Now lob­by­ist claims a role in ’16 meet­ing

Rus­sian-Amer­i­can says files of no in­ter­est to Trump Jr.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

WASHINGTON — A Rus­sian-Amer­i­can lob­by­ist who was once a Soviet mil­i­tary of­fi­cer at­tended a meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s son, son-in-law and cam­paign chair­man last year, the lob­by­ist said Fri­day.

Ri­nat Akhmetshin, in an in­ter­view, con­firmed his in­volve­ment. He had not been pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied as a par­tic­i­pant in the meet­ing at Trump Tower in New York, which was billed as part of a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment ef­fort to help the Repub­li­can’s White House cam­paign.

The meet­ing has height­ened ques­tions about whether Trump’s as­so­ciates co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia to med­dle in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — to help him and thwart Hil­lary Clin­ton — and whether they’ve been forth­com­ing about their for­eign con­tacts. Fed­eral and con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors are in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble con­nec­tions be­tween the cam­paign and Rus­sia.

Akhmetshin has been re­ported to have ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence, a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion he dis­misses as a “smear cam­paign.” He’s a well-known Washington pres­ence, lob­by­ing for Rus­sian in­ter­ests in try­ing to un­der­mine the al­le­ga­tions of a lawyer who died in a Rus­sian pri­son and for whom a U.S. sanc­tions law is named.

Akhmetshin said he served in the Soviet mil­i­tary in a unit that was part of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence but he was never for­mally trained as a spy.

In emails posted by Don­ald Trump Jr. ear­lier this week, a mu­sic pub­li­cist said he ar­ranged the meet­ing be­cause a Rus­sian lawyer wanted to pass on neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion about Demo­crat Clin­ton. The go-be­tween stated that the dis­cus­sion was part of a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment ef­fort to help the GOP can­di­date.

While Trump Jr. has con­firmed that Rus­sian at­tor­ney Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya was in the meet­ing, he has not dis­closed Akhmetshin’s pres­ence. The pres­i­dent’s son has

pub­licly dis­counted the meet­ing, say­ing he did not re­ceive the in­for­ma­tion he was promised.

In a state­ment Sun­day, Trump Jr. said the lawyer had said she had in­for­ma­tion that peo­ple tied to Rus­sia were fund­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and sup­port­ing Clin­ton, a de­scrip­tion that Akhmetshin backed up in his in­ter­view.

In his first pub­lic in­ter­view about the meet­ing, Akhmetshin said he ac­com­pa­nied Ve­sel­nit­skaya to Trump Tower, where they met an in­ter­preter. He said he had learned about the meet­ing only that day when Ve­sel­nit­skaya asked him to at­tend: “She said, ‘ Why don’t you come with me?’ I said, ‘re­ally?’ We were hav­ing lunch a few blocks north of Trump Tower.” He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Ve­sel­nit­skaya had with her a plas­tic folder with printed doc­u­ments that de­tailed what she be­lieved was the flow of il­licit funds to the Democrats, Akhmetshin said. Ve­sel­nit­skaya pre­sented the con­tents of the doc­u­ments to the Trump as­so­ciates and sug­gested that mak­ing the in­for­ma­tion pub­lic could help the cam­paign, he said.

He said that “as part of her work with her clients,” Ve­sel­nit­skaya had found that an Amer­i­can hedge fund was vi­o­lat­ing Rus­sian tax and se­cu­ri­ties law and that the fund “seemed linked to the [Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee].”

“This could be a good is­sue to ex­pose how the DNC is ac­cept­ing bad money,” Akhmetshin re­called her say­ing.

Trump Jr. asked the at­tor­ney if she had suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to back up her claims, in­clud­ing whether she could demon­strate the flow of the money. But Ve­sel­nit­skaya said the Trump cam­paign would need to re­search it more. Af­ter that, Trump Jr. lost in­ter­est, ac­cord­ing to Akhmetshin.

“They couldn’t wait for the meet­ing to end,” he said.

Akhmetshin said he does not know whether Ve­sel­nit­skaya’s doc­u­ments were pro­vided by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. He said that Ve­sel­nit­skaya “left a doc­u­ment be­hind” af­ter the ses­sion. It was un­clear whether she handed any doc­u­ments to any­one in the room, he said.

Trump Jr. has waved away con­cerns about the 30-minute ses­sion, which he agreed to be­cause he was promised neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion about Clin­ton. He was joined at the meet­ing by Don­ald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kush­ner and Paul Manafort, then chair­man of the Trump cam­paign.

Trump Jr. has said that he did not re­ceive the neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion on Clin­ton that he was promised by an ac­quain­tance, Rob Gold­stone, and that he did not know the peo­ple with whom he was meet­ing.

Akhmetshin said he rec­og­nized Kush­ner and Trump Jr. He also said he rec­og­nized Manafort be­cause they worked in “ad­ja­cent po­lit­i­cal cir­cles” but never to­gether.

He said there were oth­ers in the room but he didn’t know them. Gold­stone, who bro­kered the meet­ing via email with Trump Jr., has said he was there.

Gold­stone, a Bri­tish mu­sic pub­li­cist, said Fri­day that he had never met Ve­sel­nit­skaya or her com­pan­ions be­fore the meet­ing and is not cer­tain of their iden­ti­ties.

“I hon­estly paid no at­ten­tion to any of them or their names — my job was to make sure they found the right se­cu­rity desk and signed in and found the el­e­va­tor,” he wrote.

Asked about Akhmetshin’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, Manafort spokesman Ja­son Maloni de­clined to com­ment.

Trump Jr.’s at­tor­ney could not con­firm Akhmetshin’s at­ten­dance but said there was an ad­di­tional par­tic­i­pant, whom he de­clined to iden­tify.

A spokesman for Kush­ner did not re­spond to in­quiries.

Ve­sel­nit­skaya has de­nied hav­ing any ties to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. When reached this week, she de­clined com­ment. She did not re­spond to ad­di­tional at­tempts to con­tact her Fri­day.

Akhmetshin, who spoke while on va­ca­tion in France where he said he has been surf­ing, said the meet­ing was “not sub­stan­tive” and he “ac­tu­ally ex­pected more se­ri­ous” dis­cus­sion.

“I never thought this would be such a big deal, to be hon­est,” he said.

‘WE DON’T KNOW ANY­THING’

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has de­nied any in­volve­ment or knowl­edge of the June 2016 meet­ing. Asked Fri­day about Akhmetshin, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told re­porters, “We don’t know any­thing about this per­son.”

Akhmetshin has been iden­ti­fied in me­dia re­ports as a for­mer of­fi­cer in Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence ser­vice known as the GRU. He has de­nied that, say­ing he served in the Soviet army from 1986 to 1988 af­ter he was drafted but was not trained in spy trade­craft. He said his unit op­er­ated in the Baltics and was “loosely part of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence.”

Akhmetshin said he has not been con­tacted by the U.S. spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice or the FBI about the meet­ing

with Trump Jr. He said he’s will­ing to talk with the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, whose chair­man has pressed the Jus­tice Depart­ment about why Akhmetshin has not reg­is­tered as a for­eign agent.

The chair­man, Repub­li­can Charles Grass­ley of Iowa, said in a March let­ter that Akhmetshin has “re­port­edly ad­mit­ted to be­ing a ‘Soviet coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer’ and has a long his­tory of lob­by­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment for pro-Rus­sia mat­ters.”

Akhmetshin said that the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act unit sent him a let­ter in April and told him, “it has come to our at­ten­tion you should have filed for FARA.” He said he didn’t be­lieve he needed to file. He pre­vi­ously has reg­is­tered with Congress for the lob­by­ing work, and he plans to raise this is­sue be­fore Grass­ley’s com­mit­tee.

“I think I have a le­gal right to tell my story,” he said.

Sep­a­rately on Fri­day, the data and dig­i­tal di­rec­tor for Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign said he will speak with the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee later this month as part of its Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Brad Parscale said in a state­ment that he is “un­aware of any Rus­sian in­volve­ment” in the data and dig­i­tal op­er­a­tions but will vol­un­tar­ily ap­pear be­fore the panel.

COM­MIT­TEE IN­TER­ESTED

The con­fir­ma­tion of Akhmetshin’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the meet­ing drew swift re­ac­tion from the top Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Rep. Adam Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia, who said he wanted Akhmetshin to ap­pear be­fore the com­mit­tee and pro­vide “any rel­e­vant doc­u­ments and in­for­ma­tion.”

Schiff said whether Akhmetshin is con­nected to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence or not “it is clear the Krem­lin got the mes­sage that Don­ald Trump wel­comed the help of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in pro­vid­ing dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton.” Schiff said Trump Jr.’s omis­sion of Akhmetshin’s role in his pub­lic ac­count of the meet­ing and the pres­i­dent’s son’s shift­ing ex­pla­na­tions “paint a por­trait of con­sis­tent dis­sem­bling and de­ceit.”

Kush­ner dis­closed the meet­ing on his se­cu­rity clear­ance pa­per­work, but Schiff said the Akhmetshin rev­e­la­tion

raises ques­tions about how much Kush­ner dis­closed about it. He said he be­lieves Kush­ner’s clear­ance should be re­viewed, and “if he was not per­fectly can­did,” the clear­ance should be re­voked.

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, mean­while, said she thinks the pres­i­dent and his fam­ily mem­bers may have vi­o­lated cam­paign-fi­nance law, and po­ten­tially laws pro­hibit­ing cy­ber­crime and es­pi­onage as well, through their meet­ings with Rus­sian op­er­a­tives

“On the strength of what they have now there is very se­ri­ous rea­son to be­lieve that these peo­ple vi­o­lated the law,” she said, list­ing the laws she thinks Trump Jr., Kush­ner and Manafort may have bro­ken.

Though Pelosi said it was nec­es­sary to learn more about the meet­ing to de­ter­mine whether Trump Jr., Kush­ner and Manafort’s ac­tions may in­vite cy­ber­crime and es­pi­onage charges, she seemed all but cer­tain that the meet­ing al­ready put Trump’s team in vi­o­la­tion of cam­paign-fi­nance law.

“This is a cam­paign vi­o­la­tion: so­lic­it­ing, co­or­di­nat­ing or ac­cept­ing some­thing of value, op­po­si­tion re­search, doc­u­mented in­for­ma­tion from a for­eign gov­ern­ment or for­eign na­tional. Plain and sim­ple,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi called Fri­day for the pres­i­dent to re­voke Kush­ner’s se­cu­rity clear­ance, but was care­ful not to call for im­peach­ing Trump, say­ing that “the laws are cer­tainly clear — when the facts are clear, then this Congress will make a de­ci­sion in that re­gard.”

House Democrats ac­cused their Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts of con­spir­ing with the pres­i­dent to avoid dig­ging into such mat­ters, point­ing across the Capi­tol to the Se­nate, where Repub­li­can lead­ers of the In­tel­li­gence and Ju­di­ciary com­mit­tees are de­mand­ing records and tes­ti­mony from the Trump sur­ro­gates who took part in the meet­ing with the Rus­sian lawyer. In the House, only the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee has been se­ri­ously look­ing into Trump’s al­leged Rus­sia ties.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Des­mond But­ler, Chad Day, Eric Tucker, Stephen Braun and Julie Pace of The As­so­ci­ated Press; by Tom Ham­burger, Ros­alind S. Helderman, Alice Crites and Karoun Demir­jian of The Washington Post

AP/ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO

Rus­sian lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya, shown Tues­day in Moscow, took doc­u­ments show­ing what she be­lieved was the flow of il­licit funds to the Democrats to the meet­ing with Don­ald Trump Jr. and oth­ers in June 2016, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian-Amer­i­can lob­by­ist Ri­nat Akhmetshin, who said he also at­tended the meet­ing.

Trump Jr.

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