A former Soviet counterintelligence officer, now working as a Russian-American lobbyist, was also in the room during a controversial meeting Donald Trump Jr. took with a Russian lawyer to get political dirt on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, according to news reports.
The lobbyist served in the Soviet military and emigrated to the U.S., where he holds dual citizenship, according to NBC News, which first reported the story Friday.
The lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, later confirmed to the Associated Press his participation in the June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, held in Trump Tower in New York. Akhmetshin insisted he was never officially trained as a spy and dismissed any question about current links to Russian intelligence agencies as a "smear campaign."
Akhmetshin's previously undisclosed participation in the meeting, which also included former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, immediately drew condemnation from the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who called it "another deeply disturbing fact about this secret meeting."
"Whether the additional party or parties present during the meeting with these top Trump campaign personnel at the time Donald Trump had seized the nomination were connected directly to Russian intelligence or not, it is clear the Kremlin got the message that Donald Trump welcomed the help of the Russian government in providing dirt on Hillary Clinton," Rep. Adam Schiff of California said.
Trump Jr. did not disclose Akhmetshin's participation when he publicly discussed the issue and email correspondence disclosing the meeting earlier this week, in what he said was an effort to be "totally transparent." Schiff said the latest news was the latest in a string of "consistent dissembling and deceit when it comes to the campaign's meetings with Russian officials and intermediaries."
Schiff's committee is one of several congressional panels investigating whether Trump campaign associates colluded with Russians who tried to influence the presidential election by hacking Democratic political organizations. A special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, is also investigating possible collusion and Russian interference.
Earlier this week, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., said he would call on Trump Jr. to testify before his committee about the meeting.
Akhmetshin did not respond to requests for comment Friday from USA TODAY.
But his status as an unregistered lobbyist for Russian interests was raised in March by Grassley.
Under federal law, people working on behalf of foreign interests are required to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department and make periodic disclosures about their activities, along with their payments.
In a March 31, 2017 letter to acting assistant Attorney General Dana Boente, Grassley requested what if any action had taken in connection with Akhmetshin, specifically regarding his work in opposition to the Magnitsky Act.
The 2012 U.S. law, named for Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky who was beaten to death in prison, barred Russians suspected of human rights abuses from entry to the U.S. In retaliation, the Kremlin shutdown the program allowing for Americans to adopt Russian children.
Referring to Akhmetshin’s ties to Russian counterintelligence, Grassley said that it was “particularly disturbing’’ that Akhmetshin and the firm Fusion GPS “were working on this pro-Russia lobbying effort.
“In fact, it has been reported that he worked for the GRU [Russia’s military intelligence agency] and allegedly specializes in active measures campaigns’’ or disinformation efforts.
Akhmetshin was “the primary organizer’’ of Russia’s opposition to the Magnitsky Act in Washington, working in tandem with Veselnitskaya – the main participant in last year’s meeting with Trump Jr. – according to Hermitage Capital Management chief William Browder.
Browder's firm employed Magnitsky, who was part of a legal team that uncovered massive fraud involving Russian officials. Browder has been a driving force behind the U.S. law named after Magnitsky, who was killed in a Russian prison in 2009.
Browder said in an interview that he filed a detailed complaint with the Justice Department last year related to Akhmetshin’s status as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia and his activities in opposition to the Magnitsky law.
Though Browder said he has never spoken to Akhmetshin, he described the 49-year-old lobbyist as “a counterintelligence asset who knows his way around Washington."
Since filing the complaints, Browder said he has spoken with Justice investigators twice, with the last contact coming in the fall of 2016.
Browder said Akhmetshin’s activities included organizing last year’s screening of a film, titled ”The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes,” which offered a counternarrative to undercut Magnitsky’s efforts to uncover the Russian fraud.
Veselnitskaya has denied having any connection to the Kremlin and insisted the Trump Tower meeting was to discuss sanctions, not the presidential campaign. The meeting was set up by a British publicist, Rob Goldstone, who has ties to Russia.
Veselnitskaya acknowledged to NBC News that she was accompanied by at least one other man, though she declined to identify him, according to the story by NBC News reporters Ken Dilanian and Natasha Lebedeva.
In a bizarre twist on the story, however, Alan Futerfas, a lawyer retained by Donald Trump Jr., initially indicated to NBC News Friday that he had spoken to the person in question and described him as 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,” Futerfas said.
He then called back to NBC News, according to the network, to clarify those remarks, saying that the person he spoke to was not the Russian-American lobbyist but yet another person, unidentified, who was also in the room.
In his initial comments, 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.”
In those initial comments, Futeras said the man he indicated was a lobbyist was "described as a friend Emin (Agalarov)’s and maybe as a friend of Natalia (Veselnitskaya)’s.”
Agalarov, son of a wealthy Russian businessman, is also a Russian pop star and a client of Goldstone's, the publicist who arranged the Trump Tower meeting.
As the initial reports of the meeting surfaced last week, Trump Jr. released emails between some of the key figures finalizing plans for the Trump Tower gathering.
The emails, released by the younger Trump only minutes before the contents were reported by The New York Times, included Trump writing "I love it" when told that the meeting with Veselnitskaya might possibly produce material potentially damaging to the Clinton campaign.
Goldstone, according to the emails, 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."
After the story became public, Trump Jr. said last week that, "in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently" and said that he saw the meetings as part of opposition research for his father's campaign.
President Trump has defended his son's decision to meet with Veselnitskaya, saying on Thursday "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 during 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."
Trump, who met with Vladimir Putin last week at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, repeatedly sidestepped questions this week about whether he believes the Russian president's denials that he architected a plan to meddle in the presidential election. "I'm not saying it wasn't Russia. What I'm saying is that we have to protect ourselves no matter who it is," Trump said, before suggesting China and North Korea are also "very good" at hacking operations.