On The Case

How did Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya get into U.S. for Trump Tower meeting?

(Reuters) - The Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya resurfaced in news headlines on Monday, when Bloomberg reported her claims that Donald Trump Jr. indicated his father would reconsider a law sanctioning Russia if Trump won the presidency.

Veselnitskaya, as you may recall, became a central character in the investigation of possible links between Russian officials and the Trump campaign when the New York Times broke the news that she met at Trump Tower with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and then Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on June 9, 2016, after the campaign was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. In the Bloomberg interview published Monday, Veselnitskaya also claimed President Trump’s son asked her for written evidence that Hillary Clinton’s campaign received ill-gotten proceeds.

Veselnitskaya told Bloomberg she’s willing to testify about both of those assertions before Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller. Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer, Alan Futerfas, declined Bloomberg’s request for comment on Veselnitskaya’s representations and didn’t respond to my email requesting comment.

President Trump and his son have repeatedly denied improper ties between the campaign and Russian officials. Donald Trump Jr. has described the Veselnitskaya meeting as a waste of time because the lawyer did not provide useful information.

The back-and-forth over what happened at the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting leads to a question that arose last week in a different case involving Veselnitskaya: How did she get into the U.S. for the meeting with Donald Trump Jr.?

On the same day as the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya attended oral arguments at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S. government’s forfeiture case against the Cyprus-based real estate holding company Prevezon, which prosecutors accused of laundering some of the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme. Prevezon has U.S. lawyers in the forfeiture action but Veselnitskaya represents Prevezon owner Denis Katsyv, a Russian businessman.

Veselnitskaya, however, wasn’t admitted into the U.S. in June 2016 because of her role in the Prevezon case. In fact, then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan specifically refused Veselnitskaya’s request that the Justice Department authorize her trip via a mechanism known as immigration parole, which allows the attorney general to temporarily suspend immigration requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Bharara’s office has recommended immigration paroles for Veselnitskaya on three occasions, when her client, Katsyv, was being deposed in the U.S. in the Prevezon case. But in March 2016, Bharara’s office said no. In a letter to Prevezon’s U.S. lawyers, prosecutors said such paroles aren’t appropriate for foreign lawyers asking to help U.S. counsel prepare for appellate arguments or to attend appellate proceedings. “Since neither Katsyv nor Veselnitskaya are required to appear as witnesses in person at this stage of proceedings, we do not believe that immigration parole is appropriate,” the since-fired U.S. attorney wrote.

Nevertheless, three months later, Veselnitskaya not only attended oral arguments in the Prevezon case but also traveled uptown to meet with Trump campaign officials.

Veselnitskaya obtained a visa from the State Department to enter the country in June 2016, according to a government filing last week. The filing, which came in response to a new request by Veselnitskaya to be allowed into the U.S. for a Nov. 9 hearing in the now-settled Prevezon case, cited a Fox News report from last July.

The Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office did not disclose in the filing whether it independently confirmed that the State Department issued a visa to Veselnitskaya to allow to her attend the 2nd Circuit argument in June 2016. The prosecutor leading the Prevezon case, assistant U.S. attorney Paul Monteleoni, referred me to a spokesman, who said the office could not supply additional public information on Veselnitskaya’s reported visa.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment in response to my email request for comment on whether it approved a visa for Veselnitskaya in June 2016. John Moscow of Baker Hostetler, who was Prevezon’s lawyer when the Justice Department denied Veselnitskaya’s 2016 request for immigration parole, was subsequently disqualified from the case by the 2nd Circuit because of a client conflict. He did not respond to my phone message asking about Veselnitskaya’s visa.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge William Pauley refused to order the Justice Department to grant a new immigration parole to Veselnitskaya, who wants to attend a hearing Thursday on whether Prevezon has breached an agreement to pay about $6 million to the U.S. in the forfeiture case.

The settlement agreement hinged on the release of Prevezon funds frozen in the Netherlands. The U.S. government, in accordance with the settlement agreement, asked the Dutch government to release the frozen money. But instead of turning it over to Prevezon for payment to the U.S., Dutch authorities seized the money in their own action. Prosecutors contend the Dutch unfreezing triggered Prevezon’s deadline to pay the U.S. Prevezon, now represented by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said it doesn’t owe the U.S. because it never controlled the unfrozen funds.

The Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office seems to have determined that Veselnitskaya is not welcome in the U.S. via immigration parole unless she (or possibly Katsyv) is a witness. “The government may not … again admit Veselnitskaya into the country to assist in witness preparation if she is not herself a witness,” prosecutors said in a footnote in their Nov. 2 filing in the Prevezon case. “Although the government did so previously, Veselnitskaya’s reported meeting with presidential campaign officials in June of 2016 (of which this office was not aware prior to its public reporting) or other factors may alter this assessment.” (For what it’s worth, Manhattan prosecutors have never before confirmed they didn’t know anything about Veselnitskaya’s visit to Trump Tower until after the Prevezon case settled.)

If you’re wondering why it matters how Veselnitskaya got into the U.S. for the Trump Tower meeting, look no further than the Fox News story cited in the U.S. attorney’s brief. Fox pinned responsibility for the Russian lawyer’s admission into the U.S. on the Obama administration, which was “involved on multiple occasions in granting access to the lawyer after she was initially denied a visa,” the Fox report said. President Trump has himself raised questions about who approved Veselnitskaya’s entry. The strategy seems to be to undermine the Russian lawyer’s credibility by suggesting she received favorable treatment from Obama officials.

Meanwhile, if the Senate Judiciary Committee or special counsel Mueller wants to hear from Veselnitskaya in the U.S., they’re going to have to get her here from Moscow, where the Bloomberg interview took place. Manhattan prosecutors in the Prevezon case seemed to anticipate the possibility of another immigration parole for the Russian lawyer - but only if she’s a witness.