The revelations of the meeting between a Russian lawyer without a visa and three men in Donald Trump’s campaign inner circle still had one mystery left to solve. Natalia Veselnitskaya brought along an unidentified man to the meeting with Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, but had refused to identify him. NBC News believes they know who he is — a pro-Russia lobbyist with dual citizenship that had worked in the past in counter-intelligence for the former Soviet Union. NBC won’t name him either, but reports that some suspect he still has ties to Russian intelligence:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 14, 2017
The Russian lawyer who met with the Trump team after a promise of compromising material on Hillary Clinton was accompanied by a Russian-American lobbyist — a former Soviet counter intelligence officer who is suspected by some U.S. officials of having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, NBC News has learned.
NBC News is not naming the lobbyist, who 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 and Paul Manafort.
The Russian-born American lobbyist served in the Soviet military and emigrated to the U.S., where he holds dual citizenship.
Neither Kushner nor Manafort would comment on the story, which is consistent for them but not so much for Don Jr. Had the latter taken that strategy when the Times began to report on the meeting, they may have been in better position to credibly answer questions now. As it is, they’ll almost certainly stay buttoned up until Robert Mueller checks all of this out to see if it leads anywhere — or at least they will if they’re smart.
Don Jr’s attorney says they thought the man was a friend of Veselnitskaya’s and nothing more:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 14, 2017
In one sense, this changes nothing about the meeting. It’s clear that Don Jr got suckered into taking the meeting based on representations made by Rob Goldstone, and it’s equally clear that he never should have taken the meeting at all. That’s still true, but it’s because the e-mail chain made clear that Veselnitskaya was representing the Russian government. The e-mail chain said nothing about Veselnitskaya’s colleague at all, let alone any mention of being a lobbyist for Russia, and certainly not any connections to Russian intelligence. Don Jr just walked into that trap, assuming the Russian lobbyist has any ties to Russian intelligence, as NBC alleges.
Let’s parse the lobbyist angle out a bit, too. Presumably, the lobbyist has registered under FARA, so if US authorities think he’s connected to Russian intel, why haven’t they acted to invalidate his registration? Right now, every lobbying visit he makes puts American lawmakers in contact with Russian intelligence, assuming that’s the case. Have they warned other lawmakers about dealing with this lobbyist? Granted, it might be tough to make a case in court, but at the very least, they can warn people to be careful how they engage this man. Did they offer any warning to the two presidential campaigns?
Even with all of that in mind, this does not bode well for the White House, at least politically. Assuming this is true — media outlets have been scoring pretty well on this story in terms of accuracy so far, anyway — it presents another credibility issue for this White House. They have repeatedly insisted for months that they had no possible contacts with Russian intelligence at a high level. Did no one think that the Don Jr-Jared-Manafort meeting with a Russian-speaking attorney and her unknown companion might have been exactly that? That possibility never occurred to them? Come on, man. There may not have been any collusion over illegal activity at this meeting, but it’s going to light up Robert Mueller’s radar and prompt questions over what other meetings Team Trump might have been taking during the campaign.
The person who will have to answer most for this one in the short run isn’t Don Jr or Manafort, neither of whom have any formal role in the White House or government. It’s Jared Kushner, who sits at the right hand of the president. Democrats want Kushner’s resignation, especially after hearing that he’s had to submit a key disclosure form three times to add more than 100 names to his list of foreign contacts:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 14, 2017
The good news is that the lawyers for Trump and his family now have convinced their clients to be “more disciplined” about discussing the Russia probe. The bad news is that they lacked that discipline when they needed it to avoid what looks like a spy trap.
Update: Drip, drip, drip:
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) July 14, 2017
The tweet says “third,” but that means a third person on the Veselnitskaya side of the meeting. So who was the third person?
Update: The Associated Press identifies the lobbyist reported by NBC as Rinat Akhmetshin, who confirmed it directly:
A Russian-American lobbyist says he attended a June 2016 meeting with President Donald Trump’s son that was billed as part of a Russian government effort to help the Republican campaign.
Rinat Akhmetshin confirmed his participation to The Associated Press Friday. His disclosure marks another shift in the account of the meeting.
His name was already floating on social media earlier this morning, so it wasn’t too tough for people to figure out NBC’s mystery. His name came up in 2015 as part of a big effort to fight the Magnitsky Act:
According to a U.S. congressional staffer, former California Rep. Ron Dellums and someone named Rinat Akhmetshin showed up Tuesday without an appointment.
“They said they were lobbying on behalf of a Russian company called Prevezon and asked us to delay the Global Magnitsky Act or at least remove Magnitsky from the name,” the staffer said. “Mr. Dellums said it was a shame that this bill has made it so Russian orphans cannot be adopted by Americans.”
Rinat Akhmetshin was identified in February 2015 by The New York Times as the “director of a Washington think tank called the International Eurasian Institute.”
Neither 2015 article hints at links to Russian intel, but the NYT story is full of intrigue in other ways. However, two months ago, CNN noted that Senator Chuck Grassley alerted Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly of Akhmetshin’s reported connections:
These days, most American officials would be reluctant to disclose any connection to Russia, much less a meeting with an alleged former Soviet spy whose alleged role in lobbying on behalf of Kremlin interests was recently called out by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican representative from California, openly acknowledges such a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin. …
Just one week before the meeting, Senator Charles Grassley had written a letter to John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, describing Akhmetshin as “a Russian immigrant to the United States who has been accused of acting as an unregistered agent for Russian interests and apparently has ties to Russian intelligence.” Grassley was requesting “all information” on Akhmetshin’s immigration history.
Interesting, to be sure. And we still don’t know the identity of the sixth person.