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The Media Is Not Asking the Right Questions on Trump Jr. Emails and Meeting with the “Russian Government Lawyer”

The media is, in large part, missing the point when it comes to the news about Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Vesilnitskaya and should be steering instead to raising the right questions. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which a private citizen in Russia has access to derogatory information on a U.S. presidential candidate. The act of offering such information was likely, at minimum, a trial balloon, and at best (from Moscow’s perspective), a chance to pass certain information from an agent of the Russian government to the Trump campaign through the candidate’s campaign manager and son, thereby also implicating Donald J. Trump himself. This raises the most important questions: what did she offer in that meeting? How did Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort respond?

Vesilnitskaya may have had her own agenda in requesting a meeting with Trump. That part could be legitimate. But Russian intelligence practice is to co-opt such a person by arming them with secret intelligence information and tasking them to pass it to Trump’s people and get their reaction. Did Trump’s associates like it? Do they want more? Did they report it to U.S. authorities?  The key point is that essentially no Russian citizen or lawyer has compromising material on Hillary Clinton which has not been supplied to them from Russian intelligence. The simple assertion that she had such information is tantamount to declaring that Vesilnitskaya was acting as agent of Russian government in this particular role. Couple that with the specific text of the email messages (PDF full text) sent to Donald Trump Jr. to set up the meeting which described the material as coming from the Russian government. All the alarm bells should have been going off in Trump Tower when they received an email offering to provide “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr. Trump.” A later email refers to the “Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow.” Donald Trump Jr.’s response: he would include Manafort and Kushner in the meeting.

In sum, Vesilnitskaya’s advocacy of other causes is irrelevant to her mission on behalf of the Russian government. Based on what we now know, this interaction had all the hallmarks of an overture by Russian intelligence to the campaign, and it is utterly damning that Trump Jr. took the meeting, brought in Manafort and Kushner to the meeting, and none of them reported the events immediately to the FBI nor to U.S. authorities until very recently.

The chronology of related events is also important. In this brief space, let’s identify just a few of these. First, by the time of the meeting, Russian intelligence had stolen large volumes of data from the DNC. The U.S. intelligence report puts the date at which they had that information in their possession at May 2016. It is not until after the meeting, later in June, that the website DC Leaks, which was used by Russian intelligence agencies, began releasing Clinton campaign documents. In July, Carter Page took his trip to Moscow, and in late July the candidate himself sent a strong signal — calling on Russia to find and release Clinton’s emails. The open and notorious statement could, of course, be a way of conveying in no uncertain terms that the person with whom Russian officials had no direct contact–the candidate himself–was on board with the efforts to assist the campaign. Let’s make the easy assumption that Trump Jr. informed his father of the highly significant meeting in June. Waiting a few days until after he officially secured the Republican nomination at the Republican convention, candidate Trump then openly invited Russian assistance and election interference.

There is more, of course, that can be said about these connections, and presumably much more information already at the disposal of congressional and FBI investigators. Recall, for example, that the bombshell Washington Post report about Michael Flynn’s late December phone call with the Russian Ambassador also reported that the two men had a “series of contacts … that began before the Nov. 8 election.” And recall that Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, boasted right after the election that the Russian government maintained contacts with members of Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the U.S. presidential campaign and “a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives.”

Let’s now return to that fateful meeting with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016. After that point, the responsible thing to do on the part of the campaign would have been to report the encounter to U.S. authorities and to steer clear of further Russian contacts. The Trump campaign appears to have done something quite the opposite. Why? And what did the Russian intelligence learn from the steps that Trump and his campaign associates took?

 

[Editor’s Note: For additional analysis, see Rolf Mowatt-Larssen “The Making of a Russian Spy: A Roadmap for the FBI to Resolve Russia Gate,” and Bob Bauer, “Open Door to Moscow? New Facts in the Potential Criminal Case of Trump Campaign Coordination with Russia”]

Photo: Donald Trump Jr. arrives in the lobby at Trump Tower, November 15, 2016 – Drew Angerer/Getty

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About the Authors

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, Former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, Former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorist Center

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, Former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).