Natalia Veselnitskaya has become an internet sensation, and in politics that's hardly ever a good thing.
The Russian lawyer, little-known until she surfaced in news stories this week about a meeting with Donald Trump’s son during last year’s presidential campaign, has been falsely tied in the last 48 hours to two members of Congress and a former U.S. ambassador, all of whom have been forced to issue denials that they knew her.
The politically connected Veselnitskaya is now front and center in the probes into potential Russian ties to the 2016 Trump campaign. Donald Trump Jr., along with his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, met with her in June 2016 after having been told she was a Russian government lawyer who would deliver dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton, an offer to which Trump Jr. enthusiastically responded.
McClatchy reported late Tuesday that U.S. prosecutors were aware of allegations that some years earlier she had threatened Russian rights lawyers with action by Russia’s FSB spy agency.
But much of the attention given to her movements and affiliations since then has been erroneous.
U.S. Sen. John McCain took to Facebook early Thursday to issue what he called a Fake News Alert. The pro-Trump alt-right website Gateway Pundit, he said, ran a fake story claiming he had ties with Veselnitskaya. At issue was a photo on Veselnitskaya’s Facebook page purportedly taken from inside McCain’s D.C. office.
"The photo in question shows Mark Feygin and me, a Russian opposition lawyer working to free Nadiya Savchenko, Ukraine’s first female military pilot and Member of the Ukrainian Parliament who had been abducted by pro-Russian separatists and illegally imprisoned in Vladimir Putin’s Russia," the Arizona Republican said in the statement.
McCain said he tweeted the photo in April 2015, and for reasons that are unclear Veselnitskaya posted it without comment on her Facebook page with a time stamp of Dec. 24, 2015.
The Gateway Pundit also posted a fake story on Thursday with a screaming headline that alleged former Rep. Ron Dellums had served as a Washington chaperone for Veselnitskaya days after she had met Trump Jr. at Trump Tower.
The Hill, a political publication in the nation’s capital, ran a story Wednesday quoting Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., as saying Dellums was with Veselnitskaya at the Capitol Hill Club, a tony restaurant frequented by lawmakers.
Dellums says he does not know her and was not lobbying for Russia.
Dellums was there, but not with the group, and simply came over to greet Rohrabacher, who was with the group that had gone to the restaurant after watching a Russian film that sought to have sanctions against Russia lifted.
"He came over to speak to him and say hello, and that was the extent of the interaction," said Steve Pruitt, the managing partner of lobbying firm Watts Partners, where Dellums now works. "We’ve not been contracted by any Russian companies, individuals, anything of that sort."
In a statement to McClatchy, Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs confirmed Dellums’ version of events.
"We don’t know who invited her. The dinner list grew rather spontaneously," he said, noting it included Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. "A woman introduced as a Russian lawyer was there. We assume it was she, but we’re not even absolutely sure of that."
One open question is why Veselnitskaya was still in the United States. Multiple news reports said the Justice Department had granted her a special immigration exception to enter the United States to defend the son of a Russian oligarch against money-laundering charges.
That oligarch, Pyotr Katsyv, had ties to an offshore company Prevezon Holdings, one of several companies investigated by Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by Russian authorities and died in prison.
U.S. lawmakers, led by McCain, responded by passing in 2012 the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which sanctioned and limited the foreign travel options of Russians believed involved in Magnitsky’s death.
Donald Trump Jr. told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday that while he expected to receive compromising information on Clinton at the meeting, Veselnitskaya instead switched the topic to ways to end Russia’s ban on adoptions by Americans; that ban was enacted in retaliation for the laws bearing Magnitsky’s name.
In another bizarre twist, photos emerged Wednesday taken during a June 14, 2016, congressional hearing in which Veselnitskaya is sitting in the front row right behind witness Michael McFaul, the Obama administration’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Twitter posters said this was proof that Obama officials had ties to Russia. But on his Twitter feed, McFaul on Wednesday said that he didn’t know her and that it was "creepy" that she sat next to his kids. The front row is generally reserved for family and aides to witnesses who are testifying.
Screenshots from the hearing show Veselnitskaya slumped, her phone positioned to view his open laptop. Video posted on YouTube of the hearing shows her typing on her phone right behind McFaul, and later turning the phone sideways and holding it as if she is filming him and his laptop.
Late Thursday McFaul took to Twitter to complain about conspiracy-minded posters who were now trolling him.
"OK, last time: I never met Veselnitskaya. I am now blocking those who continue to push this crazy conspiratorial nonsense. Enough already," he wrote.
The federal case against Veselnitskaya’s client Denis Katsyv was settled unexpectedly in May right before opening arguments were to begin, for far less money than the U.S. government had been seeking. Prosecutors and Katsyv both claimed victory.
The Russian lawyer’s Facebook page shows she appears to have remained in the United States until recently. She posted photos of the woman’s march in January right after Trump’s inauguration. Veselnitskaya’s last U.S. photos were posted on April 5, showing protestors outside Carnegie Hall, where Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was performing.
Gergiev is a prominent celebrity supporter of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and as such regularly draws protests in foreign cities.
That Facebook page has also become a virtual bulletin board for hate and vulgarity. Americans with and without political leanings have commented on her Facebook photos, often in crude terms and sometimes with threats.