President Donald Trump’s one-time Russian business partner sought Wednesday to distance himself from political fallout as the Trump administration struggles with a growing scandal over an apparent attempt to seek Russian-brokered election dirt.
Aras Agalarov – whose name was mentioned in email exchanges with Donald Trump Jr. – insisted he did not know Trump Jr. or the music promoter that set up the 2016 meeting between Trump’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer allegedly promising compromising information on campaign rival Hillary Clinton.
Agalarov told a Moscow radio station that it was his son, Emin, a Russian pop star, who developed ties with Trump Jr. when Agalarov family helped bring Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
Agalarov further denied knowing the music producer, Rob Goldstone, who was key in setting up the meeting with Russian laywer Natalia Veselnitskaya and a high-level Trump election team including Trump Jr., then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is now a top White House adviser.
“He worked with Emin at some point,” Agalarov said of the British-born publicist promising information that could be used against Trump’s Democratic opponent.
But Agalarov was mentioned in at least one email exchanged between Trump Jr. and Goldstone. On June 3, 2016, Goldstone wrote that Emin Agalarov wanted to pass along “something very interesting.”
“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting 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,” Goldstone wrote, according to email transcripted released Tuesday by Trump Jr.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin,” the email continued.
The elder Agalarov – sometimes called the “Donald Trump of Russia” – did not directly address why his name appeared in the emails. Instead, he stood strongly by President Trump, saying he believed the president’s critics have “made up” allegations that his campaign had potentially improper contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign.
He suggested that Clinton’s campaign could have been behind the accusations.
Trump on Wednesday also attempted to shift blame to Clinton, writing on Twitter: “Look what Hillary Clinton may have gotten away with. Disgraceful!” In another early-morning post, Trump asserted that his son was “innocent.”
The comments by the oligarch Agalarov are the latest in a wave of denials from Moscow – joining defensive statements from the White House.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin protested that it had no ties to Veselnitskaya, although she had worked closely with Kremlin-linked clients in the past. Veselnitskaya, meanwhile, claimed that she never had disparaging information on Clinton.
“I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” she told NBC News on Tuesday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday he was “astounded to learn” that a Russian lawyer and Trump’s son “have been accused of communicating.”
“It looks utterly absurd to me,” he said at a news conference in Belgium following a meeting with the Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders. “When some person communicates with a lawyer, what’s the problem about it?”
Lavrov also denied direct knowledge of the interactions, saying he only learned about the meeting from media accounts.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, also weighed, ridiculing reports about the eagerness of Trump’s son to gather information from a Kremlin-linked attorney as a television spectacle. He called the ongoing investigations into possible collusion “absurd.”
When asked how the publication of correspondence involving the president’s son might affect bilateral relations, Peskov rejected the idea that the Kremlin was aiming to curry favor with Trump.
“Nobody expects concessions to Moscow from President Trump, and Moscow does not expect concessions from Donald Trump, and President Vladimir Putin has never talked about any concessions and has never put the issue this way,” Peskov said.
He also sought to disavow connections between Russian government officials from the billionaire Agalarov family. He said the government was not in contact with Aras Agalarov, even though he has been granted many state building contracts and was decorated by Putin with the Order of Honor of the Russian Federation.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Natalya Abbakumova, Isaac Stanley-Becker