MOSCOW — The Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. during the presidential campaign denied in an exclusive interview with NBC News that she had any connection to the Kremlin and insisted she met with President Donald Trump’s son in 2016 to discuss sanctions between Russia and the U.S., not to hand over information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” Natalia Veselnitskaya said.
Her account appeared to contradict that of Trump Jr., who said on Sunday that the premise of the meeting was to discuss damaging information on Clinton that the lawyer was offering. When asked how Trump Jr. seemed to have the impression that she had information about the Democratic National Committee, she responded:
“It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”
Trump Jr. has confirmed that the meeting occurred, saying in a statement to The New York Times that he attended "a short introductory meeting" with the lawyer, where the topic of conversation was primarily about adoption.
On Monday, Trump Jr. seemed to confirm that he had been offered information about Clinton or her campaign but insisted that nothing untoward in the meeting had occurred.
“Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen,” he tweeted, seemingly sarcastic.
The New York Times on Monday reported that Trump Jr. was told in an email before the meeting that the information Veselnitskaya had was part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s candidacy. On Tuesday, Trump Jr. tweeted his email chain showing him making plans to meet with her — and confirming the Times report.
The email exchange shows an acquaintance with ties to Russia, music publicist Rob Goldstone, telling the son of then-candidate Trump last year that the attorney had “information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
But Veselnitskaya, speaking to NBC News prior to Trump Jr. releasing the emails, flatly denied any connection to the Russian government. Kremlin officials said on Monday that they were unfamiliar with the lawyer.
Veselnitskaya explained she has questioned for many years a story that became the basis for a claim against her client, Russian businessman Denis Katsyv. She sought an investigation by the U.S. Congress into the allegations.
That claim led to a U.S. law called the Magnitsky Act, which enabled the U.S. to impose sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights violations. The Magnitsky Act also led the Kremlin to ban the adoption of Russian children by Americans at the end of 2012.
Part of the information she put together for her client included details about a company run by a former U.S. citizen. She believes this company didn’t pay taxes in either Russia or the U.S. and may also have made donations to the D.N.C.
These details are what may have sparked the interest of Trump’s campaign, she said.
She also said that in the meeting, Trump Jr. asked her just one question.
“The question that I was asked was as follows: whether I had any financial records which might prove that the funds used to sponsor the D.N.C. were coming from inappropriate sources."
Veselnitskaya had no records and said "it was never my intention to collect any financial records to that end."
Trump Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya took place on June 9, 2016, two days after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee.
Veselnitskaya described how she had circulated information on "the real circumstances behind the Magnitsky Act," to friends and friends of friends, seeking meetings with anyone who could help facilitate testimony before Congress.
"I never asked anybody for a particular meeting with Mr. Donald Trump Jr., or with anybody else," she said.
In describing how the meeting came about, Veselnitskaya didn’t name the person who set it up over the phone while she was in New York for work.
She added that she now knows that it was arranged in part by pop-star Emin Agalarov, who appeared in a music video with Trump when the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned at the time, was held in Moscow in 2013. She said she has never met Agalarov.
When Veselnitskaya arrived at Trump Tower for the meeting, which she described as banal, she was met by Goldstone, who had also been involved in the pageant. After entering a board room, she was introduced to Trump Jr.
She described how Trump Jr. ran the meeting, which she said lasted 20-30 minutes. Two other men who she never met by name were also in the room. She said she only realized three days ago who they were after seeing their photos in the news. Those men were Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, who at the time was running the Trump campaign.
“I could recognize the young gentleman who was only present in the meeting for probably the first seven to 10 minutes, and then he stood up and left the room,” she said. “It was Mr. Jared Kushner. And he never came back, by the way.
“And the other individual who was in the same meeting, but all the time he was looking at his phone. He was reading something. He never took any active part in the conversation. That was Mr. Manafort." Midway in the interview, she described Manafort as "absent-minded."
Trump Jr.’s newly appointed lawyer, Alan Futerfas, on Monday said “that Don Jr. had no knowledge as to what specific information, if any, would be discussed” in the meeting.
He called the reports “much ado about nothing,” and noted that Veselnitskaya was not a government official and had not been a prosecutor since 2001.
But the email exchange released Tuesday seems to contradict Futerfas' claim that Trump Jr. had no knowledge of what would be discussed in the meeting.
In response to Goldstone offering information about Hillary Clinton that he said would be incriminating. Trump Jr. responded, “I love it,” the emails show. Later in the exchange, Goldstone wrote, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump."
Trump Jr. said he was releasing the exchange “to be totally transparent.” But an editor for The New York Times said the emails were made public by Trump Jr. after he was informed the paper was publishing a story about them.
Veselnitskaya described how difficult the past few days have been since the story broke.
“Imagine yourself in my shoes. One morning you wake up and all of a sudden you are the focus of all the high ranking, upstream media of the world,” she said.
“To summarize, those were not the happiest days of my life, I have to say. I have to break up my holiday. I have to take a trip back to Moscow, because I just wanted to be able to answer the questions myself.”
CORRECTION (July 11, 2017, 10:45 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Veselnitskaya's client. It is Denis Katsyv, not Kadsyv.
Keir Simmons reported from Moscow, and Rachel Elbaum from London.