Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee released over 2000 pages of interview transcripts and related documents. One of the exhibits contains a collection of text messages between Ike Kaveladze (oligarch Aras Agalarov’s lawyer) and Natalya Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer widely known in the Trump fiasco for attending the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort in June of 2016.
Ike Kaveladze also attended that meeting. As Agalarov’s attorney, Mr. Kaveladze has been involved in the election drama with Trump longer than almost anyone (along with the two Agalarovs and Rob Goldstone). Kaveladze was at Trump’s first known meeting with the Agalarovs, at the Miss USA contest in June of 2013, where they finalized the details to bring Miss Universe to Moscow.
Natalya Veselnitskaya however is not the Agalarov’s attorney (as far as anyone knows). Many claim that she works for the Kremlin. One of those people happens to be Rob Goldstone, who referred to her as a “Russian goverment attorney” in his email to Donald Trump Jr. (yet another piece of evidence which demonstrates that Don Jr. knew he was dealing with the Russian goverment).
But this is not about the June 2016 meeting. This is about Veselnitskaya’s day job, as a “Russian government attorney”. Veselnitskaya represented a Russian company called Prevezon Holdings which was then under prosecution in the Southern Disctrict of New York, under the leadership of U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara.
Even some dedicated Trump-Russia “enthusiasts” might be unfamiliar with this case. It has come up a few times, and had a few stories written about it, but hasn’t received a lot of attention. It’s related to something more people will have heard of, The Magnitsky Act, a collection of sanctions imposed on Russians. The Magnitsky Act and the Prevezon case are way too complicated to properly describe here. Here’s the best (six-paragraph) nutshell explanation I can give you:
Bill Browder was an American who was the largest foreign investor in Russia. His investments there were so extensive he gave up his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying taxes (but he’s not the bad guy in this story). Russia, being a place of deep corruption must have seen all this cash that was no longer protected by U.S. laws as an all-you-can-steal buffet. Russians allegedly stole much of Browder’s investments, but that not being enough they (allegedly) used that money in schemes to defraud Russia to refund them with fake back taxes. Enter Sergei Magnitsky, an investigative journalist who was on the case. He wrote articles exposing the fraud, for which he was imprisoned, allegedly denied medical care, but still didn’t die, so they beat him to death. Allegedly.
As it turns out, Browder and Magnitsky were friends, and Browder still had U.S. political connections, so the human rights violations turned into a thing, leading to U.S. sanctions against a handful of Russians who were directly involved. Prevezon Holdings was one of those entities, and allegedly defrauded Russia to the tune of 230 million dollars.
Preet Bharara comes into the picture, because (allegedly) a small part of that 230 million was laundered through the United States. So under Bharara’s leadership, the United States prosecuted Prevezon Holdings.
Russia’s—or Putin’s—interest in this case hinges on refuting our version of the story and the ensuing sanctions. Their preferred narrative: Of course Russians aren’t so corrupt that they’d steal from foreigners. Of course they wouldn’t use that money to defraud their own government (though some believe this is allowed as a mechanism of rewarding Putin loyalists). Of course they don’t beat people to death in prison for exposing the truth. Of course the United States sanctions were unlawful interference.
Veselnitskaya doesn’t just spend her time on this case. She also seems to spend quite a lot of time publicly trying to advance Russia’s propaganda angle on the case. And indeed, in the Trump Tower June 2013 meeting, it’s widely accepted that she talked about this issue for a significant portion of the meeting.
When Trump was elected, he met with Preet Bharara, and decided to keep him on as the U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District of New York.
With this background in mind, lets dig into the text messages. We’ll start a couple of days before Preet met with Trump, just to get a feel for the mood they were in when the meeting became public.
I make assumptions below about identities which I believe are the obvious assumptions, but this does not guarantee they’re correct.
(The translations are machine-based with my own corrections. The full set of all text messages from this time period are included at the end of the article, showing the original Russian along with translations and additional notes.)
11/28 21:27 Ike: Hello Natalya. Sorry, we didn’t respond. T’s Secretary said that this kind of meeting request now takes much longer.
11/28 21:28 Ike: Robert on the phone with the receptionist. We still will not be able to hear anything until the end of the day
11/28 21:29 Ike: Will not have heard anything
11/28 22:21 Natalya: Understood. I’m waiting.
11/28 23:06 Ike: Still silent. Rob left another message.
11/28 23:53 Natalya: Could this mean a lack of interest?
11/29 11:08 Ike: Most likely this means that they are logistically not yet ready.
[skipped a few texts about Veselnitskaya flying to Moscow for a few days]
11/29 11:18 Ike: Robert says that the logistics of organizing meetings with the T team will now be difficult and long. I landed in Moscow. Today I will discuss the situation with the boss
11/29 11:18 Natalya: OK, Keep in touch!
11/29 11:19 Ike: Good
They were trying to get in touch with the Trump team, but having limited success. Veselnitskaya at least seemed worried they were being frozen out. Ike seemed calmer on the one hand, but on the other hand was meeting with the “boss” (Aras Agalarov) to deal with the issue. So at some level they considired their lack of ability to meet with Trump campaign staff to be worrying.
(Russian expectations of private access to the President-elect is not the main point here, but should not get lost in the shuffle.)
After more discussion of the timing of their trips to Moscow, we get to the crux of the biscuit:
11/30 17:19 Natalya: Donald Trump to meet with Preet Bharara [in English]
11/30 17:20 Natalya: http://nyp.st/2gGmMgL
11/30 17:20 Natalya: Could this be so?
11/30 17:20 Natalya: Is this a bad sign?
11/30 17:22 Ike: I don’t think this is a bad sign
So the timing here is that Trump is meeting with Bharara that day, and Veselnitskaya just learned of this. She clearly seems surprised and not in a good way. We already know she had an interest in Preet because of her Prevezon case. The implication that she had an expectation is already present. It’s possible at this point the meeting has already happend, but it’s definite that by the next text message, not only has the meeting happened but it has been publicly announced that Trump asked Bharara to stay on as DA. Which Veselnitskaya is apparently about to learn.
11/30 20:04 Natalya: He left him!!!! [in place as DA]
11/30 20:08 Natalya: How is this possible??
Here her expecation is even clearer. Strong surprise (in six pages of text messages, she repeated punctuation only three times — two of them here). But the statement “How is this possible?” clarifies that she wasn’t merely hoping that Preet would be gone, she was expecting it. She thought it was a sure thing, that it was impossible for him to remain. After a couple of hours she seems slightly calmer.
12/1 0:22 Natalya: Or is this a game after all? Can he control him in this way? Who to kill [fire] and who not?
12/1 3:38 Ike: Maybe
She’s trying to rationalize his behavior as something that could still be consistent with her expectations. Maybe he can still meet her expectations without getting rid of Preet?
12/1 11:45 Natalya: Is there any communications from them for understanding what is behind this?
12/1 11:49 Ike: Unfortunately, there is still no communication. The boss planned to meet with him. Let’s make a request. After the meeting, I hope the communications will appear
12/1 12:07 Natalya: Can I meet with Your boss? Where we met him before
12/1 12:08 Ike: He’s on the road. It will be tomorrow. I will tell him
12/1 12:10 Natalya: OK
Veselnitskaya’s expectation here seems to be that they are owed an explanation by Team Trump about Preet remaining on staff. They remain frustrated that communications with Team Trump are not open. And she considers this important enough tthat she wants to meet with Aras Agalarov in connection with Agalarov’s planned meeting with Trump.
Also let’s not gloss over the little detail that it seems as if Agalarov was planning to meet with Trump. Such a meeting would be big news if it took place.
The good news for Veselnitskaya is that it all worked out in the end. Trump fired Bharara (after he refused to resign) on March 11th, 2017. The Prevezon case was ready to go to trial on Monday May 15th, but was unexpectedly settled by the United States on the Friday evening just prior, for a fraction of U.S.’ original interest in the case.
If we go back to that June 2016 meeting, one might wonder why Veselnitskaya was there at all, claiming to have compromising material on Clinton. None of this had any apparent connection to her day job. Unless she was asked to do this by powerful people (i.e. from Kremlin), potentially with the hope that her case would be dealt with if Trump were in office. It’s hard to avoid the notion that this involved a quid pro quo.
It’s important to remember that there’s much happening here that we don’t know, and I’m making several assumptions. I’m assuming the topic didn’t change from one message to the next (probably valid, given they were on different continents for most of the conversation). I’m assuming that“T” is code for Trump. But setting all those assumptions aside, it was clear that the Russians had some very interesting expectations that, absent collusion, would seem nonsensical.
2018/5/24 — changed contentious translation where I had previously used “channel” to “communications”.
Complete set of text messages with translation notes
The four years of Russian I took in high school was many years ago, and has been mostly unused. Therefore, I relied heavily on Google and Yandex translators for the bulk of my translation. Where they didn’t agree I chose the one that I believed to be the best translation.
For trouble spots, I looked up specific words and phrases in online dictionaries and slang dictionaries.
This includes all text messages for the time period my article covers. It does not include every message they exchanged, found in the exhibit. There’s more interesting tidbits there waiting to be uncovered, but it’s slow going for me.
11/28/2016 21:27 Ike: Здравствуйте Наталья. К сожалению нам ничего не ответили. Секретарь Т сказала, что такого пода запросы на встречу теперь занимают гораздо дольше времени.
Hello Natalia. Sorry, we didn’t respond. T’s secretary said that this kind of meeting requests now take much longer.
[Made an assumption that they were talking about Trump’s secretary, not a secretary who’s identity they wanted to obscure with T. Consistent with another usage of “T” that seemed to mean Trump. In Russian, possession is shown in a word ending that can’t really be done as an abbreviation.]
11/28/2016 21:28 Ike: Роберт на телефоне с приемной. Мы все же наденемся что-то не слышать до конца дня
Robert on the phone with the reception. We still will not be able to hear anything until the end of the day
11/28/2016 21:29 Ike: Что-то услышать
Will not have heard something
[Literally “something to hear”. I believe this is a subtle Russian grammar correction of the previous text message, shifting the infinitive verb “to hear” from imperfective to perfective. In the future tense, I believe this could be a shift from “will not be hearing anything” to “will not have heard anything”.]
11/28/2016 22:21 Natalya: Поняла. Жду.
Understood. I’m waiting.
11/28/2016 23:06 Ike: Пока молчат. Роб оставил ещё одно сообщение
Still silent. Rob left another message.
11/28/2016 23:53 Natalya: Может ли это означать об отсутсвии интереса?
Could this mean a lack of interest?
11/29/2016 11:08 Ike: Скорее всего это значит, что они логистически ещё не готовы.
Most likely this means that they are logistically not yet ready.
[Yandex offered “not yet ready for logistics” which doesn’t really make sense]
11/29/2016 11:15 Natalya: Поняла. У меня билеты на завтра в Москву. Можно как-то понять стоит мне их поменять или просить о встрече на следующей неделе, чтобы прилететь вновь?
Understood. I have tickets to Moscow tomorrow. Is there any way to understand if I should change them or ask for a meeting next week to fly again?
11/29/2016 11:16 Natalya: Мне нужно быть в Москве только на эти выходные.
I need to be in Moscow only during the weekend.
[A more natural translation might be “I only need to be in Moscow this weekend”]
11/29/2016 11:18 Ike: Роберт говорит, что логистика организации встреч с командой Т теперь будет сложной и долгой. Я приземлился в Москве. Сегодня обсужу ситуацию с шефом
Robert says that the logistics of organizing meetings with the T team will now be difficult and long. I landed in Moscow. Today I will discuss the situation with the boss
11/29/2016 11:18 Natalya: Ок Держите в курсе!
OK, Keep in touch!
[This was Google. Yandex gave a more literal “Keep up to date”]
11/29/2016 11:19 Ike: Хорошо
11/30/2016 0:45 Natalya: Мне предётся задержаться до субботы
I’ll have to stay until Saturday
11/29/2016 4:02 Ike: Ок
11/30/2016 17:19 Natalya: Donald Trump to meet with Preet Bharara
[this was in English, presumably a clipped headline]
11/30/2016 17:20 Natalya:
11/30/2016 17:20 Natalya: Может быть поэтому?
Maybe this is so?
[This is a bit of a guess. This phrase as an idiom is widely used to mean “maybe that’s why …” but not as an isolated phrase. One very literal translation would be “Maybe according to this”.]
11/30/2016 17:20 Natalya: Это плохой знак?
Is this a bad sign?
11/30/2016 17:22 Ike: Не думаю, что это плохой знак
I don’t think this is a bad sign
11/30/2016 20:04 Natalya: Он его оставил!!!!
He left him!!!!
[“left” has the same ambiguity in Russian as in English, where something can be either “left behind” or “left in place”. In this case we know that Preet was left in place, just as Ike would have known.]
11/30/2016 20:08 Natalya: Как такое возможно??
How is this possible??
12/1/2016 0:22 Natalya: Или все-таки это игра? Может он его таким образом будет контролировать? Кого мочить, а кого нет?
Or is this a game after all? Can he control him in this way? Who to flush and who not?
[Yandex offered “kill” for “мочить” as the best translation. It literally means “to make wet” or “to soak”, and is only “kill” in slang. Some sites offer “waste” as another slang meaning. I couldn’t find any sign that it means as “fire” but this still makes the most sense.
There’s an infamous Putin quote where he uses this word to describe killing Chechens in their toilets. I’ve also looked for signs that it could mean “flush” but didn’t find that either.]
12/1/2016 3:38 Ike: Может быть
12/1/2016 11:45 Natalya: А есть хоть какая-то обратная связь для понимания, что ща етим стоит?
[First try:]Is there any back channel for understanding now what is behind this?
[Now:]Is there any communication from them for understanding what is behind this?
[Both Google and Yandex offered “feedback” for “обратная связь”, which most literally means “reverse communication”. Because “связь” pops up again in the next text message, I initially chose channel, to preserve the consistency in meaning between the text messages. But backchannel implies things about secret separate lines of communication that I am told are unwarranted here. So I went back to “communications”, and “communications from them” for “reverse communications”.
They also both offered a variation of “worthwhile” for “етим стоит” but it also means “behind this” which makes far more sense.
And “ща” can be an abbreviation of “сейчас” — “now”. However I was advised in a comment that it was more likely a mispelling of Russian pronoun “за”. I use a QWERTY layout for my Russian keyboarding, rather than the standard Russian layout, because it was faster for me to learn. But in the standard layout, “щ” and “з” are right next to each other.]
12/1/2016 11:49 Ike: К сожалению сейчас пока связи нет. Шеф планировал встретиться с ним. Сделаем запрос. После встречи надеюсь связь появится
Unfortunately, there is still no channel. The boss planned to meet with him. Let’s make a request. After the meeting, I hope the channel will appear
[See notes of previous message regarding “channel” vs. “communications”]
12/1/2016 12:07 Natalya: Можно ли с Вашим шефом встретиться? Там, где мы с ним познакомились
Can I meet with Your boss? Where we met him before
[added “before” so it doesn’t sound like an incomplete sentence]
12/1/2016 12:08 Ike: Он в отьезде. Будет завтра. Я ему передам
He’s on the road. It will be tomorrow. I will tell him
[Yandex offered “He’s away” instead of “on the road”. But “on the road” works well in both languages.]
12/1/2016 12:10 Natalya: Ок