Putin’s offer to collar hackers a quid pro quo to Trump
Russia wants to question a number of US citizens and UK financier
Moscow — President Vladimir Putin’s offer to help the US investigate alleged Russian election meddling, hailed as an "incredible" gesture by US President 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 was 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 wanted to question a number of US citizens and UK financier and Putin critic Bill Browder over alleged $1.5bn tax evasion, part of which, 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 Jnr, 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 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 UK publicist Rob Goldstone asked Trump Jnr to see Veselnitskaya, calling her a Russian government lawyer with information and documents that would incriminate Clinton.
In an e-mail to Trump Jnr, he described it 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 US leader provoked a political backlash at home, including from within his own Republican party, for siding with his Russian counterpart’s denial of US 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 $1.5bn 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 on Tuesday. About $400,000 of that money was donated to the Democrats, Kurennoy said on state television, adding that prosecutors had documentary evidence to support the assertions.
The figure for the donation was 1,000 times less than the one Putin provided in Helsinki of $400m, which Kurennoy described as a mistake.
The Russian list includes Browder, the Ziff brothers and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, as well as former 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. US law enforcement agents, legislators and officials are also mentioned.
"I hope the US 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 US government officials on that list. President Trump could clear that up in one tweet or statement," McFaul said.
Thorn in Putin’s side
Browder has been a thorn in Putin’s side since he campaigned successfully for a 2012 US law that targeted Russian officials for sanctions over the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax accountant who worked for the fund managers Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after uncovering what he said was $230m in tax fraud by Russian officials.
The US-born Browder, who is now a British citizen, has campaigned to persuade other countries to adopt similar laws penalising Russian officials.
Veselnitskaya initially said she was acting in a private capacity and not as a Russian government representative. But she brought a talking points memorandum to Trump Tower that was very similar to a document provided to Russian prosecutors a year earlier.
In April, she told NBC News she was an "informant" for the prosecutor-general’s office.