Monday 24 July 2017

Russian 'lobbyist' at meeting with Trump Jr

US President Donald Trump and wife Melania attend the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump and wife Melania attend the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Photo: Reuters

Rachael Alexander Washington

Donald Trump Jr's controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer promising incriminating information on Hillary Clinton was also attended by an ex-Soviet spy, it emerged yesterday.

Rimat Akhmetshin, described as a charming, stylish English-speaking lobbyist, has admitted working as a Soviet counter intelligence operative - but insists he is no longer a spy.

Lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Photo: AP
Lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Photo: AP

"Just because I was born in Russia doesn't mean I am an agent of the Kremlin," he told Politico, a US journalism site, in November.

But Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, was so concerned about his activities last April that he wrote to John Kelly, the homeland security secretary, to ask whether Mr Akhmetshin had registered as a "foreign agent", working on behalf of a foreign power. It remains unclear whether he has.

The presence of Mr Akhmetshin in the June 2016 meeting should have certainly rung alarm bells for those present - the president's eldest son; his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, himself a veteran lobbyist who has worked with pro-Putin groups.

Alan Futertas, Mr Trump Jr's lawyer, said that, "for the purpose of security or otherwise, the names were reviewed" prior to the meeting - but said Mr Trump Jr knew nothing about the man's background at the time. "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," said Mr Futertas.

Yet the revelation will certainly exasperate even Mr Trump's supporters, who are dismayed by a week of daily revelations about the ill-advised encounter. Soliciting campaign support from a foreign national is illegal. "If you had a contact with Russia, tell the special counsel about it. Don't wait until 'The New York Times' figures it out," said Trey Gowdy, a congressman for South Carolina who chairs the House oversight committee.

Earlier in the week, Mr Trump Jr was asked on Fox News: "As far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?" He replied: "This is everything. This is everything."

Three days later, Mr Akhmetshin's involvement was revealed. The former spy moved to the US in 1999 to work as a lobbyist in Washington DC, representing Russian interests, and 10 years later became a US citizen.

In court papers filed with New York Supreme Court in November 2015, Mr Akhmetshin was described as "a former Soviet military counter-intelligence officer" by lawyers for International Mineral Resources (IMR), a Russian mining company, which alleged that it had been hacked. The allegations were later withdrawn without explanation.

A year later, he was working as a lobbyist registered with the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation, which was founded in February 2016 and assisted by Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer met by Mr Trump Jr.

The foundation describes itself as being dedicated to helping "restart American adoption of Russian children". In practice, this means overturning the Magnitsky Act - a series of sanctions placed on Russian officials.

Mr Akhmetshin was paid $10,000 (€8,700) by Ms Veselnitskaya's group, according to his registered-lobbyist disclosure form. In April 2016, he met Dana Rohrabacher, a California congressman known to support Mr Putin, in Berlin, and approached him in connection with the Magnitsky Act.

Some US officials suspect Mr Akhmetshin of having ongoing ties with Russian intelligence, NBC News claimed. According to 'Talking Points Memo', he had worked for Fusion GPS - the firm that produced the unverified "dodgy dossier" on Mr Trump's activities in Moscow.

In May 2016, he visited Mr Rohrabacher and was shown around the Capitol. That caught the attention of Kyle Parker, a House foreign affairs committee staff member and a driving force behind the original Magnitsky Act.

Mr Parker sent an email to colleagues, obtained by Politico, warning them Mr Akhmetshin was an ex-Soviet spy who "specialised" in propaganda, disinformation and other "dark ops".

In an interview with AP yesterday, Mr Akhmetshin said Ms Veselnitskaya had brought documents with her that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democratic National Committee.

She presented the documents to the Trump associates and he recalled her saying: "This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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