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Meet the ex-Soviet intel officer at Don Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Rinat Akhmetshin, the former Soviet intelligence officer who attended a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, is a superlative Washington political operator who over the last two decades has repeatedly been at the center of cases involving corruption, dictators and sometimes war.

Akhmetshin was apparently hired to work with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met with Trump on June 9, 2016, in a lobbying effort against the Magnitsky Act, a congressional measure that sanctions Russia and Russian figures. He confirmed to the AP on Friday morning that he was in that meeting, saying: "I never thought this would be such a big deal to be honest."

I met Akhmetshin in 1998 in the Kazakhstan city of Almaty, where I was writing for The New York Times and he was representing the country's opposition leader in a quixotic effort to oust President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Over the subsequent months, Akhmetshin leaked me a trove of documents that linked Nazarbayev to millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts — payments from international oil companies working in the Central Asian republic. The result was a scoop in the paper, a high-profile investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and, later, a thick section of a book I wrote about those years on the Caspian Sea.

How he made his mark: At that time and over the subsequent years, Akhmetshin proved again and again to be surprisingly adept at influencing politics in Washington, DC, not his homeland. A profane and fast talker who likes to dress well, a quick study who understands the world of geopolitics, local politics and technology, he managed to ingratiate himself with important members of Congress, and through them and his contacts with reporters single-handedly tarnished Nazarbayev's and Kazakhstan's reputation. If today the Kazakh leader and his country have reputations for chronic corruption, a primary reason is Akhmetshin.

Akhmetshin openly described his years as a military counter-intelligence officer, serving in Afghanistan. He ultimately took American citizenship. As we met again and again over the years, he represented opposition figures in Ukraine and Afghanistan, too. I never found him having cultivated the man in power anywhere. In a world in which no one is clean, Akhmetshin was someone you could trust.

The original NBC News reports suggested that Akhmetshin's intelligence past somehow has rolled forward until now, putting Russian spies in the same room with Donald Trump, Jr. Nothing I picked up in numerous intense reporting experiences with Akhmetshin over the years — in the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. — suggested any current such relationships.

Last year, Akhmetshin took on clients attempting to tarnish Bill Browder, the former high-rolling American investor in Moscow and defender of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only turned on the Russian president when he kicked him out of the country. Browder has since become one of Putin's fiercest critics, driven by the murder of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow prison.

Four days after the Trump Tower meeting, Akhmetshin was responsible for arranging the high-profile showing of a revisionist anti-Magnitsky film at Washington, DC's Newseum.

Akhmetshin, reached by cell phone in Europe where he said he is surfing with family, said "there was nothing really" to the meeting. He said he was just going to dinner and preferred not to talk further about the incident. I asked how it was that he was yet again at the center of events. "Just lucky, I guess," he said.