Anne Applebaum writes: I don’t want to exaggerate: There is a lot we still don’t know. Also, I still believe that the most shocking, disqualifying aspects of the Trump/Russia relationship — President Trump’s hero worship of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his admiration for Russian dictatorship — are the ones that are already public. Nevertheless, the entry of Natalia Veselnitskaya into the Trump/Russia story is dramatic. This is not just because of what her role tells us about Trump and his entourage, but because of what it tells us about the possible motives of interested Russians.
To explain why, you need a few paragraphs of background. Veselnitskaya is a lawyer who has worked for many years to overturn the Magnitsky Act, a piece of U.S. legislation named after a very different Russian lawyer. Sergei Magnitsky was working for an American investor, Bill Browder, when he accidentally stumbled upon an incredible, almost unbelievable scam: Russian tax officials and police were secretly changing the ownership of companies, hijacking their names and bank accounts, and then using them to claim fake tax rebates and other payments. In effect, they were stealing vast sums of money from the Russian state.
Magnitsky learned too much about the scam, and in 2008 he was arrested. In jail he was reportedly deprived of medical care and beaten — until he died. In the wake of Magnitsky’s death, Browder launched an extraordinary crusade against the officials who had been involved in the original scam as well as Magnitsky’s death. In 2012 he convinced Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that has now forbade 44 people, including bureaucrats and tax officials associated with Magnitsky’s death, from entering the United States or doing business with U.S. banks.
The Magnitsky Act bothered the Russian leadership — in fact, it really, really bothered them, far more than it should have. In part that may have been because it focused attention on the real source of so much Russian wealth: theft from the state. In part it may have been because the powerful officials involved, like all powerful officials in Russia, care a lot about being able to travel freely to the West in order to buy property, to go skiing, to hide their money.
It also set a precedent. Suddenly there was a way to target all of those gray bureaucrats, the men behind the scenes who give the orders to loot the state and kill citizens. The Magnitsky Act was the template for the sanctions that the Obama administration placed more broadly on Russian individuals and businesses in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. [Continue reading…]