Russian Lobbyist Also Attended Meeting With Donald Trump Jr.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Just days after Donald Trump Jr. said he had revealed everything about his meeting last year with a Kremlin-linked attorney, we've now learned that at least one more Russian was in the room with Natalia Veselnitskaya. A Russian-American lobbyist named Rinat Akhmetshin told the Associated Press today that he also attended the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, was also there. So was the campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort. Donald Trump Jr. agreed to take the meeting after being told he would get damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father's campaign.
For more on this, we are now joined by NPR's Geoff Bennett. Hi there, Geoff.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So tell us more about this other person who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower. Who is he?
BENNETT: So Rinat Akhmetshin is a Russian-American lobbyist. He emigrated to the U.S. He got dual citizenship about eight years ago. And he now lives here in Washington, D.C. He's also a former Soviet counterintelligence officer, and he's suspected by some U.S. officials of having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence. He was also accused in a 2015 lawsuit with attempting to hack into a mining company's computers. But he denies that and says he has no ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
Still, it's worth noting that Akhmetshin is well-known in Washington circles for advocating for Russian interests and for pushing for changes in U.S.-Russia policy that are favorable to the Kremlin. And then beyond all of that, he has in the past worked with the Russian lawyer involved in this meeting, Natalia Veselnitskaya. And he says he was there on her behalf.
Now, Donald Trump Jr. didn't mention him in the statements and emails about the meeting earlier this week. In fact he sat for a TV interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News on Tuesday, and that included this exchange.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEAN HANNITY: So as far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it.
DONALD TRUMP JR: This is everything. This is everything.
BENNETT: And we now know that it wasn't everything. There are more reports today that there were still more Russians or Russian advocates in this meeting last year, and it's not clear how many.
MCEVERS: Has Akhmetshin said anything about what actually happened at the meeting?
BENNETT: Well, in talking to the Associated Press, he downplayed the significance of the meeting, as did Donald Trump Jr. Remember; he said it ended up being a waste of time. But that doesn't change the fact that he, Donald Trump Jr. I mean, appeared, you know, willing and eager to meet with the Russian lawyer anticipating that he would get dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of this, you know, larger Russian government effort to help the Trump campaign and that he, Kushner and Manafort ultimately attended it.
MCEVERS: What could this development mean for the ongoing Russia investigations?
BENNETT: So yesterday Senator Chuck Grassley - he's the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. He told me and some other reporters that he's sending a letter to Trump Jr. requesting that he testify about this meeting in front of the committee as early as next week. And you know, that committee is one of several congressional committees that's conducting an investigation into Russia. So earlier this spring, though, Grassley flagged a warning about Akhmetshin, naming him in a complaint for failing to register as a foreign agent as the law requires while he, Akhmetshin, was doing lobbying work on behalf of the Kremlin. And specifically, Akhmetshin was trying to get the Magnitsky Act repealed. That's the law that imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in human rights violations. So that's that.
But you know, as far as the special counsel probe goes, Robert Mueller, who's leading that investigation, now has someone he can talk with, someone he can subpoena if necessary to get an independent account of what happened during that Trump Tower meeting because before today, we knew that there were three people in that meeting, all of whom were either related to Donald Trump or worked for him and might be loyal to him. And then there was this other person, the lawyer, Veselnitskaya, who's a Russian citizen and who is outside the reach of a U.S. subpoena. So you know, Rinat Akhmetshin could offer an alternative account of what happened.
MCEVERS: What do Donald Trump Jr. and the White House have to say about Akhmetshin and the fact that he was at this meeting?
BENNETT: So Donald Trump Jr.'s attorney didn't respond to our repeated phone calls and emails today. But separately, Kelly, you know, as this Russia issue becomes more encompassing for this White House, we learned today that President Trump is bringing in a veteran Washington lawyer, Ty Cobb, to manage sort of the overall legal and media response to the various Russia investigations. And if his name sounds familiar, yes, he is related to the Baseball Hall of Famer by the same name.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow.
BENNETT: But this is - yeah, this is notable because unlike Trump's personal attorney, Cobb will be in the White House. And we understand senior administration officials say his goal is to impose some discipline in the White House regarding how it handles and responds to all of these Russia matters.
MCEVERS: NPR's Geoff Bennett at the Capitol, thanks a lot.
BENNETT: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.