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Russian lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin on that notorious meeting at Trump Tower

September 21, 2017

LUNCH WITH FT

Former Soviet army officer on the biggest political intrigue since Watergate

“Everyone takes money in this town; everyone fights someone here,” declares Rinat Akhmetshin, the man at the centre of the biggest political intrigue to hit America since Watergate. “They’re just like me; like mercenaries.” I raise my eyebrows at the m-word, and he goes on: “I spend other people’s money here to achieve other people’s goals.”

Before we meet for lunch, the former Soviet army officer turned DC lobbyist is described to me variously as a sharp political operator, dirty trickster, influence-peddler, hacker, loyal drinking buddy, charismatic opera-lover and Kremlin spy. Akhmetshin himself suggests he is something altogether simpler: someone who will do almost anything for money.

“In my line of work I really try to tell the best story I can and I will never say something which is not true,” he says.

One fact is not in dispute: in July he was unveiled as the mysterious attendee at a controversial meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between senior aides of Donald Trump, including his son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a Russian lawyer. The encounter, which took place in the hurly-burly of last year’s presidential election campaign, is at the centre of the roiling scandal that has spawned counter-intelligence investigations that have damaged US-Russia relations and risk the remote possibility of the downfall of President Trump, as well as Akhmetshin himself.

At its heart are the incendiary claims that Russia sought to manipulate US elections, and that the Trump team colluded with this effort. Neither Trump Jr nor Kushner declared Akhmetshin’s presence in July 2017 when they revealed details of the meeting. Now he is sitting in front of me, hair piled high on his head, with outsize glasses and a squash of babyface features, and spinning yarns as he has done so successfully for so long in Washington DC.

Akhmetshin is a fixture on a lobbying scene that has long contributed to the city’s reputation as “the swamp”. Since arriving in the US 23 years ago, he has worked to advance the interests of Russian oligarchs and officials and businessmen from across Central Asia. He calculates he has worked on $12bn worth of arbitration actions, hiring PR companies and lobbyists on behalf of his clients, and dining out on their expense accounts. He has faced legal proceedings for accusations over hacking — later dropped — and says he has never done anything illegal. This spring, he put up his prices from $450 to $600 an hour. But that was “before the shit hit the fan”.

Over lunch, the 49-year-old hurtles his way to the end of each sentence without pause, using “f**k” the way millennials use “like”: constantly. He tells me he “almost certainly” has attention-deficit disorder. His choice of venue is as brazen as his avowals that he is blameless. We are plum in the centre of Mirabelle, just a block from the White House, a restaurant so luxurious they asked if it was a special occasion when I made the booking. The room of golden latticeworks and mirrors is packed with Washington power diners. It only opened in the spring, but Akhmetshin has already been “20 or 30 times”. Greeted warmly by staff, he embarks on a long meditation on the wonders of Islamic ornament and its deliberate imperfection, triggered by the interior design. “Only Allah is perfect,” he concludes. Then he orders us both pink champagne.

“Can I have mine maybe in a burgundy glass?” he asks the wine director, turning the exotic request into a friendly command. Then he turns to me conspiratorially and adds: “You know there are champagnes which you decant!”

Akhmetshin goes for Riesling with his rabbit pâté starter. Feeling chancey, I plump for Atlantic fluke marinated with pastis, with fennel purée, smoked trout roe and nasturtium to start; to follow I decide I’d better join Akhmetshin in the steak, which seems the most robust option to sustain what I gather will be a breakneck pace. White wine pairings duly arrive.

In Akhmetshin’s telling, he may be a mercenary but he knows his limits. “I will never f**k with Russian state,” he says in idiosyncratic English spoken with a light Russian accent. “I will never do things against Russian government. It’s stupid,” he tells me. “Simply, the stakes are too high.”

The more urgent question for now, however, is whether he will do things for the Russian government, and whether he can testify that Team Trump has lied about that fateful meeting. Akhmetshin was among a Russian group that, according to the British publicist who set up the meeting, promised information to Trump Jr as part of Russian government support that would “incriminate” his father’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The group, Akhmetshin’s detractors claim, was also seeking to repeal a 2012 US law, the Magnitsky Act, that had so incensed Moscow it promised retaliation.

The heat is rising. I’ve been tipped-off that Akhmetshin has already testified before the secret grand jury that former FBI head Robert Mueller has convened to probe allegations of Russian influence during the election campaign (his reply: “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, though he swiftly follows up with a promise of “full co-operation” with any investigation). He’s also likely to face subpoenas to be grilled in a slew of congressional hearings.

“I am a fighter; I like to fight,” is Akhmetshin’s response to attacks on him. Proving the point, he raises his thick-rimmed spectacles. The bridge of his nose is a misshapen zigzag — knocks he says he earned mostly during his time in barracks in the Soviet army.

Akhmetshin’s military experiences have fuelled the accusations that he is a spy. As a teenage army draftee, he says his job was to ferry briefcases of secret documents handcuffed to his wrist, accompanied by two men carrying Kalashnikovs. “In the east Baltics, between Latvia, Estonia, I’ve been in every military base.” When I ask about one of his nicknames, “Taliban”, and his stints in Afghanistan, where he worked in the 1980s and more recently, he says he’d rather not discuss this.

“It wasn’t by choice, trust me,” he says, eventually describing his posting as a demotion after he fell out with a new commander. In 1988, as the nine-year-old Soviet invasion of Afghanistan went into retreat, he manned a tunnel in the north directing traffic and smoked a lot of weed. He fleeced Afghans at the checkpoints, one of several youthful exploitative moneymaking schemes he recounts: in the Baltics, he sold army-rationed gasoline on the side; as a child, he recited the Koran for roubles, to the chagrin of his older sister.

His route to the heart of DC is baroque, to say the least. In 1992, after his first year as a chemistry student at Kazan State University, he was promoted to first lieutenant in “chemical defence”. He says he undertook training in the Ural Mountains but never actually served as an officer. Instead, he moved to the US to study biochemistry. Still in his twenties, he answered a job ad and became a go-to lobbyist on issues relating to the former Soviet Union. He built his way up thanks to the mentorship of Edward Lieberman, a lawyer whose late wife Evelyn was Bill Clinton’s White House deputy chief of staff and Hillary Clinton’s loyal protector. “I love him,” says Akhmetshin, who professes his hatred for neocon Republicans.

Our steaks come and go with barely a comment, although Akhmetshin and the wine director detour into a discussion of a spicy Syrah, named for salamanders who laze on rocks in the sun. We learn it has “great acidity”, which brings me back to my inquiry. He denies claims that he was a member of Russian military intelligence — “I was never good enough to be in GRU,” he laughs — yet offers me a history of his work supporting a different counter-intelligence group within the Soviet system. He says that in the late 1980s he spent two years working for the kommandant service, an army branch he says existed to provide protection and defence support to the osoby otdel (“special department”), a KGB unit attached to the military. One of its aims was to ensure the Russian army was free of foreign spies.

Though many in Congress and the media find his disavowals unconvincing, he insists he neither engages in espionage nor works for the Kremlin, though tells me he’s acquainted with plenty of spies. He says he can call on people from “The Agency” — shorthand for the CIA — in an instant. Before I even turned my tape recorder on he had pointed out a man at the cocktail bar who he tells me used to work in US intelligence. He claims links to French, British and German intelligence. Surely he must have similar access to Russian intelligence officers? “I have zero interest in working for Russian government,” he says. “I don’t want to complicate things and quite frankly they will never trust me because I hang out with too many Agency people.”

The wine director replaces my half-finished pink champagne — two new chilled glasses arrive, which appear to be on the house. “I cannot possibly drink anything else,” Akhmetshin declares. “Except they have this trolley of Armagnacs there.”

I offer him a less explosive way out: let’s say he is not a Russian spy. Is he worried they are working through him? “No I don’t think so, why? Who are they? They work through me in which sense?”

I put it to him that, despite his protests, much of what he does plays to the Kremlin agenda. “Look, for me, in my line of work, I’m not ideological.”

I return to my earlier question. If you’re in with intelligence networks, I say, surely you must be able to talk to Russian spies as well as American ones?

“I just don’t, I don’t, Russians will never trust me anything . . . they’re very suspicious people. I’ve been out here for such a long time they would not talk to me for that very reason.”

I raise another eyebrow — “Seriously,” he cuts in as we go to talk over one another — then an admission: “When I’m in Moscow I’ll go out drinking with these people,” he says. “They know who I am; and they know I’m a mercenary.”

Nothing he has said reveals he works in espionage but this is his most candid acknowledgment yet that he has a foot in both worlds. It also helps to explain how he came to find himself at the centre of the current scandal.

In 2012, US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, after intensive lobbying by US-born fund manager Bill Browder, a former champion of Vladimir Putin who managed $4.5bn in assets in Russia before he fell out of favour in 2005. The act imposes asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials associated with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who worked for Browder, and who in 2008 uncovered a $230m fraud against the Russian treasury that he alleged was carried out by a criminal group together with senior Russian state officials. Magnitsky was investigated — Browder says by the very people he accused of carrying out the fraud — and died a year later in jail; an inquiry by a Russian presidential human rights group concluded he had been beaten to death.

So why was Akhmetshin in that meeting in Trump Tower? He says that he was working for a Russian-funded, US-registered foundation dedicated to overturning the “inhumane” ban on US adoptions of Russian children, which Moscow passed in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. But he has also long argued that the US failed to get to the bottom of who perpetrated the Magnitsky fraud. His alternative version — in essence, that the Magnitsky story “was actually fabricated” and Russian government officials perpetrated neither the fraud nor Magnitsky’s death — plays to the Kremlin’s line and is vehemently denied by Browder. Akhmetshin says that it was his initial investigation of the Magnitsky saga that led to his first getting to know Natalia Veselnitskaya — the Moscow-based lawyer who invited him to the fateful lunch last June.

He says he took the train to New York that day in order to see a Russian play that evening. He adds that that was why he was in jeans and T-shirt instead of his usual suit when Veselnitskaya called. She was working for a US law firm that had previously hired him as a consultant on a money-laundering case whose defence sought to debunk the Magnitsky fraud. “I thought it was kind of [about] sensitive issues, even if she didn’t say it.” He starts tapping his glass incessantly on the table, keeping rhythm with his story. “Honestly I was so impressed by Natalia being able to score a meeting like that,” he says, adding he thinks the Trump team accepted to meet as “a favour”.

Akhmetshin said he did not read the papers about Hillary Clinton’s campaign funding that Veselnitskaya took to the meeting, but he had seen the Russian version of it before. He says the lawyer developed it with the help of private corporate intelligence and that it was about “how bad money ended up in Manhattan and that money was put into supporting political campaigns”.

Trump Jr’s initial statement on the meeting, which according to US media reports was dictated by his father, omits mention of this. (The president’s lawyer has denied the president was involved.) Trump Jr also previously said he had never met Russians relating to the presidential campaign.

Akhmetshin says he spoke only for 90 seconds or so, late into the shortish meeting. “I said this will be a good opportunity — this Magnitsky case was never checked by US government and yet it becomes the beginning of the end for US-Russia relationship so this is a very low-hanging fruit.”

Dessert and dragon tea — a powerful green leaf with a fiery punch — inspire a last jab: I ask whether he thinks Russia intervened in the US elections. “They might have done,” he says, but doesn’t seem particularly fussed if they did.

“It’s like someone steals your toothpaste from you because you couldn’t hide it well enough — I think there’s something honest about that.” He goes on to expound a curious theory of “personal responsibility” — the value he says he likes best about America.

It is 6.20pm. We’ve been at it for nearly five hours but now his longest lunch ever comes to an abrupt halt. Akhmetshin has to cook supper for his daughter. “I should have ordered more alcohol,” he reflects.

He pedals off astride his orange bicycle. I reflect on the crescendo of his theory. “Nothing is secret,” he had said. “If you’re not stupid, you should operate on that assumption.” It’s exactly what the investigators delving into the alleged collusion between the Trump team and Russia must be relying on.

Mirabelle
900 16th St NW, Washington DC

Atlantic fluke $18

Rabbit pâté $18

Bavette and bleu x 2 $58

Gâteau Basque $10

ParisWashington $10

Glass pink champagne x 4 $0

Half-glass J Fritsch Riesling $7.50

Half-glass Taille Aux Loups $8.50

Half-glass Mucyn Syrah x 2 $16

Dragon tea $0

Glass Calvados x 2 $26

Total (including tax and tip) $229.20

Katrina Manson is the FT’s US foreign policy and defence correspondent

Illustration by James Ferguson

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