WASHINGTON — The saga surrounding a June 2016 meeting between senior Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer took another turn Friday when it was revealed that there were additional participants, including a Russian-American lobbyist who served in the Soviet military and now promotes Kremlin-aligned interests in Washington.
A US citizen, lobbyist and former Soviet military officer, Rinat Akhmetshin’s presence at the closed-door meeting in Trump Tower has drawn fresh scrutiny on the purpose of the meeting, which was pitched to Donald Trump Jr. as an opportunity to receive incriminating information from the Russian government about Hillary Clinton.
According to Trump Jr., the meeting quickly turned to the question of the Russian ban on Americans adopting children from Russia, a retaliatory measure Moscow put in place following the passage of the US Magnitsky Act, the 2012 law that blacklisted some Russians for alleged human rights violations.
CNN has now confirmed that at least eight people were in the room, including Trump Jr.; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Akhmetshin; Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, publicist Rob Goldstone, who helped set up the meeting; a translator; and a representative of the prominent Russian family who initiated the meeting. This information came from sources familiar with the details of the meeting who did not provide all the attendees’ names.
CNN has reached out to Akhmetshin for comment. He is a registered lobbyist for Veselnitskaya’s organization, which has focused on lobbying Washington to overturn the Magnitsky sanctions, according to lobbying records.
Akhmetshin has been a presence in the US for more than 20 years, and his history has been a source of intrigue for months. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley requested more information about his immigration history in April as his committee investigated a complaint that Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya and others engaged in undisclosed lobbying on behalf of the Kremlin to weaken the Magnitsky Act.
Russian military service
Akhmetshin’s background and military service in the Soviet Union has contributed substantially to the intrigue around his activities in the US.
Akhmetshin was born in the Soviet Union. He moved to the United States in 1994 and became a naturalized American citizen in 2009, according to a statement he provided to Radio Free Europe.
In a civil lawsuit not related to the Russia investigation, he was described as “a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer.” And in the complaint filed with the DOJ by a Magnitsky ally about his alleged undisclosed lobbying for the Kremlin, he was called “a former member of the Russian military intelligence services (GRU).”
Steve LeVine, an editor for Axios who says he has known Akhmetshin since 1998, claims that Akhmetshin “openly described his years as an officer in the Soviet GRU, the military intelligence arm, serving in Afghanistan.”
But in recent interviews, Akhmetshin has denied that characterization of his experience, saying it was more routine. He served in the Soviet Army from 1986 to 1988 as a draftee, saying his unit was serving in the Baltics and was “loosely part of counterintelligence,” according to The Associated Press.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, Akhmetshin maintained that he never worked for Russian military intelligence, or worked for the Russian government. But he acknowledged that his military unit was involved in “law enforcement issues” and “some counterintelligence matters.”
He told the Post: “I served as a soldier, for two years, like tens of millions of Russian young men who were drafted. I am proud of my military service. At no time have I ever worked for Russian government or any of its agencies. I was not an intelligence officer. Never.”
Axios’ LeVine reported he never got the impression that Akhmetshin was still working for Russian intelligence. “Nothing I picked up in numerous intense reporting experiences with Akhmetshin over the years — in the former USSR and the US — suggested any current such relationships,” he said.
Akhmetshin insisted he was loyal to the US in a July 2016 statement to Radio Free Europe: “I am an American citizen since 2009 who pays taxes, earned his citizenship after living here since 1994, and swore an oath of loyalty to the United States of America.”
Lobbying in the United States
Much of the scrutiny around Akhmetshin has centered on questions about exactly who he was lobbying for — and against — during his two decades in the United States.
Akhmetshin’s lobbying has made him a player in DC, and a Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) complaint filed against him, as picked up by Grassley, has alleged that his lobbying went beyond what was disclosed and was conducted as a foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government.
The complaint was filed last year by American financier Bill Browder, whose company worked closely with Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky in the 2000s. Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme in Russia, was jailed, and later died in a Moscow prison under suspicious circumstances. US lawmakers passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 to punish the Russians allegedly responsible for his death.
It’s this legislation that Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya waged a campaign to overturn last year.
A staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee was concerned when Akhmetshin showed up at one of their hearings last year, according to an internal email obtained by Politico. The staffer’s email described Akhmetshin as a former spy who “specializes in active measures campaigns.” The hearing, held on June 14, 2016, was about US policy on Russia. Both Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya attended. It was just days after the two attended the Trump Tower meeting.
Akhmetshin denied being a spy working covertly in the US on behalf of Moscow.
“Just because I was born in Russia doesn’t mean I am an agent of [the] Kremlin,” Akhmetshin told Politico.
Not all of his work has aligned with the Kremlin’s interests. He once worked in the US on behalf of Kazakh opposition figures who opposed the Kremlin-friendly government in Kazakhstan, according to a 2006 interview he gave to The New York Times and a description of his work by the Axios reporter who has known him for 20 years.
Throughout his career, Akhmetshin has represented a range of clients, including a Russian oligarch.
“Some of my clients are national governments or high-ranking officials in those governments,” Akhmetshin said in a court affidavit in August 2012, according to Radio Free Europe. “My government clients have highly sensitive discussions in my emails concerning the location or relocation of American military bases in areas within the former Soviet Union.”
Links to Veselnitskaya
Akhmetshin registered in April 2016 as a lobbyist for Veselnitskaya’s organization that was fighting to repeal the Magnitsky Act. The complaint filed by Browder accuses Akhmetshin of not just being a lobbyist for this independent organization, but for being a lobbyist for the Russian government. That work in the US would require additional disclosures with the DOJ under FARA.
Also in April 2016, he met with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who is considered one of the most Kremlin-friendly lawmakers in Washington. During this meeting, they discussed the Magnitsky Act, according to CNN.
In the months after the meeting, Rohrabacher proposed striking the Magnitsky name from a new sanctions bill and offered arguments about the legislation that closely tracked with the Kremlin’s position. The amendment was defeated during markup of the bill.
Rohrabacher himself described Akhmetshin to CNN as someone with “an ulterior motive” who is “involved with people who’ve got an agenda” and has “international connections to different groups in Russia.” When asked if he thought Akhmetshin was still connected to the Russian security services, Rohrabacher said: “I would certainly not rule that out.”
Some of Akhmetshin’s work has entangled him in legal disputes across the globe.
In 2015, a mining company registered in the Netherlands, International Mineral Resources, accused Akhmetshin in a lawsuit of “organizing the hacking” of its computer systems and “searching for specific information” on behalf of a Russian fertilizer-producer company.
The allegations, which arose out of a business dispute, were withdrawn in early 2016, according to court documents filed in New York’s Supreme Court.
In a related federal case, Akhmetshin stated in a 2014 affidavit, “I am not a computer specialist and I am not capable of ‘hacking.'”
He added that his previous work has included running a pro-democracy organization in Washington, consulting a government of a former Soviet territory as well as the “surveillance of undercover agents and suspected undercover agents.”