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Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian nationals, apparently about Magnitsky Act sanctions, has caused a frenzy. But the Clintons might have a Magnitsky-tied conflict of their own, says journalist Michael Sainato

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The main investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has a new focus. According to reports, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe now includes the recently disclosed meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer. The music publicist who arranged the meeting told Trump Jr. the lawyer had compromising information on Hillary Clinton on behalf of the Russian government, but the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, says she was only trying to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials. If that’s true, then there’s another interesting Clinton tie here. Hillary Clinton also opposed the sanctions when she was Secretary of State, and that only came after her husband, Bill Clinton, received $500,000 for a speech at a Russian investment conference in Moscow. According to leaked emails, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign killed a Bloomberg story that tried to link Hillary Clinton’s stance to her husband’s paid gig, which means Donald Trump might not be the only 2016 candidate with a conflict of interest related to Russia. Michael Sainato is a writer and Real News contributor. Michael, welcome. MICHAEL SAINATO: Hi, Aaron. AARON MATE: Let’s talk about the Clinton tie here, because it hasn’t gotten very much attention, but you pointed it out in a piece for the New York Observer, that actually the Clintons might have a conflict of interest when it comes to the Magnitsky Act. MICHAEL SAINATO: Well, what I wrote about was filling in the context of what was going on in this campaign. There are a lot of unknowns with this Trump Jr. meeting, and a lot of those unknowns are getting filled with confirmation biases. People are jumping to conclusions. We don’t really know the full details of this meeting. No one can point to if actual dirt on Hillary Clinton was provided to the Trump campaign, because it’s unclear what dirt that would have been, or if there actually wasn’t. An interesting part of … Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi came out with an article today and said he was set up with the same Russian lawyer and was conned into the meeting with … It was supposed to be about something else, and then it wound up talking about the Magnitsky Act sanctions and the Russian adoption ban that Russia banned adoptions from United States foreigners as a rebuttal to the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Hillary Clinton opposed these. She met with Russian officials as the Secretary of State, and while she was opposing these sanctions, Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 to speak in Moscow for Renaissance Capital, which is a Russian investment firm, and many of the officials from that bank were implicated in the Magnitsky Act. A lot of their money, a lot of their funds in New York City and in the United States were frozen, and they didn’t want that, so it appears to be a quid pro quo. They paid Bill Clinton this $500,000, and Hillary Clinton opposed the sanctions and pushed back on the sanctions. Even though the sanctions eventually went through in Congress, Hillary Clinton’s obviously had a lot of sway as Secretary of State and on foreign policy at the time. It’s an important context to provide into this meeting. Even William Browder, the billionaire who the Magnitsky Act really came from, and he really pushed for it, he was investing in Russia, and Russia basically stole money from him and kicked him out of the country, and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was apparently killed in a Russian prison, and that’s where the sanctions come from. He said, in an NPR interview, that these people, the Russian lawyer, and the lobbyist, Russian American lobbyist that was also attending the meeting, they were pushing against these sanctions as much as possible, and he said he’s not surprised. The meeting took place because these people were trying to meet with everyone. The Hill reported that the Russian lawyer went to a Russian sanctions hearing in Congress. She was back and forth in the United States, even though she really doesn’t speak much English, and she spent a lot of time lobbying with State Department officials, Congressional officials, to really push back on these sanctions, and she was representing a client who received a favorable hearing from the Department of Justice and basically had their funds that were frozen from this Magnitsky Act. They settled for five million, which is a minimal amount compared to what was being contested. AARON MATE: Okay, so I just want to focus for a second on the Clinton angle here, when you mention that this could be a quid pro quo. Of course, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton’s stance on the Magnitsky Act was directly influenced by Bill Clinton taking $500,000 from that Russian firm, but it’s important just to note that it happened, and I just want to read to you the email that Wikileaks released. This was from inside the Clinton campaign. They’re talking about their new, their media-related activity for the day, and one of the items they included is, “With the help of the research team, we killed the Bloomberg story trying to link Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Magnitsky bill to a $500,000 speech that Bill Clinton gave in Moscow.” So there’s at least enough smoke there that Bloomberg felt compelled to do a story about it, which we know now from these leaked emails the Clinton campaign killed. My question is, here we have a speech that Bill Clinton is paid $500,000 for. Shortly after that, Hillary Clinton comes out against the Magnitsky Act. Now, to me, when I compare that to what we’ve heard about Donald Trump and Russia, there’s a lot of smoke. I mean, there’s speculation about what his financial ties are to Russia, if there was collusion or not, but there still is not very much hard evidence, but here, in this case, we have a $500,000 payment to Bill Clinton, and I’m wondering, is this so far the most tangible case of potential conflict of interest, when it comes to Russia, stemming from the 2016 campaign? MICHAEL SAINATO: It’s definitely close. Obviously, the email Trump Jr. received and his response was probably the most idiotic thing about this narrative, probably the most damning, but there’s very little evidence that it was illegal. A lot of people point to the Campaign Finance Act, but that alludes to whether actual opposition research was handed over, and it alludes to that that law is really focused on financial donations from foreign governments or foreign citizens to campaigns. AARON MATE: Yeah, Michael, and I don’t see the difference. I mean, if the Russian government was offering compromising information on Hillary Clinton, and by the way, the claim was made by a music publicist, Rob Goldstone, who might have been a Russian government agent, but it’s just important to point out who it is. This is a music publicist who Trump Jr. knew, who said all this about Russia, offering up information on Hillary Clinton. But even if that’s all true, I don’t see how we can say it’s any worse than what we know Ukraine did. We know from Politico that government officials from Ukraine met with the DNC in an attempt to offer compromising information on Donald Trump. MICHAEL SAINATO: That’s true. The DNC consultant, Andrea Chalupa, met at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, DC, with these officials to get opposition research about Paul Manafort, and we saw that scandal unfold in around August 2016 about Paul Manafort, so that was clearly … They were given opposition research evidence, and they gave it out to the media, and it was widely reported on. It was a pretty big scandal in the 2016 elections, and it’s also important to note that one of the biggest Clinton Foundation donors is Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. He gave anywhere from 10 to 20 million to the Clinton Foundation. He was also cited in the Wikileaks emails, where he was pressuring to get a one-on-one meeting with Bill Clinton using his access as a Clinton Foundation donor to do so. And his interest and Ukrainians’ interest were to oppose Russia and get the next president on their side, because they wanted help with weapons to get Russia out of their borders, the Ukrainian government currently, in the issues facing them now. Then actually a little more than a month after, Victor Pinchuk does a 180, writes an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal and says, “We have to work with Russia now,” so the interests were there on the Ukrainian side to help out anywhere they can the Clinton campaign, because she was, obviously, going to be the most receptive candidate to their own agenda, and there was clearly opposition research given. AARON MATE: Michael, I have to note the comedy of all this, in the sense that we’re obsessing over this one meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and these other characters, this Russian lawyer who we talked about, Rob Goldstone, who is a music publicist. Now, this week there was a whole bunch of hoopla over the fact that an eighth person was confirmed. He was an employee of a Russian real estate company owned by developers who hosted the Trump-owned Miss Universe Pageant in 2013, and so it’s possible that all these people are mixed up in high-level Kremlin espionage, but on the surface, it just seems a colorful cast of characters who are all getting together to discuss what at least Donald Jr. says was not very consequential. MICHAEL SAINATO: No, I agree. Going back to cite Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi’s article, he cited that the consensus around this Russian lawyer was, they were really bad at lobbying, didn’t have their agenda put together at all, so they were kind of clownish in what they were trying to do. And they were frequently conning people in to meet with them to discuss these sanctions, because if you go to any of these politicians, these people, and you say, “Oh, I want to talk about the Magnitsky Act,” it’s not going to really interest someone, so they lie to get their foot into the door. Another aspect of that is, they weren’t registered as lobbyists. William Browder’s company, the Hermitage Foundation, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice complaining that these people, and he cited them both, Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian lobbyist at the meeting, and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, that they weren’t registered as lobbyists, so it’s unclear. I couldn’t find whether the Department of Justice actually responded to those allegations, and that got that complaint, and that’s another aspect of it. There’s a lot of evidence that needs to be released to give us the whole picture. We don’t know … We saw the emails before the meeting, but we would like to see the emails from after the meeting that either confirmed that they did receive some sort of evidence, or it was like, “What was that? That was a waste of time. That was stupid. We were conned.” They could easily do that, so I don’t understand what the problem is. There’s an overt lack of transparency with this whole narrative, and part of it might be deliberate. Part of it might be because there’s possible litigation, and there’s an agenda tied to this, so the lawyers don’t want information leaked until everything is out on the table and the investigation is complete. AARON MATE: Michael Sainato, writer and Real News contributor, thanks very much. MICHAEL SAINATO: Thank you, Aaron. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Michael Sainato is a contributor to The Guardian and a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.