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Special Counsel Examines Campaign Meeting -- WSJ

19 Jul 2017 6:33 am
By Rebecca Ballhaus, Byron Tau and Aruna Viswanatha 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2017).

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has contacted the eighth attendee at a meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. between top campaign aides and a Russian lawyer, marking the first public sign that Mr. Mueller's probe will examine the June 2016 gathering at Trump Tower in New York.

Mr. Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has also cleared the way for President Donald Trump's eldest son and a senior campaign official to testify before Congress about the meeting, a senior Democratic senator said Tuesday.

The special counsel has contacted Ike Kaveladze, vice president at Crocus Group, a company run by Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov, who helped arrange the 2016 meeting, an attorney for Mr. Kaveladze confirmed. Mr. Mueller is investigating alleged Russian meddling in last year's presidential election and whether Mr. Trump's associates colluded with Moscow.

Mr. Kaveladze was asked by Mr. Agalarov to attend the meeting as an interpreter for the Russian lawyer, according to Scott Balber, the attorney who represents both Messrs. Kaveladze and Agalarov.

But the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, brought her own interpreter, and Mr. Kaveladze "doesn't recall saying a single word at the meeting," Mr. Balber said.

Mr. Kaveladze is "fully cooperating" with the special counsel's probe but has yet to be interviewed, Mr. Balber said. Mr. Agalarov and his son, pop singer Emin, haven't been approached by Mr. Mueller, he said.

Mr. Trump and his campaign aides have denied any collusion with Russia. The GOP president has also expressed skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Moscow sought to intervene during the campaign. Russian officials have denied doing so.

Donald Trump Jr. released emails last week showing he helped arrange the Trump Tower meeting to discuss allegedly damaging information about former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The meeting was also attended by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump's son-in-law who was a senior campaign aide at the time and is now a top White House official, and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said she had been informed Mr. Mueller wouldn't object to Donald Trump Jr. and Mr. Manafort testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I am told that it is not a problem for the special counsel," Ms. Feinstein said.

A spokesman Mr. Mueller declined to comment. A spokesman for Republicans on the panel didn't respond to a request for comment, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the committee's chairman, previously said he would like to call attendees in front of the panel to shed new light on the June 2016 meeting. It is unclear whether the Senate also wants to hear from Mr. Kushner.

In an email to the younger Mr. Trump dated June 3, 2016, a British publicist said that a top Russian prosecutor had "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."

The publicist said the prosecutor had communicated this offer to Mr. Agalarov, who along with his son organized the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. At that time, Mr. Trump co-owned the pageant. The younger Mr. Trump replied to the email with the offer: "If it's what you say I love it."

Mr. Kaveladze was unaware of what would be discussed at the meeting until moments beforehand, when he met Ms. Veselnitskaya and was told "a little bit about this Magnitsky Act," Mr. Balber said. As he recalls it, the only thing discussed in the meeting was the act, a 2012 U.S. law that punishes Russian officials accused of human-rights violations, his lawyer said.

Donald Trump Jr. has said information about Mrs. Clinton was offered at the meeting but that it was of little value.

In his role at Crocus Group, a Russian development company, Mr. Kaveladze oversees international development projects, including "securing and structuring project investments and negotiating with Chinese and other international contractors," according to his website. He is a member of both the America-Georgia Business Council and the U.S.-Russia Business Council.

According to a business person formerly based in Moscow who has had dealings with Crocus Group, Mr. Kaveladze is "a total straight shooter. Very easy to deal with. Very low key, gets deals done for the family, no fuss, no ego."

The younger Mr. Trump initially said that the meeting's attendees included himself, the lawyer, the British publicist and Messrs. Kushner and Manafort. It has since emerged that Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist who represents Russian interests in Washington, also attended the meeting, as well as a translator for Ms. Veselnitskaya.

Mr. Mueller is conducting a criminal investigation into matters related to Russia's alleged activity in the 2016 campaign. On Capitol Hill, several House and Senate committees have been running their own investigation.

Prosecutors typically don't want their witnesses commenting publicly while an investigation is under way because they could inadvertently say something to undermine the case. But the public interest surrounding the Russia investigation could shift the calculation for any prosecutor in favor of allowing testimony, former prosecutors said.

The younger Mr. Trump has also made several public statements about the meeting, which could make it difficult for prosecutors to argue for limiting his testimony before Congress.

Nearly two decades ago, Mr. Kaveladze was the subject of a congressional inquiry that found it was "relatively easy" for foreigners to launder money through U.S. banks using shell companies formed in the U.S. The inquiry found that Russians and other Eastern Europeans had moved more than $1.4 billion through accounts opened by Mr. Kaveladze, who moved to the U.S. from Russia in 1991.

Mr. Kaveladze told the New York Times in 2000 that the investigation was a "witch hunt." He didn't return a request for comment on Tuesday.

--Brett Forrest contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 02:33 ET (06:33 GMT)

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