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New Details Emerge About Russians Who Met With Donald Trump Jr.


We've been hearing a lot about the long list of unfinished business facing Congress. That list includes discovering why Donald Trump Jr. and top Trump campaign aides met with a group of Russians last year. Trump Jr. first said it was to talk about adoptions of Russian children. NPR's Jackie Northam traveled to Delaware to explain where adoptions fit into a much bigger picture.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Just off one of the main thoroughfares here in downtown Wilmington, Del., is a two-story red brick building on a narrow, tree-lined street. This is where the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation is registered. The foundation was established in February 2016, and all those associated with it have deep ties to Russia. Their stated aim - to overturn a ban on the adoption of Russian children by American families. Seva Gunitsky, a Russian specialist at the University of Toronto, isn't buying it.

SEVA GUNITSKY: Whenever anybody on the Russian side says adoption ban, that's really code for the Magnitsky Act.

NORTHAM: The Magnitsky Act is a set of sanctions passed by Congress in 2012. They're designed to punish Russians involved in the killing of a Moscow tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. He had uncovered a massive tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. Gunitsky says the law freezes the assets and bans visas for certain Russians.

GUNITSKY: Essentially it restricts Russian elites from doing business in the U.S. And it puts their foreign assets at possible risk if they are found out.

NORTHAM: Gunitsky says Russian president Vladimir Putin was infuriated with the sanctions and retaliated by imposing a ban on Russian adoptions. At the same time, powerful Russians launched a massive campaign to overturn the Magnitsky Act, using lobbyists like those linked to the Delaware-based adoption foundation.

William Browder ran a hedge fund company in Russia that was a victim of the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Browder testified before Congress that the lobbying effort to repeal the act was overseen by Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer at the center of the meeting with Donald Trump Jr.

WILLIAM BROWDER: This entire effort was under the auspices of Natalia Veselnitskaya. She was the one organizing it. It was a highly resourced operation. It was being paid for by her client, which was the Katsyv family of Russia. The Katsyv family were paying the bills.

NORTHAM: Pyotr Katsyv is a senior Russian official with close ties to the Kremlin. His son Denis is a businessman whose company was sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. The younger Katsyv name is one of a number of Russian advocates that turns up on lobbying reports for the adoption foundation we visited in Delaware. So too does the name Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet Army officer and now a Russian lobbyist living in Washington, D.C. He attended the meeting with key Trump figures in New York.

LOUISE SHELLEY: The people who met Donald Trump Jr. are people who are close to the Russian power structures.

NORTHAM: Louise Shelley is an expert in Russian organized crime and corruption at George Mason University. She says none of the Russians at the June 2016 meeting with Trump Jr. are actually employed by the Kremlin, but they all have connections to upper echelons of power there and are carrying out Putin's wishes.

SHELLEY: Either they're part of the legal apparatus that helps him, the political apparatus that helps him or are engaged in negative public relations campaigns which are also a very important technique of the Kremlin to go after its enemies.

NORTHAM: Shelley says the Kremlin still believes ending the Magnitsky sanctions is a priority, and advocates such as Katsyv, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin are integral to that. None are registered as a foreign agent, but that hasn't stopped them from pushing to overturn the act. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.