Political News

The Russians at the Trump Tower meeting

Posted July 20

The group of Soviet-born individuals that top Trump campaign officials met last summer include a cast of characters accused of tactics that read like a Cold War spy novel -- including allegations of secret lobbying campaigns and links to money laundering investigations and counterintelligence.

The meeting went undisclosed for over a year, until it became public this month. Donald Trump Jr. confirmed many details when faced with reporting about its occurrence. The Trump Tower gathering brought together eight individuals who have slowly been identified as more details have come to light.

Each identification has led to many new questions. The assemblage of shadowy Russian figures with a history of allegations of underhanded work has vastly intensified scrutiny of the meeting and the decision by top Trump campaign officials to attend.

From the Trump camp was Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Also in the room were Rob Goldstone, the man who organized the meeting and a publicist for an Azerbaijani-Russian pop star who has done business with Trump; Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has been alleged by one of her toughest critics of leading a shadow lobbying campaign in the US pushing the Kremlin's interests; Rinat Akhmetshin, a Soviet-born US citizen who has been tied to the same lobbying scrutiny, acknowledges his past work for Soviet military counterintelligence and was accused by a corporate rival of orchestrating a hacking scheme, which he denied; Ike Kaveladze, who has been linked to thousands of bank accounts that were investigated by the Government Accountability Office for possible money laundering; and Anatoli Samochornov, a translator who reportedly served as the interpreter for the meeting.

The purpose for the meeting, as Trump Jr. says he understood it, was to meet with a Russian-government attorney regarding information about the Hillary Clinton campaign that the Russian government wanted to provide the Trump campaign as part of its efforts to help him defeat Clinton, according to an email chain publicly released by Trump Jr. on Twitter.

Those who have spoken publicly about the meeting, including Trump Jr., have said the conversation quickly turned away from Clinton information, to Russian adoptions and the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 US law that penalized Russian officials for human rights violations.

The topic of Russian adoptions itself carries a loaded history that adds to the intrigue. Russia banned adoptions by Americans as a retaliatory response to the Magnitsky Act. As a result, the adoption issue has always been connected to the Magnitsky Act. Weakening or repealing the law is a considered a top priority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump Jr.'s attorney has dismissed the meeting as "much ado about nothing" and said "nothing came of it."

The Russian individuals have all denied any wrongdoing, accusing their critics of spreading misinformation about them.

Veselnitskaya: The linchpin

Veselnitskaya sits at the center of the web. Her participation in the meeting was the first to be disclosed, and she appears to be the person Goldstone referred to as a "Russian government attorney" in setting up the sit-down, though she has denied any links to the Kremlin.

The Russian national has been an active lobbyist internationally against the Magnitsky Act, and founded an organization called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGIF), which works on the issue. She also represented a Cyprus-based holding company, Prevezon, which was targeted by US prosecutors in connection with alleged tax fraud worth $230 million that was uncovered by Sergey Magnitsky, the Russian attorney who was jailed and later died in a Moscow prison under suspicious circumstances.

Veselnitskaya's work for HRAGIF and Prevezon has come under scrutiny. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has been seeking more information about her work since this spring, before the Trump Tower meeting became public, following up on a Foreign Agents Registration Act complaint that mentioned Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin and Samochornov.

The complaint was filed last year by American-born financier Bill Browder, whose company worked closely with Magnitsky. US lawmakers passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 to punish the Russians allegedly responsible for his death.

The complaint alleges that HRAGIF and Prevezon, along with Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya and others, engaged in an undisclosed lobbying campaign to weaken the Magnitsky Act to the benefit of Kremlin interests. While they were registered lobbyists, the allegations are that they failed to disclose certain activities on behalf of a foreign agent.

In May 2017, Prevezon settled its case with New York prosecutors after agreeing to pay a $5.9 million. In the settlement, Prevezon and its business associates did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the government agreed to "release" them all from any future lawsuits in connection with this case.

Akhmetshin: The tactician

Akhmetshin is a Soviet-born US citizen, who moved to the states in 1994 and was naturalized in 2009, according to a statement he provided to Radio Free Europe.

His military history has drawn scrutiny. He served in the Soviet Army from 1986 to 1988 as a draftee, saying his unit was serving in the Baltics and was "loosely part of counterintelligence," according to The Associated Press. According to The New York Times, Akhmetshin has bragged about his counterintelligence work for a special division of the KGB.

A civil lawsuit unrelated to the issues drawing attention currently described him as "a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer." The Browder complaint called him "a former member of the Russian military intelligence services (GRU)."

The registered lobbyist has denied that characterization, telling The Washington Post in an interview that he never worked for Russian military intelligence or for the Russian government. But he acknowledged that his military unit was involved in "law enforcement issues" and "some counterintelligence matters."

But it's not just his military background has drawn attention. Some of his work has entangled him in international legal disputes.

In 2015, a mining company registered in the Netherlands, International Mineral Resources, accused Akhmetshin in a lawsuit of "organizing the hacking" of its computer systems and "searching for specific information" on behalf of a Russian fertilizer-producer company.

The allegations, which arose out of a business dispute, were withdrawn in early 2016, according to court documents filed in New York's Supreme Court.

In a related federal case, Akhmetshin denied the claims and stated in a 2014 affidavit, "I am not a computer specialist and I am not capable of 'hacking.'"

He added that his previous work has included running a pro-democracy organization in Washington, consulting a government of a former Soviet territory as well as the "surveillance of undercover agents and suspected undercover agents."

The allegations that Akhmetshin organized a hack-and-leak campaign against a corporate adversary -- which he fully denied -- have raised suspicion because one week after the Trump Tower meeting, Russian hackers started leaking material they stole from the Democratic National Committee. But no links have emerged to connect the Trump Tower meeting's attendees and Guccifer 2.0, the hacker persona that US intelligence says was a front for the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU.

Kaveladze: The money man

Kaveladze was the last person identified in the meeting, confirmed by his attorney, as a representative of the Russian family, the Agalarovs, who had asked Goldstone to set up the meeting.

He is a senior vice president at Crocus Group, the real estate development company run by Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov, according to Kaveladze's LinkedIn profile. His personal website says he "holds responsibility for multiple elements of the company's Russian development project."

Kaveladze was previously linked to US bank accounts that came under congressional investigation for possible money laundering in 2000.

A Government Accountability Office report outlined how Kaveladze's firm created US-based shell companies for Russian brokers, and then those companies opened 236 bank accounts through which more than $1.4 billion was deposited between 1991 and 2000. The GAO did not name Kaveladze in the report.

According to a November 2000 report in The New York Times, Kaveladze opened the accounts legally. He told the Times at the time that the GAO investigation was a "witch hunt" and said he engaged in no wrongdoing. He was never charged with any crimes.

He studied at the Moscow Academy of Finance and also got an MBA from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, according to his website. Kaveladze has worked for the Agalarovs' business since 2004, which means he was with the company when it partnered with the Trump Organization to hold the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

Kaveladze was asked to go to the meeting with the understanding he would be Veselnitskaya's translator because she didn't speak English, his attorney told CNN. He then realized at the meeting that she already had a translator whom she had brought with her.

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