Trump Team Met Russian Accused of International Hacking Conspiracy
Rinat Akhmetshin allegedly stole sensitive documents from a corporation years before he joined Natalia Veselnitskaya to meet Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner.
The alleged former Soviet intelligence officer who attended the now-infamous meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign officials last June was previously accused in federal and state courts of orchestrating an international hacking conspiracy.
Rinat Akhmetshin told the Associated Press on Friday he accompanied Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to the June 9, 2016, meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Trump’s attorney confirmed Akhmetshin’s attendance in a statement.
Akhmetshin’s presence at Trump Tower that day adds another layer of controversy to an episode that already provides the clearest indication of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. In an email in the run-up to that rendezvous, Donald Trump Jr. was promised “very high level and sensitive information” on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Akhmetshin, who had been hired by Veselnitskaya to help with pro-Russian lobbying efforts in Washington, said the Russian lawyer brought a folder of documents to the meeting, which he thinks she left at Trump Tower.
He said the print-outs detailed an alleged flow of illicit funds to the Democratic National Committee. According to Akhmetshin, Trump Jr. asked whether the lawyer had all the evidence to back up her claims and Veselnitskaya said the Trump campaign would have to do further research themselves.
In court papers filed with the New York Supreme Court in November 2015, Akhmetshin was described as “a former Soviet military counterintelligence officer” by lawyers for International Mineral Resources (IMR), a Russian mining company that alleged it had been hacked.
Those documents accuse Akhmetshin of hacking into two computer systems and stealing sensitive and confidential materials as part of an alleged black-ops smear campaign against IMR. The allegations were later withdrawn.
The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., was told in July 2015 that Akhmetshin had arranged the hacking of a mining company’s private records—stealing internal documents and then disseminating them. The corporate-espionage case was brought by IMR, which alleged that Akhmetshin was hired by a law firm representing a fertilizer producer company called Eurochem.
A New York law firm paid Akhmetshin $140,000, including expenses, to organize a public-relations campaign targeting IMR. Shortly after he began that work, IMR suffered a sophisticated and systematic breach of its computers, and gigabytes of data allegedly stolen in the breach wound up the hands of journalists and human rights groups critical of the mining company. IMR accused Akhmetshin of paying Russian hackers to carry out the attack.
IMR went so far as to hire a private investigator to follow Akhmetshin on a trip to London. That private eye, Akis Phanartzis, wrote in a sworn declaration to the court that he eavesdropped on Akhmetshin in a London coffee shop and heard Akhmetshin boast that “he organized the hacking of IMR’s computer systems.” “Mr. Akhmetshin [noted] that he was hired because there were certain things that the law firm could not do,” Phanartzis said.
Akhmetshin denied the accusation, but admitted passing around a “hard drive” filled with data on IMR’s owners. He said the information was all open-source material that he’d gotten from the former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Akezhan Kazhegeldin. The private investigator, though, said he recovered a copy of the data on a thumb drive provided by an anonymous source, and found it consisted of gigabytes of private files stolen in the computer intrusion. A computer-forensics expert examined the thumb drive and found metadata indicating some of the files had last been opened by a user with the initials “RA.”
Lawyers acting for Akhmetshin deny that he allegedly confessed to hacking. They did not deny that he had bragged about his investigatory techniques in a public place, but claimed that his methods did not involve computer intrusion.
These court disputes came after IMR had originally filed an application in the U.S. in April 2014 requesting that Akhmetshin, a resident of Washington, D.C., give a deposition and share documents with the company as part of discovery for a case being heard in the Dutch courts. That case was won in the Netherlands without needing evidence from Akhmetshin.
That changed a year later, when the verdict was appealed and an American judge granted IMR’s request for a subpoena to be issued. During Akhmetshin’s deposition, he refused to answer a number of questions and declined to produce the 261 requested documents, citing attorney-client privilege and non-testifying expert-witness privilege.
IMR successfully argued that his claim of privilege should be reviewed by a judge—out of the courtroom, in the judge’s private chambers—because there was no such protection in a “crime-fraud” case.
In 2015, citing emails and records it obtained in the federal case, International Mineral Resources filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court directly accusing Akhmetshin of hacking the company. But early last year the company abruptly withdrew “all allegations made by it against Defendants in the Complaint,” according to a court document. The withdrawal included “allegations therein that Defendants [...] have engaged in any unlawful or improper acts against IMR, including but not limited to hacking any information from IMR’s computer systems, disseminating any information as part of a smear campaign against IMR.” The lead attorney in the case did not return a phone call from The Daily Beast about the lawsuit.
Akhmetshin’s tradecraft extends to U.S. politics. He is a registered congressional lobbyist who was paid $10,000 by Veselnitskaya’s nonprofit group, the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation. The group lobbies members of Congress against the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law designed to punish Russian officials believed to be responsible for the death of a financial investigator.
After Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya met the Trump team on June 9, 2016, they traveled to Washington, D.C. On June 13, they attended a screening of an anti-Magnitsky Act movie directed by Andrei Nekrasov. The screening at the Newseum was arranged by Veselnitskaya’s group and was open to members of Congress.
The following day, Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya, and Nekrasov attended a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia.” Veselnitskaya was photographed sitting behind former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who was testifying. One top congressional aide said she was first in line to attend that hearing.
Later that night, the group convened at the Capitol Hill Club, an official Republican Party restaurant and meeting place. A top aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a pro-Russian Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee who also attended the dinner, confirmed the gathering.
Akhmetshin also met and lobbied Rohrabacher, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee for Europe, in Berlin in April.
Akhmetshin admitted to the AP on Friday that he was part of the Soviet military’s counterintelligence unit, but claims he was never formally trained as a spy and was not an intelligence officer. He said the meeting at Trump Tower had been disappointing. “I never thought this would be such a big deal to be honest,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC the allegations that Akhmetshin “may have had a background in hacking information” is “another disturbing turn of events.” He added: “But more importantly, this provides yet another conduit back to the Kremlin.”
—with additional reporting by Kevin Poulsen in San Francisco, Katie Zavadski in New York, Nico Hines in London, and Sam Stein in Washington, D.C.