Former Soviet Counterintelligence Officer at Meeting With Donald Trump Jr. and Russian Lawyer
KEN DILANIAN, NATASHA LEBEDEV nbcnews.com
WASHINGTON — The Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and others on the Trump team after a promise of compromising material on Hillary Clinton was accompanied by a Russian-American lobbyist — a former Soviet counterintelligence officer who is suspected by some U.S. officials of having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, NBC News has learned.
The lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, denies any current ties to Russian spy agencies. He accompanied the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law; and Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump campaign.
The Russian-born American lobbyist served in the Soviet military and emigrated to the U.S., where he holds dual citizenship.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Akhmetshin acknowledged attending the meeting, though he said it was not substantive. “I never thought this would be such a big deal, to be honest,” he told the AP.
Veselnitskaya acknowledged to NBC News that she was accompanied by at least one other man, though she declined to identify him.
The presence at the meeting of a Russian-American with suspected intelligence ties is likely to be of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller and the House and Senate panels investigating the Russian election interference campaign.
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Contacted by NBC News, representatives for Kushner and Manafort declined to comment.
On April 4, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the Homeland Security department seeking information about Akhmetshin, saying that Akhmetshin admitted to being a Soviet counterintelligence officer. Grassley said Akhmetshin had failed to register as a foreign agent even though he had been lobbying in the U.S. for Russian interests. Grassley also charged that Akhmetshin had been working with Fusion GPS, an opposition-research firm that had compiled a highly disputed dossier on Donald Trump.
Alan Futerfas, the attorney retained by Donald Trump Jr., told NBC News two other people accompanied Veselnitskaya to the meeting — someone Futerfas described as a translator and someone he described as a "friend of Emin [Agalarov]’s and maybe as a friend of Natalia [Veselnitskaya]’s.”
Futerfas said he has talked with that individual. "He is a U.S. citizen. He told me specifically he was not working for the Russian government, and in fact laughed when I asked him that question.”
Agalarov is a pop star and a client of Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who arranged the meeting with Trump Jr. Agalarov appeared in a music video with Trump when the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned at the time, was held in Moscow in 2013.
Futerfas confirmed that, “for the purpose of security or otherwise, the names were reviewed” but said Trump Jr. knew nothing about the man's background at the time of the meeting.
When asked about whether he had concerns, knowing what he knows now, Futerfas responded: “I have absolutely no concerns about what was said in that meeting.”
Veselnitskaya, in an exclusive interview with NBC News, denied having any connection to the Kremlin and insisted the meeting was to discuss sanctions, not the presidential campaign.
In an email exchange released by Trump Jr., the president's eldest son wrote "I love it" to Goldstone when told about possibly getting his hands on material potentially damaging to the Clinton campaign.
Goldstone told Trump Jr. that the meeting would be with a "Russian government attorney" and that the information was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically, "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."
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Trump Jr. said after releasing the emails that, "in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently."
President Trump has defended his son's decision to meet with Veselnitskaya, saying "most people would have taken that meeting."
"My son is a wonderful young man. He took a meeting with a Russian lawyer, not a government lawyer but a Russian lawyer," Trump said Thursday in a joint press conference in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron. "From a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or research into your opponent."
Ken Dilanian and Natasha Lebedeva reported from Washington. Hallie Jackson reported from Paris.