President Donald Trump suggested Saturday night that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have directed a Russian lawyer who met with Trump campaign associates in 2016 to disclose ties to Moscow recently in order to sow chaos for him in retaliation for aggressive actions he has taken against Russia.
The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, said in an NBC News interview that aired Friday that she is both a lawyer and “an informant” after newly surfaced emails indicated she once worked with Russia’s chief legal office in an attempt to thwart a request from the Justice Department.
At a rally in Michigan on Saturday, Trump said, “I guarantee you, I’m tougher on Russia. Nobody ever thought. In fact, have you heard about the lawyer? For a year, a woman lawyer, she was like, ‘Oh, I know nothing.’ … Now all of a sudden she supposedly is involved with government. You know why? If she did that, because Putin and the groups said, ‘you know this Trump is killing us. Why don’t you say that you’re involved with government so that we could go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic.’ Look at what’s happened. Look at how these politicians have fallen for this junk. Russian collusion. Give me a break.”
Veselnitskaya has previously denied having worked for the Russian government, and in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year she said that she “operate(s) independently of any governmental bodies.”
In June 2016, Veselnitskaya met at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, among others. Emails released by Trump Jr. show that he agreed to a meeting with Veselnitskaya after being told the “crown prosecutor of Russia” wanted to give the Trump campaign incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. Instead, Veselnitskaya focused on the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 Russian sanctions the US enacted over human rights abuses.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Friday that Veselnitskaya reached out to the Trump family after the election with a request to follow up on efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
Trump’s team has denied there was any follow up after the Trump Tower meeting. It’s not clear that there was any response from the Trump team to the request from Veselnitskaya. The Trump administration has not moved to roll back the Russian sanctions, and, in fact, new sanctions against Russia have been enacted.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the Trump Tower meeting as part of his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort, who has since been indicted in the special counsel investigation on charges that include money laundering and filing false foreign lobbying reports, all denied participating in any collusion with Russia. Trump himself has repeatedly said there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian government and has repeatedly called the special counsel investigation a “witch hunt.”
Bill Browder, a main proponent of the Magnitsky Act and Putin critic, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Friday that Veselnitskaya is “an agent of the Russian government. She’s an agent of Vladimir Putin, and when she went to Trump Tower, she went there on behalf of Vladimir Putin.”
The Kremlin has denied the allegations of ties between Veselnitskaya and the Russian government.
CNN’s Sophie Tatum and Alessia Grunberger contributed to this report