WASHINGTON — Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer aimed at obtaining derogatory information about Hillary Clinton in June 2016 had another, previously undisclosed participant: a Soviet-born Washington lobbyist who once served in a Soviet Army counterintelligence unit.
Rinat Akhmetshin, who received U.S. citizenship in 2009 and became a lobbyist after emigrating from Russia more than two decades ago, confirmed in an interview Friday that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, gave documents to Trump Jr.; Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. She said the papers described illicit foreign donations to the Democratic National Committee, Akhmetshin recalled.
Veselnitskaya suggested public disclosure of the information could harm Democratic presidential candidate Clinton and help Donald Trump’s campaign, Akhmetshin said.
When Trump Jr. asked for supporting evidence of illegal donations, Veselnitskaya responded the campaign would have to investigate the claims itself, Akhmetshin said. At that point, it was clear Trump campaign advisers lost interest, and the half-hour meeting came to an awkward close, he said.
“She left some papers behind, or handed them to Trump, as I recall, but they couldn’t wait for the meeting to end,” Akhmetshin said. “Nothing ever came of it.”
Akhmetshin’s presence at the meeting and his recollections of it raise new questions about the credibility of Trump Jr.’s and the White House’s account of the meeting.
On Tuesday, Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, said in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel that he had publicly disclosed everything about the June 9, 2016, meeting. In the interview, he only mentioned the presence of Veselnitskaya.
“I wanted to get it all out there,” he said.
“As far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?” Hannity asked.
“This is everything. This is everything,” Trump Jr. replied.
In fact, at least seven people are now known to have been present for the meeting: Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort, Trump Jr.’s friend Rob Goldstone, Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin and a New York-based translator. Investigators working for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and for the House and Senate intelligence committees probably will want to talk with each of them, although Goldstone and Veselnitskaya are not U.S. residents.
Akhmetshin says he has no current ties to the Russian government. Some U.S. officials dispute that. In March, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to the Justice Department saying Akhmetshin should be required to register as a foreign agent because of lobbying activity the senator suggested was tied to the Russian government. Akhmetshin denies that is the case.
He potentially could provide investigators evidence on whether the Russian government was involved in the overture to the Trump campaign or whether Veselnitskaya was operating on her own, on behalf of wealthy Russian clients hurt by U.S. sanctions.
In the interview, Akhmetshin said he served in the Soviet Army from 1986 to 1988 as a member of a unit that conducted counterintelligence, but said he has no relationship with the Russian government, including its intelligence services.
“I am not an intelligence operative,” he said. “I have never accepted a single cent from the Russian government.”
Veselnitskaya, who lives in Moscow and has close ties to the Kremlin, was operating independently in reaching out to the Trump campaign, he said, adding the papers she presented to Trump aides “came from her own files,” not the Russian government.
That account is at odds with what Trump Jr. was told by his friend, Goldstone, a music promoter with business dealings in Russia who arranged the meeting.
Goldstone described Veselnitskaya as a “Russian government attorney” who had “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Clinton “and would be very useful to your father,” according to emails Trump Jr. released Tuesday.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. responded.
According to Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya called him “in a panic” several hours before going to Trump Tower, saying she had an appointment to see Trump’s son.
He and Veselnitskaya had worked together extensively in efforts to overturn a U.S. sanctions law known as the Magnitsky Act, which targeted Russians allegedly involved in money laundering, so he agreed to accompany her even though he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He happened to be in New York on other business, he said.
Akhmetshin said he spoke very little at the meeting, occasionally interjecting to clarify or summarize remarks made by Veselnitskaya, who was speaking with the help of the translator.
When Veselnitskaya brought up the Magnitsky law, Akhmetshin told the Trump aides that calling for overturning it “could be a great election issue” and help improve U.S.-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated against the law by ending adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
Akhmetshin, who speaks with a thick Russian accent and frequently pedals around Washington on a bright-orange bicycle, has been described as a possible Russian intelligence operative despite his many years as a lobbyist, often on behalf of wealthy businessmen or politicians from former Soviet republics.
He was paid $10,000 to lobby for the Human Rights Accountability Global Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2016 whose stated purpose was to restore Russian-American adoptions.
Denis Katsyv, the son of a senior Russian government official, who has used Veselnitskaya as an attorney, helped bankroll that effort, lobbying filings show. The campaign to roll back the Magnitsky Act went nowhere.
The web of connections in the case has attracted the interest of Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
In May, just before a trial, the Justice Department settled a money laundering case that involved Veselnitskaya. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have written to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking whether the White House was involved in that decision to settle the case for less than $6 million.
Grassley, in his letter about foreign agent registration, described Akhmetshin as a “Russian immigrant to the U.S. who was reportedly a former Russian (military) counterintelligence officer.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting an investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia, called Akhmetshin’s presence at the meeting with Trump aides “a deeply disturbing fact.”
“It is clear the Kremlin got the message that Donald Trump welcomed the help of the Russian government in providing dirt on Hillary Clinton,” he said.
But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who also has met with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin repeatedly and is known for his friendly attitude toward Russia, defended the Trump campaign’s meeting in a speech on the House floor Friday.
“If someone says to you that they want to give you information, there is nothing wrong with that,” Rohrabacher said.
Separately, the White House added an additional lawyer to its defense team. Ty Cobb, a Washington-based attorney (and distant relative of the legendary baseball player), will join the White House staff, reporting directly to Trump, to oversee responses to the Russia investigation.
Jamie Gorelick, a prominent Democratic lawyer who has been representing Kushner, was reported to be stepping aside, handing over the case to Abbe David Lowell, one of Washington’s best-known white-collar criminal defense attorneys.
And Brad Parscale, who headed the Trump campaign’s digital efforts, released a statement saying he voluntarily would meet with congressional investigators. Parscale said he was “unaware of any Russian involvement” in the campaign’s digital or data operations.
Democrats have questioned whether anyone connected with the Trump campaign shared information with Russian agents that would have allowed them to target derogatory stories about Clinton to specific groups of potential voters.