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Lobbyist Claims Trump Jr. 'Lost Interest' During Key Meeting With Russian Lawyer

Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin (in background)
Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin (in background)

WASHINGTON -- A Russian-American lobbyist has told congressional investigators that U.S. President Donald Trump's eldest son seemed uninterested and bored by information brought by a Russian lawyer at a critical meeting during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

That observation and others by Rinat Akhmetshin were disclosed in thousands of pages of transcripts, e-mails, and other documents released on May 16 by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee is one of three looking into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and interactions between Russian officials and Trump associates. Their inquiries have overlapped with the criminal investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose findings have so far resulted in indictments against 19 people, including Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

A longtime lobbyist in Washington involved in murky lobbying efforts, Akhmetshin drew congressional scrutiny for his presence at the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower in New York with Donald Trump Jr. The meeting had been pitched to Trump Jr. by a British music publicist who claimed that Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya wanted to share possibly damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic rival.

The meeting, which was also attended by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Manafort, has been examined by investigators as to whether the Trump campaign sought to collude with Russian officials to influence the election.

Trump has repeatedly denied any allegations of collusion with Russia during the election campaign.

Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya (file photo)
Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya (file photo)

According to a transcript of his interview, Akhmetshin told Senate investigators how Veselnitskaya discussed with Trump Jr. the background of a complex Russian tax-fraud case that led to the passage of a 2012 U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian whistleblower who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after exposing the tax fraud.

Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin said, tried to explain other tax fraud allegations involving a U.S. investment firm called Ziff Brothers and Bill Browder, a British-American financier who employed Magnitsky. She sought to convince Trump Jr. that money was being illegally funneled to the Democratic National Committee and suggested that the information could help the Trump presidential campaign.

"There were no questions. I could tell like he -- Trump, Jr., he just instantly lost interest about those things. And she probably felt this," Akhmetshin was quoted as saying.

Donald Trump Jr. (file photo)
Donald Trump Jr. (file photo)

Veselnitskaya also raised the issue of a Russian adoption ban, which was put into place by President Vladimir Putin in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. The ban targeted American couples looking to adopt Russian orphans.

"You could tell that they were not interested, and they were like looking at their iPhones or like, you know, just looking the other way, their watch," Akhmetshin said.

Veselnitskaya, who has long denied that she was acting on behalf of the Russian government, was a lawyer who also represented a Russian businessman whom U.S. authorities alleged used some of the Russian tax-fraud proceeds to buy Manhattan real estate. A U.S. court case centering on that allegation was settled in May 2017 on the eve of trial, with Veselnitskaya's client admitting no wrongdoing.

Other transcripts released by the Judiciary Committee included interviews with Rob Goldstone, the British music publicist who said he had proposed a second meeting between Veselnitskaya and members of Trump's campaign team in November 2016.

Goldstone told investigators he had contacted Trump's longtime secretary on behalf of Aras Agalarov, a Moscow billionaire real-estate developer who is an associate of Putin.

Donald Trump (left) and Aras Agalarov at a press conference ahead of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.
Donald Trump (left) and Aras Agalarov at a press conference ahead of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.

Agalarov was a partner of Trump's in staging the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. He and his pop-singer son Emin met Trump in Las Vegas to sign the contract for the pageant, and persuaded Trump to fly to Moscow for the event.

Trump later congratulated Agalarov, and suggested that a long-sought-after Trump-branded building project in Moscow could be finalized.

The Senate committee also released transcripts from interviews with Irakly Kaveladze, a Georgian-born American businessman who works for Agalarov. Kaveladze told investigators how Agalarov tried to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin while the U.S. tycoon was in Moscow. The meeting never occurred, however.

The transcripts were released on the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that it agreed with an assessment by the country's intelligence agencies that Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign was to damage Clinton and help Donald Trump.

That finding contrasts with conclusions by the House Intelligence Committee, whose April report concluded that the Russian effort did not directly favor one candidate in the election.

The differing conclusions are likely to deepen rifts within the Republican Party about how to portray Trump's election victory ahead of this fall's congressional elections.

Fueled by opposition to Trump and his campaign's interactions with Russian officials, Democrats are hoping to win enough seats to take control of at least one of Congress's two chambers.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.