WASHINGTON (CN) – A man who helped lobby Congress for strict sanctions against Russian human-rights abusers told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday he’s skeptical of White House assertions that a controversial meeting between Russian nationals and Donald Trump Jr. last year was about adoption policy.
“Nobody was talking about adoption,” William Browder, a hedge fund manager who helped lobby for the Magnitsky Act, said during a morning hearing. “They were talking about the repeal of sanctions so that Russian torturers and murderers can freely travel and keep their money.”
Browder also told the committee that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer Trump Jr. met with after being offered compromising information on Hillary Clinton, was certainly working on behalf of the Russian government.
Veselnitskaya started an NGO that lobbies against the Magnitsky Act under the guise of Russian adoptions.
“It’s absolutely clear the interest and the goal in that meeting was to repeal the Magnitsky Act,” Browder told the committee.
The Magnitsky Act, named for a former associate of Browder’s who died in a Russian prison after he took on corruption in the government, put in place sanctions on people within the Russian government who commit human rights violations.
It was Browder who told lawmakers of the harrowing of Magnitsky death after six months of torture, inspiring them to pass the law that bears his name in 2012.
In retaliation for former President Barack Obama signing the bill into law, Russian President Vladimir Putin put a ban on Americans adopting Russian children, which is why Browder said talking about Russian adoptions is actually code for conversations about repealing the Magnitsky Act.
The meeting with Trump campaign officials and a number of people with ties to the Russian government was a major focus of Thursday’s hearing.
Browder said he imagined the Trump campaign would have known about the Russian opposition to the Magnitsky Act and its connection to Russian adoptions, though Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., with that assessment.
Browder also told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that while he has seen no evidence of a clear agreement between Putin and Trump’s campaign, the Kremlin was likely testing to see where the Trump team stood on the sanctions issue.
“This was a big ask, to go and ask the possible future next president of the United States to repeal a major piece of human rights legislation,” Browder said. “They wouldn’t have gone in to say please, can you repeal this for us without having something to offer in return.”
Browder said the law is a “personal, venal issue” to Putin because much of his money, stashed in overseas banks, is tied up because of the sanctions. Browder also told the committee that the law stops Putin from protecting the people he has relied on to “do terrible things” for him.
Despite Browder’s obvious concerns about Russian lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, lawmakers assured him that those efforts will ultimately be unsuccessful.
“Of course you can’t repeal a law in the United States if Congress objects, so it’s really incredible that Mr. Putin would think that by talking to the son of the candidate running for president that he’d be able to repeal the act, because I assure you, Mr. Browder, there is no way that Congress would agree to repeal the Magnitsky Act,” Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, said at the hearing.
The hearing on Thursday was the second day of a meeting called to discuss the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires people who do work at the direction of foreign governments to register with the Justice Department.
Senators at Wednesday’s session of the hearing expressed concern that the law is often weakly enforced, concerns Browder’s testimony supported.
Browder in 2016 tipped off the Justice Department to Veselnitskaya and the people who she hired to lobby Congress against the Magnitsky Act, none of whom registered as foreign agents. He said the requirement that people like Veselnitskaya register is “absolutely essential” because it brings transparency to those acting on behalf of foreign governments who might be able to hide their true intentions.
“We have a free society, a free press, democracy, open ideas, First Amendment et cetera, and they’re taking advantage of that,” Browder said. “The only way we can fight against it and keep our free society is by having absolute transparency.”