|ELIZABETH BROCKWAY / DAILY BEAST|
As diverting as it has been to watch Donald Trump further degrade the Oval Office as he keeps attaining new lows, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly self destruct and the splenetic machinations of the Republican Congress to bankrupt the republic, what we could use is a new around of Russia scandal indictments to . . . uh, clear the air.
Well, we've gotten them in spades with indictments over the last 10 days involving 16 people, 13 of them Russian, three Russian companies and new charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who like two other Trump campaign officials has agreed to help Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In all, Mueller has issued more than 100 criminal counts against 19 people and those three companies, and netted five guilty pleas.
So I guess what we really could use is a gut check.
This because while Mueller has more than made the case that Russia worked to cybersabotage Hillary Clinton in a (successful) effort to tip the election to Trump, he has not proven collusion (or conspiracy in criminal law-speak). While I have believed for some time that there was collusion and that the special prosecutor will make that case when he and not we are ready, I'm following the inestimable Josh Marshall's lead in positing the following:
Even the most articulate skeptics of there having been no intentional collusion fall into two traps.
First, they buy into the frayed Trump campaign talking point that it was too inept to conspire with the Russians. Second, these skeptics are ignorant of how successful intelligence operations work, which is to say with deliberation and patience.
This helps explain the multiple approaches the Russians made through cut-outs like the Maltese professor who met with George Papadopoulos or the Russian lawyer who arranged the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Jr., both of whom had Kremlin ties. They also were on the lookout for desperate and easy prey like Manafort.
And so collusive relationship was cemented over the course of a long campaign. It worked.
The proof of there having been collusion is that from June 2016 onward, Trump and the campaign acted like they knew Russia had their backs and was working to get Trump elected, which explains why the contacts with cut-outs and even more direct meetings continued through to Election Day and into the presidential transition.
Collusion bubbles just below the surface in Michael Flynn's December 1 plea agreement with Mueller.
It states that "the false statements and omissions" of Trump's short-lived national security adviser "impeded and otherwise had a material impact on the FBI's ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the Campaign and Russia's effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election."
A big link hoves into view in the seminal June 9, 2016 sitdown at Trump Tower.
With one of the three members of the campaign brain trust who attended the meeting already indicted and the other two likely to be, it has taken on an outsized importance to Mueller's investigation because it would appear to be prima facie proof of collusion.
Prior to the meeting, there already had been several attempts by Russians to find entry points into the campaign through cut-outs, an effort that accelerated after Trump clinched the Republican nomination on May 26, 2016 amidst a flurry of media reports that his campaign had no agenda, was disorganized and several key positions had been left unfilled.
On June 2 in a speech in San Diego five days before the California primary, Trump hammered Clinton over emails deleted from her personal server while she was secretary of state.
"By the way, Hillary Clinton is missing 30,000 emails," he said. "They've been deleted. 30,000. 30,000."
|THE NEW YORK TIMES|
When eldest son Donald Trump Jr. scrolled through his email in-box on June 3, there was a message from Rob Goldstone, a publicist whose musician clients included Emin Agaralov, the son of a Russian oligarch and former Trump Sr. business partner who was close to Vladimir Putin. Goldstone did not equivocate in the June 3 message:
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. 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.Donald Jr. responded not by refusing the offer or alerting the FBI, but by replying with the now infamous words, "If it's what you say I love it."
It is highly probable that Trump Sr. was informed of the enticing news and approved of the meeting. But had his son not already briefed him, Trump almost certainly would have known after he reportedly spoke by phone with Emin Agalarov on June 6. In any event, in June 7 tweet he promised "big news" on Clinton's "crimes" in a forthcoming "major speech."
Trump amplified on the promise that night after winning the California and New Jersey primaries.
"I'm going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week," he declared in a victory speech in Briarcliff Manor, New York. "And we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?"
Meanwhile, Donald Jr. had invited two other key campaign players to the meeting -- son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort.
The meeting commenced at 4 p.m. and lasted 20 to 30 minutes. Trump himself had attended a Trump Victory Fund fundraising lunch at the nearby Four Seasons before returning to his Trump Tower penthouse, where he remained for the rest of the afternoon.
The three Russians on the other side of the table were lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, Ike Kaveladze, an official in Agalarov's real estate company, and a classic cut-out -- lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (photo below) -- who has continually lied about who she is, who she was representing, and the real reason for her being at the meeting.
When news of the meeting was first reported by The New York Times on July 8, 2017, Veselnitskaya described herself as a private attorney who wanted Trump to roll back the Magnitsky Act if he became president.
The act, passed by Congress in 2012, was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who uncovered a $230 million web of corruption and fraud involving law enforcement, tax officials and the Russian mafia. He died in a Moscow prison in 2009 where he had been held without trial after allegedly being beaten and tortured by government officials.
The Magnitsky Act, which was aggressively supported by Clinton, prohibited the Russian officials believed to be responsible for Magnitsky's death from entering the U.S. or using its banking system, and preceded by 15 months the first of three rounds of Obama administration sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea. The Magnitsky Act so outraged Putin that he retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Contacted by The Times, Donald Jr. also stated that the meeting was about adoptions, but that explanation lasted barely 24 hours.
|YURY MARTYANOV / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
On July 9, The Times reported that Donald Jr. had agreed to the meeting on the premise that damaging information on Clinton would be provided. Donald Jr. confirmed that, but asserted the information was not useful and disingenuously claimed that it was merely a pretext to discuss adoption.
On July 10, The Times published the pre-meeting email exchange between Goldstone and Donald Jr.
On July 11, Donald Jr. posted on Twitter screenshots of the emails between he and Goldstone with an accompanying statement saying he believed the meeting would be about "Political Opposition Research." "To put this in context," he stated, "this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue."
On July 12, President Trump, returning from a G20 meeting in Germany aboard Air Force One, told reporters, "Don is -- as many of you know Don -- he's a good boy. He's a good kid. And he had a meeting, nothing happened at the meeting . . . [which] I only heard about two or three days ago" but nothing came of it.
On July 31, The Washington Post blew that lie to smithereens in reporting Trump had overruled his aides to personally direct that misleading statements be issued regarding the meeting.
Trump never gave his "major speech" on Clinton, and it is easy to see why. The "dirt" Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was small beer, a convoluted tale in which Clinton played a peripheral role, at best.
Meanwhile, it turned out Veselnitskaya was not exactly a babe in the woods. She had an intelligence background, was hard-wired to Putin and had discussed the "dirt" with one of Russia's most powerful officials, prosecutor general Yuri Y. Chaika.
A memo Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was nearly identical to one Chaika's office had given a U.S. congressman in April 2016, The Times reported in late October. It alleged that Ziff Brothers Investments, an American firm, had illegally purchased shares in a Russian company and evaded tens of millions of dollars of Russian taxes, two of the brothers were major donors to Democratic candidates, including Clinton, and by implication the donations were tainted by "stolen" money.
Veselnitskaya embellished on the story in an interview with a Russian media outlet in late October, undercutting both Trumps in saying that Trump Jr. had asked her for financial documents showing that money from the alleged Ziff brothers' evasion of taxes had gone to Clinton's campaign but she did not have any.
The Trump campaign officials at the meeting felt let down and even baffled by Veselnitskaya's presentation about the Democratic donors.
"Some DNC [Democratic National Committee] donors may have done something in Russia and they didn't pay taxes," Donald Jr. was to say later. "I was like, 'What does this have to do with anything?' "
That, of course, misses the point.
The Trumps, anxious if not desperate to climb into bed with the Russians, were hoodwinked, but only after Donald Jr, took the bait and shared it with his father, who with his trademark impetuosity and confidence that his attacks on Clinton seemed to be working at a time when little else in his campaign was, went public and promised major revelations.
Manafort has been indicted by Mueller's grand jury for money laundering and tax and foreign lobbying violations, although not (yet) for campaign-related crimes. But the news on Friday that Rick Gates, Manafort's business associate and Trump deputy campaign manager, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying and will cooperate with the special counsel puts further pressure on Manafort to also flip because his longtime right-hand man will now be the government's star witness against him.
Manafort was campaign manager when the Republican National Convention platform on Ukraine was magically watered down in a nod to Putin. He approached Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch and Putin pal with an offer to brief him on the campaign and, of course, was on board at the Trump Tower meeting. He was shown the door in August 2016 when his Russia ties became too obvious to conceal.
Meanwhile, Donald Jr. and Kushner also are in the special prosecutor's crosshairs as he works patiently -- and steadily -- up the Trumpian food chain.
So was the Trump Tower sitdown an attempt by Russian intelligence to gauge how willing the campaign was to accept assistance from Moscow? You bet it was even if the president's son ended up not loving what Veselnitskaya had to say.
And if Manafort does agree to cooperate, can he land for Mueller the biggest fish of all?
Click HERE for a comprehensive and searchable timeline of the Russia scandal.