Russian who attended Trump Jr. meeting: 'I just have a talent for media'

Russian who attended Trump Jr. meeting: 'I just have a talent for media'
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Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian-American lobbyist at the center of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump Jr., has made a career out of being a conduit in Washington for clients from Russia and other neighboring countries.

Trained in Russia as a chemist, Akhmetshin has used his knowledge of Washington and his connections in Russia to serve a variety of interests — siding some of the time with Moscow and other times against it over two decades in which he’s been immersed in the worlds of political opposition research and lobbying. 

“I think I just have a talent for media,” Akhmetshin told lawyers in a 2012 deposition as part of a civil defamation lawsuit that a third party had filed against one of his business partners.

“Living in the United States, I observed political life, especially in Washington. And I think I understand this political system quite well. And news cycle, I understand it better, probably, than most Americans.”

Akhmetshin has been thrust into the middle of the Russia saga that has engulfed the White House after it was revealed that he attended a June 2016 meeting with Moscow lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump Jr., where the president’s eldest son was promised dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation Questions grow about FBI vetting of Christopher Steele’s Russia expertise MORE.

All of the parties involved in the meeting say Veselnitskaya instead lobbied for changes to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that has sanctioned some Russians for alleged human rights abuses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin opposes the law. Last summer, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin engaged in a lobbying effort to sink, soften or rename the act.

Akhmetshin has been identified in media reports as a former intelligence officer with the Soviet government, a claim that stems from his early service in the Soviet Army.

But it’s unclear what connections Akhmetshin actually has with current Russian intelligence. Lawyers for Trump Jr. and President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE have brushed off suggestions that there was anything improper about Trump Jr.'s attendance at the June 2016 meeting. 

Akhmetshin did not respond to a request for comment for this story. He told The Associated Press in an interview that his military ties are being overplayed. 

Court documents obtained by The Hill give new insights into Akhmetshin’s work in Washington, as well as the murky world of opposition research and foreign lobbying.

In one episode, Akhmetshin explains how he traveled to Moscow to meet with Andrey Vavilov, a former Russian finance minister and secretary of state. Vavilov paid Akhmetshin at least $70,000 in cash from “hundred dollar bills bags” for a “public awareness project” aimed at denying U.S. political asylum to Vavilov’s longtime adversary, a former Russian politician named Ashot Egiazaryan.

Akhmetshin says he deposited the money in Russia and wired it to his business partner Peter Zalmayev, who took over the project and was later sued for defamation by Egiazaryan. 

In a 420-page deposition, Akhmetshin detailed his role in pushing negative stories about Egiazaryan in the American and Russian press. He said he looked into political firms that might help manipulate internet search results and contacted staff on Capitol Hill to warn that Egiazaryan was a racist.

Akhmetshin pushed negative stories on Egiazaryan’s business ties to “people, journalists” in an effort to “bring their attention to the story.”

At one point, Akhmetshin describes reaching out to a staffer on the House Foreign Relations Committee “to educate him” on Egiazaryan’s alleged anti-Semitism. The staffer responded that there is no evidence that Egiazaryan is anti-Semitic but that perhaps he is a bad businessman. 

Akhmetshin’s activities — and most recently his lobbying work against the Magnitsky Act — have drawn scrutiny from critics who say he should have been registered as a foreign agent. 

Last year, a pro-Magnitsky activist issued a complaint with the Justice Department alleging Akhmetshin and several others had been involved in an aggressive anti-Magnitsky lobbying campaign on behalf of Russian nationals but had failed to register.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP's Grassley admonishes Trump on Kelly comments  Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship MORE (R-Iowa) is planning a hearing on the matter in the coming weeks. 

In the deposition, Akhmetshin dismissed the Foreign Agent Registration Act as irrelevant to his opposition research efforts against Egiazaryan.

“The FARA, it’s an old law,” he said.

“This applies to people who represent political parties of foreign governments, which none of this was. Mr. Vavilov is a private citizen, he lives in the United States, resident of the United States and resident of Russia, so there’s absolutely no FARA affiliation.”

At several instances in the deposition, Akhmetshin boasts about his familiarity and skill with computers. 

In 2014, a mining company owned by three wealthy Kazakh businessmen accused Akhmetshin of arranging a hacking campaign on behalf of a rival company to help win a $1 billion lawsuit. 

Discovery documents filed in Washington, D.C., federal court on behalf of International Mineral Resources (IMR) said Akhmetshin was hired to hack into IMR computers to steal confidential information in “an unlawful attempt to gain an unfair advantage.”  

Akhmetshin denied being involved in any hacking effort, and IMR dropped its allegations when the lawsuit was withdrawn in 2016. 

According to the discovery documents, the alleged hacking was said to have netted more than 28,000 files, which Akhmetshin was accused of attempting to spread to the public in what lawyers for the Kazakh-controlled company called a “smear campaign” against its owners and shareholders. 

The lawsuit claimed the stolen documents included passport information, emails, personal contact lists, bank account information, business strategy documents, board meeting minutes and “highly confidential internal documents” belonging to IMR executives and their associates. 

According to the court document, IMR’s investigators said they were given a thumb drive with the apparent stolen information, and an investigator personally witnessed and overheard a conversation in a London coffee shop in which Akhmetshin handed over to a third party what he said was an external hard drive with files from IMR computers. 

Akhmetshin said in the coffee shop conversation that he was hired “because there are certain things that the law firm could not do.”

Court documents and lobbying records reveal that Akhmetshin at least has connections to powerful people in Russia.

Three Russian businessmen — Denis Katsyv, Mikhail Ponomarev and Albert Nasibulin — had a direct interest in the anti-Magnitsky lobbying efforts, according to disclosures Akhmetshin filed.

At one point in the deposition, Akhmetshin said he helped organize a presentation by Viktor Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest allies and the former head of the Narcotics Service of Russia, to a U.S. think tank. He also pushed an op-ed to the Washington Times on Ivanov’s behalf, although Akhmetshin says that work was coordinated through intermediaries and that he was not paid for it.

When asked by a lawyer if he knew that Ivanov had worked for the KGB, Akhmetshin responded: “I might have.”

Upon arriving in the U.S. in the 1990s, Akhmetshin launched his own think tank called the International Eurasia Institute with Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former prime minister of Kazakhstan. 

In his deposition, Akhmetshin was asked if he knew Kazhegeldin had a warrant out for his arrest in his home country and was the subject of a red notice by Interpol.

Akhmetshin said he was aware. 

“I help him get out of prison twice,” he said.

Akhmetshin pushed back on the notion, pushed by some media outlets, that he has ongoing ties to Russian intelligence.

Born in Kazan, Russia, the 50-ish Akhmetshin said he left his homeland at the age of 25 with a Ph.D. in “bio-organic chemistry.”

He said he entered the Soviet Army and monitored troop movements at a time when Russia was engaged in an offensive in Afghanistan. But Akhmetshin has insisted publicly that he was not a trained spy and that his military service is being overplayed.

In the deposition, Akhmetshin was asked about a book by Steve LeVine called “Oil and Glory,” in which he is described as a “former Soviet Army counterintelligence officer.” 

“It’s not accurate,” Akhmetshin said. But otherwise LeVine’s portrayal of him was “flattering.”

This story was updated on July 18.