Was Jr.’s Spy Summit a Fraud?

Will July 11, 2017 go down in history as the day the Trump-Russia conspiracy was finally exposed?

Try as I might, I cannot convince myself. The story of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya is damning for the administration. But there are a number of details that seem to poorly fit the bolder versions of the Trump-Russia collusion theory.

I’m a strong supporter of the idea that collusion occurred. But when it comes to the events of June 9, 2016, there’s a scenario that fits the facts we know a lot better — that they were the work of a swindler, not a spy.

That’s hardly conclusive. As with anything to do with Trump-Russia, almost anything is possible. But consider how many inexplicable elements there are in this story.

  • In every other known instance of Russian involvement in the 2017 election , the Russians seem to have been careful to use cut-outs or otherwise obfuscate their role. Here we have the opposite: an initial e-mail that claims, with utter disregard for ambiguity, that it is “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
  • If this is all an attempt to initiate contact, or, as some as suggested, a trial balloon to judge the campaign’s willingness to collude, this phrasing gives away the game right at the start. If the campaign was not amenable to collusion, surely such an aggressive ask could result in catastrophe.
  • On the other hand, if the e-mail is part of an ongoing conspiracy, it wastes a lot of time putting known facts out in the open.

And there are lots of other nagging questions about why this approach would be chosen, particularly from the perspective of the Russians, whose sophistication in this sphere is unquestioned. For example:

  • Why establish contact through the doltish Donald Trump Jr., when sharper, more experienced points of contact were available?
  • In particular, why not establish contact through Manafort, who had relevant preexisting relationships, was perched at the top of the campaign, and had previously worked with shadowy pro-Kremlin agents?
  • Why reach out through the unlikely character of Goldstone, a figure so unsuited for espionage that he made a Facebook check-in at Trump Tower the day of his supposed spy summit? Why entrust your world-historical conspiracy to a man like that?
  • For that matter, wouldn’t it prudent to keep the chain of contacts as short as possible, to minimize chances of exposure? Considering that Emin and Aras Agalarov both know Trump personally and are alleged to be involved, why not shorten that chain by having them reach out directly?
  • Why communicate through e-mail at all?
  • Why describe the entire chain through which the effort is linked to the Kremlin in the e-mail itself, helpfully entitled “Russia — Clinton — private and confidential”? The entire purpose of using attenuated relationships, after all, would be plausible deniability. That vanishes if the whole thing is explained up front, as if by a monologuing Bond villain.
  • Why go to such great risk to set up a meeting in which, according to all the evidence thus far known, nothing occurred and all the principals left disappointed?

As it happens, there is one scenario which answers all these questions, but it’s not one where Veselnitskaya is acting as a true Kremlin agent.

There’s a type of person familiar to anyone who works in a position with perceived political power: the bait-and-switch advocate. This person will dangle compelling information or shattering allegations in order to score a meeting with a political figure; once in the meeting, the bait vanishes or is quickly dismissed as secondary, and the conversation is steered towards the advocate’s own personal bugbear.

Frankly, Veselnitskaya’s behavior here fits the bill well.

According to Bloomberg, Veselnitskaya was someone with a “pet issue”: the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. This is the issue everyone reports she actually raised in the Trump Tower meeting; it is what she insists she was in the meeting to discuss.

Bloomberg suggests this defense is plausible:

[I]t’s more likely that Veselnitskaya, the tenacious and ambitious lawyer who could pull every string in the Moscow Region, did so to get her pet issue — the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which was getting her major client in trouble — in front of some important Americans.

But if that’s the case, why all the talk of incriminating information about Clinton? Why all the talk of Russian efforts to aid Trump?

Veselnitskaya claims this was all Goldstone’s invention. Well, maybe. An equally likely possibility is that this is part of her plan to con her way into an audience with the campaign. That would explain why the message elaborated on the exact nature of the Kremlin link and plot: Veselnitskaya was trying to establish a connection to a conspiracy that she knew (or suspected) to exist.

Either way, it’s hard to overlook that the initial e-mail to Donald Jr. was drafted to make as strong an impression as possible. It doesn’t read like a feeler, it reads like a pitch.

If you’re doubtful, I suggest you revisit the text of the e-mail itself. Instead of reading as an unearthed spy document, read it in the voice of someone trying to close a dubious sale — the voice of a confidence trick. (Say, the voice of a Trump University salesperson.) It’s a good fit:

Emin just called and asked me to contact you with 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.
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.
What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly?

It’s all there: the flattering insistence on the “ultra sensitive” nature of the information; tossed off references to figures of great import (irrelevant and likely inscrutable to Donald Jr., but sure to catch his eye); the reassuring connections to a handful of Russians that Donald Jr. does know. Finally, and most intriguingly, there’s the assertion that the whole thing is “part of” the Russian government effort to aid his father.

“Part of” is doing a lot work here. It’s saying “We both know about this secret thing, and now, we’re coming to you with a special opportunity related to this thing.” It both persuades (“This must be real, if they know about that”) and pressures (“It’s important to make this call if we want to continue participating”).

As best as I can tell, this scenario — Veselnitskaya freelancing — would quickly resolve much else of what’s odd about the situation:

  • The connection with the Kremlin was strangely attenuated because it had to pass through Veselnitskaya, who actually initiated the contact on her own.
  • Goldstone was chosen as the backchannel simply because he was the connection available, and perhaps also because he was dense enough to pass the message along.
  • Likewise, Donald Jr. was chosen over Manafort or others because it was necessary that the initial contact have a preexisting relationship with, specfically, Goldstone and Emin, rather than the Kremlin writ large.

If it was a trick, it seems to have worked. Donald Jr. contacted Emin and ultimately forwarded the email to Kushner and Manafort, who were intrigued enough to attend the meeting that resulted — perhaps to find out why previously quiet Russian allies had suddenly grown so loud. And maybe the campaign fell for it in bigger way, too: as many have pointed out, Trump himself announced a speech for after the meeting date, in which he’d reveal new dirt on Clinton.

But when the meeting actually occurred, it did not seem to go as anyone expected. Certainly, if Veselnitskaya had no actual Kremlin links of importance, and thus could not provide the promised information, that would have become clear very quickly to all involved. Kushner and Manafort reportedly disengaged early; the speech was cancelled.

In any event, it should be clear that if this interpretation is correct, it is in no way exculpating for the campaign:

First, Donald Jr. eagerly accepted the promised assistance, whatever its provenance. Kushner and Manafort attended the meeting. The campaign’s eagerness to collude is thus now established.

Second, none of this should have any bearing on the other evidence of interference or collusion as it stood a week ago. After all, until this week, no one had ever heard of this meeting at all — up to and including the FBI itself.

Third, this scenario by no means addresses every aspect of Donald Jr.’s e-mails. Most notable, to me, is the fact that Veselnitskaya is never directly mentioned in the e-mail chain until after an apparent June 6 phone call between Emin Agalarov and Donald Jr., of which we know nothing at all. Indeed, it is possible that the critical business of collusion was conducted in that call and the Veselnitskaya meeting was scheduled as a secondary matter.

Last, this is probably the single most charitable possible interpretation of the facts — indeed, in some respects more charitable than any defense the administration has offered for itself. And in the end, there would still be plenty of other suspicious occurrences involving Trump and Russia, and now we know that, if presented the opportunity, his campaign would have gratefully accepted Russian help.

As a final note, if Veselnitskaya was in fact acting on her own, I can’t help but underline the irony: America’s greatest grifter was elevated to the presidency with the aid of foreign spies and spooks, only to have the whole thing blown open because his thick-headed son got momentarily suckered by a opportunistic lawyer playing Trump’s own game.

Live by the sword, as they say.

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