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Russian-American Lobbyist Testifies Before Grand Jury

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election continues - in any kind of weather. And it seems the investigation may look into the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and representatives of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort. This week, Chad Day and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press reported that Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who attended that meeting, gave sworn testimony before a grand jury.

Chad Day joins us. Thanks very much for being with us.

CHAD DAY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What might this testimony say about the direction of Mr. Mueller's investigation?

DAY: You know, this is the clearest indication yet that Mueller and his team of investigators, you know, view this Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016 as a significant part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It's quite a big step to kind of take testimony before a grand jury. And so now that we know that Mr. Akhmetshin has come in and spoke before that grand jury, we know that Mueller is pursuing or at least considers that to be significant.

SIMON: What do we know about Rinat Akhmetshin - any ties to Russian intelligence, for example?

DAY: Right. So there's been some reports that he's been tied to Russian intelligence. But what we know is that he denies any kind of formal training as a spy. He does acknowledge, though, that he is a former Soviet military officer who, in the late '80s, served in a counterintelligence unit. We also know that he's a well-known Russian lobbyist. He's a presence around town here. And he's been lobbying on behalf of Russian interests, who are looking to undermine the U.S. sanctions law called the Magnitsky Act, which the Russian government is very opposed to.

SIMON: Why would he be in that meeting? Any idea? Is he so passionately concerned about international adoption?

DAY: Right. So the adoption issue is kind of a code word for the Magnitsky Act sanctions. You know, the Russians kind of retaliated against the United States for passing that law by banning adoptions by U.S. citizens of Russian children. And the reason that Akhmetshin was in that meeting, at least according to an interview he gave to us about a month ago, was that he was invited there by Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was a Russian lawyer who was supposed to be carrying damaging information about Hillary Clinton that could help the Trump campaign. Akhmetshin says he was in New York at the time and that she called him and said - will you come to this meeting? - and he agreed.

SIMON: It was also reported this week that Michael Cohen, who is Donald Trump's personal lawyer, had inquired about building a Trump Tower in Moscow. Now, that may not be illegal, but does it contradict what Donald Trump said during the campaign about having no business dealings, no interests in Russia?

DAY: Right. So I don't know if it's a direct contradiction. But it's kind of, you know, splitting hairs in some ways because what we now know is that Michael Cohen is confirming that he, kind of early in the presidential campaign, started pursuing a business project there for a Trump Tower Moscow in - and then, you know, was under heavy consideration until January 2016.

And so what we know is that now it's been confirmed that while, you know, Trump was running for president, his business, the Trump Organization, was considering pursuing doing business in Russia.

SIMON: So if not any direct dealings at that particular point, it's hard to say that he didn't have any interests riding on the result of decisions that were going to be made in Moscow.

DAY: Right. So what's been said is - you know, Cohen has said that they cut off this project in January 2016 because of business decision - it was a pure business decision. But it's hard to ignore that, you know, during the campaign and then later, this - you know, that it became - you know, Trump's connections to Russia obviously became something that was significant to, you know, the election and became kind of a hot button issue and now has kind of dogged the presidency now.

So you know, hindsight - looking back on this, this is something that could play a role in what Mueller is looking into and also what congressional committees are looking into when they're looking for connections between Trump and Russia.

SIMON: Chad Day of the AP, thanks so much.

DAY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.