U.S. officials are examining what role a Washington-based lobbyist who they consider a Russian intelligence operative may have played in a controversial June 2016 meeting he attended between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer.
Rinat Akhmetshin, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen, told the Associated Press Friday that he attended the meeting at Trump Tower between Trump’s son and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a politically connected Russian lawyer who the Trump team believed had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting, which was arranged by Trump Jr.
U.S. officials became aware of Akhmetshin’s potential involvement in the meeting earlier this week. Three officials expressed their concern about his role to POLITICO and said they were probing it further as part of their larger investigation into ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.
Although Trump Jr. has acknowledged meeting Veselnitskaya, he did not disclose the attendance of Akhmetshin, a well-known figure in the capital’s murky world of foreign influence peddling. The lobbyists’s role raises new red flags for U.S. officials as they study whether and how the Kremlin might have sought to exert influence over the 2016 Trump campaign.
One US official referred to Akhmetshin as a known “IO,” an acronym for intelligence operative. In a March letter to the Justice Department, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) described him as having “ties to Russian intelligence” and “alleged to have conducted political disinformation campaigns”
Akhmetshin has denied those charges and declined to comment to POLITICO.
His attendance, which several officials said they learned about from reporters, underscored concerns that the meeting may have been more closely directed by the Kremlin than its attendees have publicly suggested.
It’s also sure to bring more political pain to a Trump White House that had long denied any contact between the Trump campaign and Russians with a political agenda—denials that now appear to be false. Some experts also believed the meeting could put Trump Jr. into legal jeopardy even before the presence of a suspected former Russian intelligence official was known.
Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya, who is alleged to have indirect ties to the Kremlin, have previously worked together in Washington, lobbying Congress against the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan measure that imposed sanctions on several top Russian officials as punishment for the 2009 death in Moscow of an imprisoned lawyer who had exposed massive financial fraud.
Investigators are scrambling to understand the full context of the previously undisclosed meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump associates, which The New York Times revealed earlier this week.
Among the questions investigators are trying to answer, one US official told POLITICO, is whether Veselnitskaya was sent to meet with Trump Jr. on direct orders from the Kremlin.
The June meeting at Trump Tower, which Trump officials say was brief and yielded no useful information, was arranged by a British tabloid reporter named Rob Goldstone, who now works as an agent representing Emin Agalarov, a Moscow pop star whose father is a real estate mogul close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Agalarovs hosted the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow; President Donald Trump owned the franchise at the time, attended the event and befriended the Agalarovs, with whom he and his son, Donald Jr., remained in contact until at least January.
In an email days before the meeting, Goldstone told Trump that Veselnitskaya had damaging information on Clinton, which Goldstone said was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya worked together lobbying for a group called The Human Rights Global Initiative, a DC-based non-governmental association that has lobbied against The Magnitsky Act — a 2012 law that sanctions Russian officials for human rights abuses and subsequently infuriates the Kremlin.
Trump Jr. has said his meeting with Veselnitskaya was dedicated largely to discussion of issues related to that law, which is named for Russian lawyer and whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 after being allegedly tortured in a Russian prison.
The existence of the controversial June meeting was rumored for months, but neither the Senate Intelligence Committee nor, according to CNN, the FBI — both of whom are probing potential ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government — knew the details before the Times published its stories.
Akhmetshin — whose lobbying tenure has included several high-profile efforts to promote the Kremlin’s agenda in Washington — has run afoul of Congress in recent weeks. In a March letter to the Justice Department, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley accused Akhmetshin of failing to register properly under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
According to a letter obtained by POLITICO, Akhmetshin told the Justice Department’s National Security Division in April that he is properly registered and did nothing wrong. “It is my understanding,” he adds, that Veselnitskaya is not "an agent of a foreign government or foreign political party.”
Akhmetshin told the Associated Press on Friday that he had been drafted into the Soviet Army and served from from 1986 to 1988, but denied having any spy training.