By Amanda Wilson
Rinat Akhmetshin, the lobbyist and former Soviet army officer who met senior Trump campaign aides at a controversial meeting last year, has given evidence before a grand jury investigation, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Akhmetshin gave testimony under oath for several hours on Friday August 11, in a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at the 2016 meeting as part of his investigation into links between Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russia.
The meeting on June 9, 2016 at Trump Tower in New York has been at the center of a political storm since it was revealed that Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr, was promised information and documents that would “incriminate” his father’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it,” Mr. Trump Jr replied to an email offering the meeting.
Appointed in May, Mr. Mueller has a broad mandate from the justice department to investigate possible links or co-ordination between Mr. Trump’s election campaign and the Russian government, and to pursue issues that might arise as a result. He is also able to press criminal charges. The president has characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt”.
Mr Trump Jr was told the offer of incriminating evidence on Mrs. Clinton was part of Russian government support for his father’s bid for the presidency. The Trump team has been criticized for not reporting the offer to the FBI.
The June 9 meeting was also attended by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law who is now a senior White House official, among others. Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney, and Mr. Akhmetshin, a naturalized US citizen who retains his Russian passport and regularly visits Moscow, were among the Russians present.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Akhmetshin refused to comment on the grand jury appearance.
“I don’t know what you're talking about . . . I'm not commenting on anything,” he said, adding he has “deference” for Mr Mueller’s probe and promises “full co-operation” with any investigations. Peter Carr, spokesman for the special counsel’s office, also declined to comment.
Mr. Akhmetshin set out details of the meeting, saying that Ms. Veselnitskaya brought with her a dossier about “how bad money ended up in Manhattan and that money was put into supporting political campaigns”.
He said that Ms. Veselnitskaya discussed a Kremlin ban on Americans adopting Russian children. The ban was introduced by Moscow after the US passed the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned some Russian officials and incensed the Kremlin so much that they promised retaliation.
Both Mr. Akhmetshin and Ms. Veselnitskaya have been vocal critics of that law.
He said that he briefly brought up US-Russia relations in the meeting, arguing that the US government had “never checked” the details of the case underlying the Magnitsky law.
Mr Trump Jr initially said the meeting focused “primarily” on adoptions, but other accounts — including later statements by him — cast doubt on that. He subsequently said there was “no meaningful information” about Russian support for Mrs. Clinton. In Senate testimony on July 24 this year, Mr. Kushner described the short meeting as “a waste of our time” and that he had “no knowledge” of any documents being offered or accepted.
Grand juries in the US are typically used to extract evidence and to determine whether a prosecution should go ahead. Mr. Akhmetshin is unlikely to know himself whether he might be a focus of Mr Mueller’s inquiries or a witness in an investigation focused on others.
“He went into the court for hours,” said one of the people familiar with the matter. “It can’t be fun in the bull’s-eye.”
Mr. Akhmetshin had attracted attention on Capitol Hill even before it was disclosed that he attended last year’s Trump Tower meeting. The Senate judiciary committee, led by Chuck Grassley, is investigating
Mr. Akhmetshin’s US citizenship, his military background and whether he improperly lobbied for Russian interests.
Friends and colleagues describe Mr. Akhmetshin as someone for “hire” rather than a Russian spy, although they say they cannot be sure. Mr. Akhmetshin described himself to the FT as “a mercenary”, and denied being a Russian spy or working for the Kremlin.
“I spend other people’s money here to achieve other people's goals,” he said, adding that he works neither for nor against the Russian government.
He said he was working for a Russian-funded, US-registered foundation dedicated to overturning Moscow’s ban on US adoptions of Russian children at the time. Ms. Veselnitskaya, meanwhile, worked for Prevezon, whose shareholder Denis Katsyv part funded the foundation.
The US justice department accused Prevezon of laundering money from a $230m fraud that the US says was conducted with the assistance of Russian officials. They settled out of court for $6m earlier this year.
That case is linked to the Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian accountant who reported the fraud, was arrested and eventually died in a Russian jail in suspicious circumstances. The law imposes asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials the US says are associated with his death.
Mr. Magnitsky’s employer, the US-born fund manager Bill Browder, campaigned vociferously for the law. A former champion of Vladimir Putin who managed $4.5bn in assets in Russia before he fell out of favour in 2005, Mr Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, wrote to the US justice department in July 2016 saying he believed Mr. Akhmetshin violated lobbying disclosure requirements and was working “under the direction of the Russian government”.
Mr. Akhmetshin said he had complied with all disclosure requirements and was not working at the direction of the Russian government.