,” what are they really talking about?
Bill Browder: First of all, that’s just a bald-faced lie. There was no discussion about adoptions at that meeting. The discussion was about repealing targeted sanctions against Russian kleptocrats and human rights violators, and that’s been confirmed by every member of the meeting: it was confirmed by the Russians, it was confirmed by the other people in the meeting, [and] it was recently confirmed by contemporaneous notes that Paul Manafort took in the meeting.
YJIA: He [Trump Jr.] has since changed his story to say that he wanted information about Hillary Clinton’s “fitness” to be president. Would these operatives possess such information?
Bill Browder: There’s two parts to this meeting: one is what they were asking for, which is the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and the second part is what they were ready to offer in return. There is 100 percent certainty in what they were asking for, and there seems to be complete mystery as to what they were offering in return.
I don’t know whether they were offering information about Hillary Clinton or whether they were offering money, or whether they were making threats, but the Russians would not have gone into that meeting empty-handed.
YJIA: Natalia Veselnitskaya has claimed that she “never acted on behalf of the Russian government.” What do think her relationship to the government was?
Bill Browder: I think she was effectively a deputized agent for Vladimir Putin in his efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
YJIA: Would the Kremlin actually direct her, or would they not even have to, and she would simply know to take the meeting?
Bill Browder: No, her actions could not have been in relation to the legal defense they had for the Katsyvs, because repealing the Magnitsky Act would not have had any impact on their frozen assets — their assets were frozen under money-laundering statutes, not the Magnitsky Act. Why would someone who is running a criminal defense run a lobbying campaign about a piece of legislation unless they were pursuing a policy that was being organized by somebody high in the Russian government?
YJIA: Mr. Akhmetshin has denied that he is a spy. Is that credible? Why do you think he was in the room, and why was it not disclosed at first?
Bill Browder: He’s a completely shady character. He pops up in strange places. He doesn’t tell the truth about who he is [or] what he does; he is a very dishonest man. I think he has operated very successfully lurking around the shadows, and this particular meeting brought him out of the shadows. He didn’t want to have that kind of exposure and is trying to avoid it.
YJIA: You said to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “There are approximately ten thousand officials in Russia working for Putin who are given instructions to kill, torture, kidnap, extort money from people, and seize their property.” Can you explain this figure?
Bill Browder: The most important thing to know about Putin is that his first and primary objective has always been kleptocracy: abuse the power of his presidency to steal as much money as is possible. I estimate his net worth is $200 billion. What he does is he uses the power of the state to steal that money.
In some cases, it doesn’t require violence or physical damage. He instructs a state company to overpay for some goods or services, and then through intermediaries [he] gets kickbacks. In some cases, however, there are people who have property he wants, and in order to get that property, he will use law-enforcement agencies — the prosecutor’s office, the police, the prisons — to open up criminal cases against people who hold assets that he wants. He uses those criminal cases then to arrest those people, to effectively take them hostage, and then to use mistreatment in prison, including torture, to get them to sign over their assets. If those people don’t sign over their assets, then they use the courts, fraudulent contracts, and fraudulent lawsuits to transfer those assets. If a person objects then they might very well kill them.
In order to run this expropriation operation, Putin needs a lot of loyal subjects — he needs judges, he needs investigators, he needs prosecutors, he needs policemen, he needs jailers. All of these people have to do very horrific things in their jobs to extract property from people.
Those people historically have been granted immunity and impunity from any type of consequences in order to carry out Putin’s wishes. That has created a very hostile and toxic environment in Russia.
The passage of the Magnitsky Act has completely changed the chemistry of the situation because he no longer guarantees impunity outside of Russia, because there’s now consequences in the West.
YJIA: Forty-four people have been affected by it [the Magnitsky Act]. You cited the 10,000 number. Why is it that small percentage of people infuriating to Putin?
Bill Browder: This is a law that is on the books in America, and it is an open-ended process. So far, it’s gotten a slow start. But it doesn’t mean that is the end of the list, that is just the beginning of the list, it’s the beginning of a policy, and it’s effectively a new technology for dealing with human-rights abusers. Why Putin is upset over this whole thing is not by who is on the list — although, I think a couple of his close friends are — but he is most upset about who will be put on this list in the future. He is most upset about the possibility of either him, or people who are holding his money for him, to be added to list, and have their assets frozen.
One of the other consequences of being put on the Magnitsky list is that your name ends up on the OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] list of the U.S. Treasury. The OFAC list has a huge negative consequence because every bank in the world subscribes to a database of who is being sanctioned. Any bank that notices that you are put on the sanctions list will immediately terminate your account. It doesn’t have to be an American bank; it can be a Dubai bank, a South Korean bank, a Peruvian bank, because no bank in the world wants to be in violation of U.S. treasury sanctions. The moment you get put onto the Magnitsky list, your financial life is ruined.
YJIA: In your book, Red Notice, you detailed how the bill was passed at long odds in Congress and over objections from the Obama administration. The Obama administration wanted a friendlier approach to Russia. The current president seems to want a far friendlier approach to Russia. Is the Act, or the enforcement of the act, at risk?
Bill Browder: The act itself is not at risk at all. The president can’t withdraw it without a majority of Congress, and that’s not going to happen.
However, the implementation of the act could be suspended if the current president decides he doesn’t want to enforce the law. We could be in a situation for four years or even eight years, where there is no new people added to the list.
One of the wonderful things about the Magnitsky Act is that it’s a law; it’s greater than any one man, because it’s the law of the land. Whatever any one president decides to do or not do, it will stay on the statute books into the future. It will continue to affect people regardless of who the president is.
YJIA: Where do you see all of the connections between Russia and the Trump campaign — which were all previously denied — leading to?
Bill Browder: There is all sorts of rumor and innuendo but I think we all have to sit back and wait until the end of the special prosecutor’s [Robert Mueller] investigation, which will either fully exonerate Trump, or fully convict him, or something in between.