Now lobbyist claims a role in ’16 meeting
Russian-American says files of no interest to Trump Jr.
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.
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
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.