A Russian-American lobbyist, who says he is an ex-Soviet counter-intelligence officer, said on Friday he attended the notorious meeting involving Donald Trump Jr that was billed as part of a Russian government effort to boost his father’s election campaign.
Rinat Akhmetshin confirmed to the Associated Press his participation in the meeting, which Trump Jr had failed to disclose until it became public this week.
Akhmetshin accompanied Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Trump Jr; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; and Paul Manafort, then chairman of the Trump campaign.
NBC News reported Akhmetshin is a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer; he denies any current ties to Russian spy agencies.
The meeting was set up by Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist whose clients include Russian singer Emin Agalarov, an acquaintance of the Trump family.
Akhmetshin 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 told the AP.
On Friday, Trump Jr’s lawyer, Alan Futerfas, told NBC News: “The person was described as a friend of Emin’s and maybe as a friend of Natalia’s … He is a US citizen. He told me specifically he was not working for the Russian government, and in fact laughed when I asked him that question.”
Futerfas added: “I have absolutely no concerns about what was said in that meeting.”
According to NBC News, a translator, who has not been identified, was also present at the June 2016 meeting.
The Russian-born Akhmetshin served in the Soviet military and emigrated to the US, where he holds dual citizenship.
Asked about Akhmetshin and his possible participation in the June 2016 meeting, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, told reporters on Friday: “We don’t know anything about this person.”
Trump Jr and Veselnitskaya have claimed that the 20-minute meeting was dominated by the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 US law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. In retaliation, Putin halted American adoptions of Russian children.
In March, Akhmetshin was named by Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, as lobbying against the Magnitsky Act along with the firm Fusion GPS, “which was also involved in the creation of the unsubstantiated dossier alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians”.
Grassley’s office wrote: “Fusion GPS and Rinat Akhmetshin, among others, were involved in the pro-Russia campaign in 2016, which involved lobbying congressional staffers to attempt to undermine the Justice Department’s account of Magnitsky’s death and the crime he uncovered, repeal the Magnitsky Act itself, and delay efforts to expand it to countries beyond Russia, according to Browder’s complaint.
“Akhmetshin, a Russian immigrant, has reportedly admitted to being a ‘Soviet counterintelligence officer,’ and has a long history of lobbying the US government for pro-Russia matters.”
The revelation deepens the crisis at the White House after a tumultuous week. Trump Jr did not acknowledge Akhmetshin’s presence in statements he released about the meeting nor in a TV interview he gave. He insisted that he has been fully transparent.
Emails released by Trump Jr show that he was told by an associate that the meeting was part of a Russian government effort to interfere in the election, and that Trump Jr responded gleefully instead of alerting authorities.
Goldstone had told Trump Jr that the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr, whose version of events has shifted multiple times, says this failed to materialise and the meeting ended after about 20 minutes.
Joel Benenson, a former senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, told the MSNBC channel: “We are, in real time, living through a case study of crisis mismanagement. The fact that every day we are learning something that is appalling is shameful. From the time this started unfolding, even before he spoke out, he was changing his story.”