The Russian lawyer who lured the Trump campaign into a meeting with the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton brought an associate to their get-together: a Russian-American lobbyist who once worked as a counterintelligence officer for the Soviet Union.
Some U.S. officials believe that said lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, has ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, according to NBC News, which broke the story of his presence at the meeting. Akhmetshin confirmed his presence at Trump Tower that day in an interview with the Associated Press.
From one angle, this new detail doesn’t make the meeting look any sketchier than it already did (i.e., extremely sketchy). Donald Trump Jr.’s (not-at-all-self-exonerating) story is that he agreed to take a meeting with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya with the understanding that she was being sent by the Kremlin to provide his father’s campaign with compromising information on Hillary Clinton. But, at that meeting, it became apparent that Veselnitskaya didn’t have the goods and just wanted to lobby the presumptive GOP nominee to lift the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that sanctioned (alleged) Russian human-rights abusers. The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Kremlin officials of conspiring with organized crime to commit corporate identity theft against the firm Hermitage Capital Management — a crime that would have allowed them to obtain $230 million and launder much of it into U.S. real-estate projects. Magnitsky was arrested and died in a Russian prison.
At the time, Veselnitskaya was representing Prevezon, a firm owned by the son of a former Russian government official, which stood accused of laundering millions of dollars secured through the Magnitsky fraud into New York City real estate.
On March 11 of this year, President Trump fired Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, after previously suggesting that he would keep Bharara in his post. On March 21, a key prosecution witness, Magnitsky family lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, fell out of a fourth-floor window in Moscow.
On May 12, the eve of Prevezon’s trial, Trump’s Justice Department settled with the firm for $6 million.
So, none of this looks good. But if the meeting were primarily about the Magnitsky Act, then it makes perfect sense that a Russian-American lobbyist would be there. And we all have our pasts. Who among us never experimented with running counterintelligence for the Soviet Union in our wilder and woolier days?
Further, Steve LeVine, a reporter who has covered Akhmetshin for years, doubts that the lobbyist is still a Kremlin operative. As he wrote for Axios:
Akhmetshin openly described his years as an officer in the Soviet GRU, the military intelligence arm, serving in Afghanistan. He ultimately took American citizenship. As we met again and again over the years, he represented opposition figures in Ukraine and Afghanistan, too. I never found him having cultivated the man in power anywhere. In a world in which no one is clean, Akhmetshin was someone you could trust.
The original NBC News reports suggested that Akhmetshin’s intelligence past somehow has rolled forward until now, putting Russian spies in the same room with Donald Trump Jr. Nothing I picked up in numerous intense reporting experiences with Akhmetshin over the years — in the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. — suggested any current such relationships.
That said, court documents obtained by the Daily Beast show that Akhmetshin was once accused of orchestrating an international hacking conspiracy. Which is exactly the kind of conspiracy the Trump White House is anxious to distance itself from at the moment.
Four days after the meeting with Trump Jr., Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya both reportedly attended a screening of a documentary that tells Prevezon’s version of the Magnitsky story — one in which Hermitage Capital is the true corporate villain — at Washington’s Newseum.