WASHINGTON — The leading champion of the Magnitsky Act human rights sanctions on Russia told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that he has zero doubt Russian intelligence knew beforehand about a meeting with the Trump campaign and plotted in advance to try to turn the anti-sanctions effort to their advantage.
Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, discovered massive Russian government fraud that led to Magnitsky’s imprisonment, torture, and 2009 death. After Congress passed the sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for Magnitsky’s death, the Kremlin retaliated by blocking the adoption of Russian children in the U.S.
Browder told lawmakers that the sanctions “personally” affect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wealth — about $200 billion, he said, “held all over the world in banks, in America and all over” — and emphasized that the targeted sanctions are “100 times” more upsetting to the country’s kleptocracy than any other Russians.
“In order to get that $200 billion, [Putin has] had to instruct a lot of people working for him, let’s say 10,000 people working for him, to do terrible things,” he explained. “To arrest, kidnap, torture and kill to take people’s properties away. As a result, the only way he can get people to do such terrible things is to say if you do such terrible things, there will be no consequence.”
Browder called the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, and publicist Rob Goldstone a mission that Russian intelligence knew about in advance “with 100 percent certainty… there would have been weeks spent studying how to best achieve the results in that meeting.”
Veselnitskaya, he said, is “definitely working for the Russians, no question,” while Akhmetshin’s claims of formerly working with Soviet intelligence rang hollow for Browder — “there’s no such thing as a ‘former’ intelligence officer in Russia,” he said, comparing it to the “Hotel California” where you can check out but never leave.
“This was a big ask, to go and ask the possible future next president of the United States to repeal a major piece of human rights legislation,” he said. “They wouldn’t have gone in and said please, can you repeal this for us, without having something to offer in return.”
Browder testified that the goal of repealing the Magnitsky Act is “the one thing we can conclude with certainty about what happened in that meeting.”
“…What they were willing to offer in return, I don’t know. Whether that offer made any sense to the other side, I don’t know. But I do know … the FSB, the security services – they would have studied their targets carefully. They would have constructed an offer that they thought was appealing and sizable enough to be consistent with what they were asking for.”
Trump Jr. has said the discussion in the meeting was about adoptions. President Trump told the New York Times that when he spoke privately with Putin at a recent G-20 dinner “I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr.] had in that meeting.”
Browder explained to senators today that “nobody was talking about adoption — they were talking about the repeal of sanctions so that Russian torturers and murders could freely travel and keep their money in America.”
He described how Veselnitskaya, through U.S. law firm BakerHostetler, hired Glenn Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS — which would later be retained by GOP opponents of Trump and then the Democrats to dig into Trump’s past, resulting in the compilation of the infamous Steele dossier — “to conduct a smear campaign against me and Sergei Magnitsky in advance of congressional hearings on the Global Magnitsky Act,” which was passed in December.
Browder told the committee he’s seen no evidence that Russians were involved in commissioning the Steele dossier.
After the hearing, Browder told CNN that Putin is “somebody who benefited from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky exposed and was killed over, and therefore subject to the Magnitsky Act.”
“And so, Vladimir Putin’s own money that he holds in the West could potentially be frozen. And then we go down below Vladimir Putin, and there’s many other oligarchs who have a lot of money in the West who are involved in all sorts of terrible things in Russia,” he added.
Browder said he doesn’t know if there were follow-up meetings after the Trump Tower sit-down. “I don’t know whether any of the offers they made were accepted,” he said. “But I can guarantee you that this was something discussed at an extremely high level in Russia before and after.”
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Putin called new sanctions passed by veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate “merely a growth of anti-Russian hysteria and utilization of Russophobia for domestic politics.”
Browder called that Putin’s “stock answer any time he gets caught doing anything.”
“He basically blames it on the West and then tries to create this image in Russia so he could tell his people, look, we’re surrounded, everybody hates us, I’m your strong leader, I’m going to stand up to them — when, in fact, it’s all about him stealing money from people, killing people and then trying to hide behind this nationalism.”
On CNN Wednesday, Browder acknowledged Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying “it’s too bad that Sergei Magnitsky is dead and Bill Browder is still alive and free.”
“I know the Russian government wants me dead, and I can say that there’s a number of other people who are connected to this case who are dead. Boris Nemtsov who is a former — a Russian opposition politician who had been lobbying for the Magnitsky Act in America, at the European parliament, et cetera, was shot in front of the Kremlin in 2015,” Browder said. “Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was his protege, who was also lobbying for the Magnitsky Act very actively, was poisoned within an inch of his life. He went into coma and multiple organ failure.”
“The lawyer for Sergei Magnitsky’s mother, has been fighting alongside us for justice, was thrown off a fourth -floor apartment building. He survived, thank God. And, of course, I have been receiving all these different types of threats from Russia. This is a regime that kills and maims when they — when you’re standing in their way and standing in the way of them stealing money.”