U.S. officials probing Russian lobbyist who met Trump team

Investigators are concerned about a suspected Russian intelligence operative’s role in a controversial 2016 meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr.

U.S. officials are examining what role a Washington-based lobbyist who they consider a Russian intelligence operative may have played in a controversial June 2016 meeting he attended between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer.

Rinat Akhmetshin, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen, told the Associated Press Friday that he attended the meeting at Trump Tower between Trump’s son and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a politically connected Russian lawyer who the Trump team believed had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting, which was arranged by Trump Jr.

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U.S. officials became aware of Akhmetshin’s potential involvement in the meeting earlier this week. Three officials expressed their concern about his role to POLITICO and said they were probing it further as part of their larger investigation into ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.

Although Trump Jr. has acknowledged meeting Veselnitskaya, he did not disclose the attendance of Akhmetshin, a well-known figure in the capital’s murky world of foreign influence peddling. The lobbyists’s role raises new red flags for U.S. officials as they study whether and how the Kremlin might have sought to exert influence over the 2016 Trump campaign.

One US official referred to Akhmetshin as a known “IO,” an acronym for intelligence operative. In a March letter to the Justice Department, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) described him as having “ties to Russian intelligence” and “alleged to have conducted political disinformation campaigns”

Akhmetshin has denied those charges and declined to comment to POLITICO.

His attendance, which several officials said they learned about from reporters, underscored concerns that the meeting may have been more closely directed by the Kremlin than its attendees have publicly suggested.

It’s also sure to bring more political pain to a Trump White House that had long denied any contact between the Trump campaign and Russians with a political agenda—denials that now appear to be false. Some experts also believed the meeting could put Trump Jr. into legal jeopardy even before the presence of a suspected former Russian intelligence official was known.

Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya, who is alleged to have indirect ties to the Kremlin, have previously worked together in Washington, lobbying Congress against the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan measure that imposed sanctions on several top Russian officials as punishment for the 2009 death in Moscow of an imprisoned lawyer who had exposed massive financial fraud.

Investigators are scrambling to understand the full context of the previously undisclosed meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump associates, which The New York Times revealed earlier this week.

Among the questions investigators are trying to answer, one US official told POLITICO, is whether Veselnitskaya was sent to meet with Trump Jr. on direct orders from the Kremlin.

The June meeting at Trump Tower, which Trump officials say was brief and yielded no useful information, was arranged by a British tabloid reporter named Rob Goldstone, who now works as an agent representing Emin Agalarov, a Moscow pop star whose father is a real estate mogul close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Agalarovs hosted the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow; President Donald Trump owned the franchise at the time, attended the event and befriended the Agalarovs, with whom he and his son, Donald Jr., remained in contact until at least January.

In an email days before the meeting, Goldstone told Trump that Veselnitskaya had damaging information on Clinton, which Goldstone said was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied “If it’s what you say I love it.”

Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya worked together lobbying for a group called The Human Rights Global Initiative, a DC-based non-governmental association that has lobbied against The Magnitsky Act — a 2012 law that sanctions Russian officials for human rights abuses and subsequently infuriates the Kremlin.

Trump Jr. has said his meeting with Veselnitskaya was dedicated largely to discussion of issues related to that law, which is named for Russian lawyer and whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 after being allegedly tortured in a Russian prison.

The existence of the controversial June meeting was rumored for months, but neither the Senate Intelligence Committee nor, according to CNN, the FBI — both of whom are probing potential ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government — knew the details before the Times published its stories.

Akhmetshin — whose lobbying tenure has included several high-profile efforts to promote the Kremlin’s agenda in Washington — has run afoul of Congress in recent weeks. In a March letter to the Justice Department, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley accused Akhmetshin of failing to register properly under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

According to a letter obtained by POLITICO, Akhmetshin told the Justice Department’s National Security Division in April that he is properly registered and did nothing wrong. “It is my understanding,” he adds, that Veselnitskaya is not “an agent of a foreign government or foreign political party.”

Akhmetshin told the Associated Press on Friday that he had been drafted into the Soviet Army and served from from 1986 to 1988, but denied having any spy training.

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CNN’s Camerota says she has Russia fatigue

CNN’s Alisyn Camerota said on Friday she has fatigue from the news media’s continuing coverage of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian election meddling.

“I hear your Russia fatigue and I share it. You know, there are many mornings I come in and pray for other news to eclipse any sort of Russia thread,” the “New Day” anchor told the “Bernie and Sid Show” on 77 WABC. 

“There are always ethical dilemmas that journalists face. Every day we are making decisions about ‘What are we going to lead with?’ ‘What are we going to leave out?’” she continued.

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“By the time I plug in, there is already a direction of the show. However, I am free at any time to say to my executive producer, which I do pretty regularly, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this in this segment, I want to do this,’ and then it’s a debate.”

Camerota’s comments come amid a growing feud between President Trump and the press as the media continues to cover a series of revelations surrounding the federal probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Trump has intensified his rhetoric toward the press, especially CNN, for their reporting on the Russia probe and has repeatedly claimed he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”

He recently blasted the media’s reporting on a Trump Tower meeting last summer that included his son Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: Team Trump frustrated by Russia cloud OPINION | On Trump-Russia probe, don’t underestimate Senator Chuck Grassley Trump lawyer heads to Sunday shows to launch full-court defense MORE Jr. and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin. 

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Majority of Americans oppose Trump tax plan

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

According to a recent survey, President Donald Trump’s tax plans are opposed by most Americans — including more than one-third of Republicans. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Most Americans — including more than one-third of Republicans — oppose President Trump’s tax plans, a new survey finds.

In an ominous sign for lawmakers working to reach a consensus with the administration, 62 percent of poll respondents said they don’t support Trump’s proposal; 24 percent said they back it.

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Republicans are evenly split, with 41 percent opposed and a nearly identical 40 percent in favor, according to the POLITICO-Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey. Democrats are overwhelmingly against the plan, with 85 percent opposed, along with 60 percent of independents.

Most respondents said they don’t believe the proposal would improve the economy, and three-quarters said it would either hurt them personally or make no difference in their lives.

In one bit of good news for lawmakers, the survey suggests the public is not as reflexively opposed to sacrificing popular tax breaks in the name of reform as many might assume. Most said they’d be willing to pare long-standing breaks for mortgage interest expenses, charitable contributions and other items.

The poll indicates Republicans, who have been preoccupied with their Obamacare replacement plans, still have a lot of work to do when it comes to selling their tax proposals to the public. Lawmakers are hoping to tackle a once-in-a-generation, and surely hugely controversial, overhaul later this year.

In April, the administration released an outline of its plan calling for a big cut in the corporate tax rate. It also proposed reducing the top individual rate to 35 percent, from the current 39.6 percent, as well as eliminating a surtax on capital gains. It would double the standard deduction while expanding breaks for child care expenses. It would also do away with the alternative minimum tax system and the estate tax.

The administration gave few indications of how it would pay for the plan, aside from Trump’s call to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthy and “special interests.”

Just 34 percent of respondents said they believe the plan would help the economy, though Republicans were more favorably disposed. Sixty-two percent see the Trump plan helping job creation, compared with 38 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats.

Seventy-five percent said they believe the plan would either hurt them personally or make no difference, including 57 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of independents.

A majority said they would be willing, as part of a tax overhaul that cut rates, to reduce or eliminate breaks for education and child care expenses, 401(k) retirement accounts and state and local taxes, as well as ones for mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

Respondents were most concerned with preserving the long-standing exclusion employers receive for providing workers with health insurance, though 43 percent still said they’d be willing to see it reduced in exchange for lower rates.

The survey was conducted by SSRS, an independent research company, for POLITICO and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health from June 14-18. It used cellphones and landlines among a nationally representative sample of 1,011 U.S. adults.

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House passes budget-busting defense policy bill

The Pentagon is pictured.

The bill would exceed the president’s $603 billion defense budget request. But it also would blow past the $549 billion cap on defense spending set under the 2011 Budget Control Act by about $72 billion. | Getty

The fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act gained the support of 117 Democrats and all but eight Republicans.

The House passed on Friday a sweeping $696 billion defense policy bill that would exceed President Donald Trump’s budget request and break through longstanding caps on national defense spending.

The fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act H.R. 2810 (115) was approved 344 to 81, gaining the support of 117 Democrats and all but eight Republicans.

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The bill would exceed the president’s $603 billion defense budget request. But it also would blow past the $549 billion cap on defense spending set under the 2011 Budget Control Act by about $72 billion. For the funding scheme to work, lawmakers would need to strike a deal to increase or repeal the budget caps.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version S. 1519 (115) of the annual legislation last month. The full Senate has yet to take up the bill.

The House measure would authorize $621.5 billion for national defense programs, including the Pentagon’s base budget and nuclear programs under the Energy Department, as well as another $75 billion in war funding.

It also would tap $10 billion from the war-related Overseas Contingency Operations account to pay for base budget items, including $6 billion to boost Navy shipbuilding. The NDAA funding levels mirror a budget blueprint being crafted by the House Budget Committee.

On the House floor, Republicans said the must-pass defense policy legislation is a key first step in launching a long-sought military buildup, though they have criticized Trump’s budget for not following through on the buildup he promised. The funding increases, they argued, are necessary for the military to dig out of a readiness crisis and rebuild.

Republicans pointed to major investments in missile defense as well as more active-duty troops in the Army and adding five new ships to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. The bill also would provide troops a 2.4 percent pay raise, higher than the 2.1 percent increase requested.

“What we can guarantee is if we don’t fund these things now, they will not be available when we need them,” House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said on the House floor.

“The defense authorization bill is only one step in the process,” he added. “There are many more steps to come.”

While many Democrats supported the bill, they were quick to point out it would call for significantly more spending than allowed by law, before the Trump administration has submitted a new national security strategy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to complete the strategic assessment sometime in the fall.

Democrats, instead, called for a broad budget deal to lift caps on both defense and domestic spending.

“It is very possible that $72 billion of what is in this bill is going to disappear between now and the end of this year, unless we address the broader issue of sequestration and budget caps,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The committee isn’t alone in pursuing defense legislation that ignores the spending caps. The Senate Armed Services version of the NDAA and annual defense spending legislation approved last month by the House Appropriations Committee both exceed the defense spending cap for the 2018 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

Unlike other recent years, the new administration didn’t threaten to veto the bill, but outlined more than two dozen grievances with the legislation in a Statement of Administration Policy issued Wednesday.

Among other issues, the Trump administration faults lawmakers for moving to establish a separate Space Corps under the Air Force, not extracting savings from military compensation changes and not authorizing a new round of base realignments and closures.

The White House also complained about the use of $10 billion in war funds to supplement the Pentagon’s base budget. And the administration urged lawmakers to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to make up for the bill’s $18.5 billion increase in base defense spending over the president’s budget request.

In all, House Republican leaders dodged some of the thornier debates in the bill throughout the week. Lawmakers easily turned aside Democratic proposals to trim defense spending or link increases to equal hikes in funding for domestic agencies.

In its most contentious vote, the House narrowly defeated, 209 to 214, an amendment from Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) that would have barred the Pentagon from paying for gender transition services for transgender troops. Two dozen Republicans joined Democrats to kill the measure, which opponents labeled discriminatory.

The House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters of debate on legislation and amendments, barred most contentious amendments, including a proposal from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) to delay the creation of a Space Corps, opposed by the Pentagon.

A proposal to sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force didn’t receive a vote, but the House did approve an amendment from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) that would require a strategy from the administration to defeat the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated groups as well as an assessment of whether the 2001 AUMF is adequate to accomplish the strategy.

The Rules panel did, however, approve an amendment to strip a provision that would prohibit Pentagon funding for a border wall promised by Trump during the presidential campaign. But the proposal was included as a self-executing amendment, meaning the House took no separate vote on the measure.

Democrats slammed the border wall move, calling it an “undemocratic, dead-of-night tactic” to avoid a tough debate.

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