In a fascinating case of foreign intrigue, political observers are wondering who may have wanted Saak Albertovich Karapetyan to die.
A recent helicopter crash killed the Russian deputy prosecutor general, who oversaw the activities of a Kremlin operative who met with Trump campaign officials during the race for the White House.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with close ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, had a conversation with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in New York City in April 2016. Among others in attendance were Paul Manafort, the campaign manager at the time; and Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law who later became a top White House adviser.
Veselnitskaya offered to provide incriminating information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, though Trump Jr. later claimed that she failed to deliver. The president's critics argue that the meeting was evidence of illegal collusion with Russia to influence the outcome of the election.
Local authorities said the helicopter went down in a forest near Vonyshevo, a small town northeast of Moscow, on Oct. 3. The prosecutor general's office confirmed the story but refuted allegations that the flight had not been formally approved.
That contradicted the Russian news agency Interfax, which reported that veteran pilot Stanislav Mikhnov took off in the helicopter on a stormy night without authorization. Mikhnov and Arek Harutyunyan also died in the crash.
Common Dreams noted that Liz Russo, a comedian, tweeted: “(This) is 'like House of Cards thriller conspiracy sh**.”
Karapetyan's connections with Veselnitskaya came to light earlier this year during a trial in Switzerland. The case involved a purported attempt to recruit as a double agent an investigator who was scrutinizing Swiss bank accounts opened by Russian oligarchs and organized-crime figures, according to the Daily Beast.
The news site reported that the 58-year-old Karapetyan played a key role in various “notorious operations” that Putin directed. In addition to overseeing Veselnitskaya's foreign activities, the deputy prosecutor general allegedly sought to quash international probes of Russian crimes.
Karapetyan once wrote a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, declining Russia's assistance in a civil suit against Prevezon. The firm was accused of laundering $230 million that the Kremlin allegedly obtained in a massive fraud.
A Russian lawyer who had been looking into the crime, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and beaten to death. The New York Times reported that Veselnitskaya assisted in composing a document that accompanied Karapetyan's letter. Prevezon paid $5.9 million in a settlement to resolve the case, but did not confess to any wrongdoing.
Magnitsky's client, Bill Browder, successfully advocated passage of the U.S. Magnitsky Act of 2012, which targeted corruption. Veselnitskaya was among the Kremlin operatives who worked for repeal of the statute. She reportedly brought up the issue during the Trump Tower session.
Karapetyan attended a Moscow meeting at which British investigators claimed they were poisoned. The detectives were trying to find out who used a radioactive substance to murder Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Russian authorities were uncooperative in the probe.
Following the Novichok nerve-agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England earlier this year, Karapetyan criticized British authorities. He derisively compared Skripal with Alexander Valterovich Litvinenkoas, a former Russian secret service officer who defected to England; and Boris Berezovsky, an outspoken Putin opponent who supposedly killed himself five years ago.
According to Interfax, Karapetyan declared: “The British authorities have based the anti-Russian campaign surrounding the poisoning of … Skripal and his daughter in a provocative scenario. A similar scenario was used in baseless allegations of Russia's attempt on the life of Boris Berezovsky in London in summer 2003 and the circumstances surrounding the death of Alexander Litvinenko in the U.K. in November 2006.”
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his investigation of alleged election tampering by Russia, reportedly is examining whether the Trump Tower meeting violated the Constitution. Mueller's legal team also is probing possible obstruction of justice by President Trump, who fired FBI Director James Comey and later admitted he was trying to stop the bureau's inquiry into Russian meddling.
Manafort has agreed to cooperate with Mueller. He was facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to money laundering, bank fraud, tax evasion, and other charges. As a consultant to a Ukrainian oligarch during the years immediately preceding Trump's White House bid, Manafort amassed hundreds of millions of dollars that he concealed in foreign bank accounts and spent on lavish possessions.
Others who have reportedly “flipped” on Trump by turning state's evidence are Michael Cohen, the president's former long-term personal attorney and “fixer”; Michael Flynn, a former campaign official who was Trump's first national security adviser; and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer.
The Russian affair, along with other scandals, may prompt presidential impeachment proceedings if the Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives in November's mid-term elections.