Meeting Between Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and Russian Lawyer, Natalia Velnitskaya

More news today about meeting between Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and Natalia Veselnitskaya, Russian lawyer (who has ties to the Kremlin). I had two shout posts on this. The first here and the second one here

Today, the New York Times has a story regarding more specifics about the content of the Donald Trump Jr.’s emails. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added):

The June 3, 2016, email sent to Donald Trump Jr. could hardly have been more explicit: One of his father’s former Russian business partners had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and was offering to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” read the email, written by a trusted intermediary, who added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

If the future president’s eldest son was surprised or disturbed by the provenance of the promised material — or the notion that it was part of a continuing effort by the Russian government to aid his father’s campaign — he gave no indication.

He replied within minutes: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

As others have mentioned, these emails seem damning. Whether Goldstone and Veselnitskaya are connected to the Russian government or not, Trump Jr.–and Manafort and Kushner–knew the people they were meeting claimed to have ties to the Russian government. That’s damning by itself.

Now, Trump Jr. also released the entire emails. (I understand the New York Times was planning to do this, but they sought Trump Jr. for comment. Trump Jr.’s team asked for more time, and went ahead and published the emails.)

Why would he do that? I have some theories explaining why Trump Jr. talked so openly about this, including publishing the emails.

Stupidity and a Disabled Moral Compass

This theory says that not only is Junior just plain stupid, but he also has a disabled moral and ethical compass. Junior had no sense that getting information to hurt his father’s political opponent–even from the Russians–was wrong. If Clinton did something wrong, and it’s true, who cares about the source? He could have thought this, and it is partially persuasive. Manafort, if not Kushner, should have known better, though. And even if this were persuasive on some level, I think many, if not most people, would also feel like there was something wrong about doing this. It would not be good for our political process if we political candidates accepted information about their opponents from foreign countries. Just thinking about the likely consequences for a little while should reveal that this is bad for our democratic process. It seems clear that Junior–and probably Manafort and Kushner–should have known this.

Now, I want to say something about Junior’s “transparency” about this meeting. I have transparency in quotes because a) he or Kushner never mentioned this meeting until the Times article (as far as I know); b) he initially said he didn’t know who he was meeting; c) he described the meeting as primarily about adoption; d) the Trump team weren’t forthcoming about this–and they denied and dismissed the idea that people from their team met with the Russians:

(This is also the third meeting with Russians that Kushner has had and failed to disclose on the federal security clearance forms.)

So why did Junior eventually–and seemingly–we don’t know if his story or emails are valid–come clean? Under the stupidity theory, Junior may believe that because (according to him) he never got information, then he did nothing wrong. If he really believes that, I would say he’s foolish. The level of stupidity seems hard to believe, but given how other Trump team members have behaved, I can’t rule this out.

By the way, on a related note, Junior may have done this because the plan is to get eventually pardoned by his father if he’s at risk of going to jail. Trump Sr. could say: “My son is a good kid–but he’s naive about politics and laws. He was trying to help me, and he doesn’t deserve to go to jail.” So Junior could have released the emails, trying to create the impression that he had nothing to hide (although he wasn’t initially forthcoming and gave sketchy explanations initially), and that he’s naive and maybe not too bright–which would provide justification for Trump’s Sr.’s pardoning rationale.

Russian Intelligence Operation

The theory here is that the Trump team is taking a page out of the Russian intelligence operation (intel op) playbook. I started thinking about this when I read this tweetstorm by Molly McKew:

A few short thoughts/questions on Jr’s email chain:
1) who was the second person who came for the meeting? 2) Jr spoke to Emin via phone — so that phone call was likely intercepted by US and Russian intelligence and recorded. 3) Did Goldstone send any info on this to Daddy Trump, as he said he might? 4) pretty clear these emails have been altered, which is why Jr likely released them. They got some date/time stamps, other details wrong. 5) there is no such thing as a “crown prosecutor” of Russia. It’s not 1909.

(emphasis added)

Later,

The point that the Trump’s have never been willingly transparent strikes me as true. However, if the Times had the emails, then (as McKew acknowledges) maybe the Trump team decided to acknowledge the contents (no use denying) and try to play for what I say at the end of the stupidity theory.

Still, I think the possibility that the Trump team is emulating a Russian intel op should be kept in mind. Following Trump, I feel like a lot of his behavior does seem to mirror Putin–as if he’s emulating a big brother he admires. In this story, too, there is an emphasis on Trump Senior having no knowledge of any of this. One of things I’ve read about Russian intelligence operations is that plausible deniability is critical. Whatever they do, they do so in a way where they can deny any responsibility. They don’t have any direct links back to the Russian government.

For this reason, I’m a bit wary about the explicit language in the emails mentioning the Russian government. As far as I know, McKew and others haven’t really commented on this, so maybe I’m off base, but it strikes me as a red flag–that this is a set up. How?

One possibility is that Russia can release information debunking Goldstone and the emails–discrediting the idea that Russia was even involved. The idea here is to intentionally have false information released–particularly by reputable outlets–and then later disprove that information discrediting the outlets and the very idea that Russia would interfere. It’s an ingenious idea, and it’s something I’m wary of.

Still, this wouldn’t exculpate Junior, Manafort, or Kushner in my view. But it could discredit the idea of Russian interference and possibly the New York Times.

Conclusion

There might be other explanations, but that’s the first two that came to mind–and they seem to the most plausible so far. If you have another theory, let me know. Also, if any of you are read this, and you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I would really want to hear that from you.

10 Responses to “Meeting Between Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and Russian Lawyer, Natalia Velnitskaya”


  1. Reid

    Bonus

    This timeline is something else:

    And then read this:

  2. Reid

    Update: More on Why McKew Suspects Emails May be Altered

    Here's why I wonder if Trump Jr emails may have been altered. Time stamps & signatures are inconsistent and do not correlate to device used pic.twitter.com/yGhITkPllE— Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) July 12, 2017

    I’m not sure what to make of this, but raising the question based on the discrepancies she’s pointing out seems valid.

  3. Mitchell

    I don’t really wanna roll up my sleeves or put up my dukes because there’s no point in defending someone I don’t care about, but one explanation you don’t mention (although it could be part of the expected pardon theory) is that Trump Jr. just does what he wants. As a person of privilege, maybe he thinks he’s untouchable.

    Unrelated, but also worth commenting: If someone was going to release the emails and if the emails were altered by Trump Jr. or someone in his camp, the altered emails have to be identical to whatever was going to be released, or we would have heard it by now. Those timestamps are very suspicious.

    Hypothetical situation worth considering: if instead of meeting with Russians in order to get dirt on Clinton, Trump Jr. had met with Russians to do something genuinely altruistic, but then discovered that the person he was meeting with didn’t actually have that in mind, would we be giving him credit for the altruistic act?

    His actions, if they are as reported, show that he was willing to accept dirt from the Russians, but that is not the same thing as actually doing the act. I know we will never agree on this so I’ll allow you to respond but then I probably won’t respond back, because we went went around and around on this before on the issue of nailing online predators of minors.

    Willing to collude and actually colluding are not the same thing, ‘though when it comes to politics and elected office, I suppose they may as well be. So I’ll grant you that much. If Trump Jr.’s contact had information about possibly criminal or unethical activity by Clinton or her campaign, the right thing would have been for the Trump campaign to steer the source to an authority.

    No, I don’t think you’re going off the deep end, but I do wonder if you’re spending more time on this than is good for you.

  4. Reid

    …, but one explanation you don’t mention (although it could be part of the expected pardon theory) is that Trump Jr. just does what he wants. As a person of privilege, maybe he thinks he’s untouchable.

    I agree with this, and I would include this as part of having a disabled moral compass. What you said explains how the Trump’s came to have a faulty moral compass.

    Unrelated, but also worth commenting: If someone was going to release the emails and if the emails were altered by Trump Jr. or someone in his camp, the altered emails have to be identical to whatever was going to be released, or we would have heard it by now. Those timestamps are very suspicious.

    You mean, the emails that the New York Times (likely) has? I agree–if their copies are different, I would think they would have noted that and pointed it out. However, what if the copies they have are altered as well? That would be my concern.

    Hypothetical situation worth considering: if instead of meeting with Russians in order to get dirt on Clinton, Trump Jr. had met with Russians to do something genuinely altruistic, but then discovered that the person he was meeting with didn’t actually have that in mind, would we be giving him credit for the altruistic act?

    Possibly, but here’s the bigger deal to me. If he went for altruistic reasons–and we had a high level of confidence this was the case–then the affair would look far less suspicious. Now, suppose he actually ended the meeting, reported it to the proper authorities. This would make the encounter look even less suspicious. And then let’s suppose he was forthcoming about this–either admitting this months ago, or even giving this explanation when the Times story broke–if all these things happened, this incident wouldn’t look so bad (assuming you ignored the larger context and facts we know so far).

    It should be said taking what the Trump team says at face value is extremely difficult, so if Junior claimed to have altruistic purposes, I think skepticism would be justified.

    His actions, if they are as reported, show that he was willing to accept dirt from the Russians, but that is not the same thing as actually doing the act.

    It’s not the same, but the willingness to get the information is a big deal. It indicates that Junior, Manafort, Kushner, and possibly Trump have no qualms with getting assistance from a foreign power–in this case, an adversarial country. I’ve heard some lawyers say this could already be a crime. If collusion is something that is the main concern (and for me, it’s not), this detail strongly suggests the Trump team had a willingness to collude.

    No, I don’t think you’re going off the deep end, but I do wonder if you’re spending more time on this than is good for you.

    I appreciate the feedback, and it’s a bit reassuring. And I might be spending too much time on this. Certainly, there are times when the information can be dispiriting.

  5. Reid

    Mitchell,

    You probably don’t care, but apropos the issue of willing to do something wrong versus actually doing it, I think this post by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo expands on the point I made.

    Basically, Marshall suggests that Trump has been protected by the fact that many people just can’t believe he or anyone would do things as bad as he seems to have done. In this case, we’re talking about cooperating, on some level, with a hostile foreign power to win an election. It has taken me a while for my brain to accept and take seriously the possibility that Trump would do things that seem far-fetched. Just accepting the possibility makes me uneasy and causes me to question my mental state.

    But what we’ve learned from this story is that Junior, Manafort, and Kushner are willing to do something that many may find difficult and uncomfortable to believe:

    Now with every other piece of evidence that looks awfully damning and you say to yourself, “Okay, but would X really work with the Russian intelligence services to win the election for Trump?” Well, yes! Clearly they would. Whether or not that particular meeting panned out, Don Jr was eager to do it. He thought it was great. He even – though this is reading between the lines – did not find it surprising at all. It seemed natural to him, even expected. That’s a whole other matter we’ll get to in another post. But again, could he really do it? Yes! We’ve seen the exchange in an email. He 100% would do it. He tried to do it.

    Now, that’s only Don Jr, one of the President’s doofus sons. But Jared Kushner was on the email chain and at the meeting too. So was Paul Manafort. So you don’t simply have to extrapolate out from the damaged sample of Don Jr. You’re talking three, maybe the three players in the campaign. They do not seem to have thought anything was wrong. They didn’t send out an alert within the campaign. There’s no paper trail showing they brought in the campaign lawyers. They didn’t go to the FBI. Taken together, it’s just immensely damning.

  6. Reid

    Extending Russian Info Ops Theory

    Here’s Chris Hayes of MSNBC, discussing his reaction to the recent emails:

    He’s making several points. One, that until these emails, he was skeptical of collusion and never thought we would find explicit evidence pointing to collusion (e.g., emails that say, “Russians helping your father by getting dirt on Clinton–do you want it?) Two, this has caused people like him to seriously consider the possibility of collusion.

    Here’s what I want to say:

    A part of me feels like getting more and more people to focus on collusion may serve the interests of Russia and Trump. Why? Because collusion is hard to prove, and it make take years to do so–and even then, there may be serious doubts.

    Additionally, if you’re Russia or Trump, and you had to choose between collusion or whether Russians have successfully suborned Trump, I think I’d want the central issue to be collusion, especially meeting the legal definition, for reasons I mentioned above.

    Being suborned by Russia is also difficult to prove, but I think it’s largely a political versus legal question. I feel like we’re really close to having enough evidence that would warrant removing Trump via a political process like impeachment. If Trump were a Democrat, would the Republicans be starting impeachment process? I think the answer is likely yes. Would this be justified? I’m not sure, but I’m moving toward a yes on this. My sense is that if the Republicans and conservative media were more patriotic than partisan they would be outraged and concerned to the point where they’d be close to impeaching Trump. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that.

    Do you think we have enough information to warrant impeachment?

  7. Reid

    More on Impeachment

    Here’s an opinion piece by Andrew McCarthy of National Review. I’ve read one or two pieces by him, where he gave me the impression he was a strong Trump supporter. He says here that he voted for Trump, but is also open to seeing flaws. The article, which is about the nature of impeachment, backs this claim up a bit.

    Here’s what he says about impeachment:

    The standard for impeachment, the commission of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” is not concerned with criminal offenses found in the penal statute books and suitable for courtroom prosecution. It relates instead to the president’s high fiduciary duty to the American people and allegiance to our system of government.

    Alexander Hamilton put it best in Federalist No. 65.

    “Impeachable offenses are those Which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

    The bickering over collusion “crimes” misses the point. If an unfit person holds the presidency, the danger to our society is that he will abuse the power that he wields. The imperative is to remove him from office. Whether, in addition to that, his misconduct also happens to violate penal statutes and be ripe for criminal prosecution is a side issue. It is a subordinate legal question, whereas fitness for the presidency is a core political issue. That is why it is rightly observed that impeachment is a political remedy, not a legal one.

    I agree, especially about the point about “bickering over collusion crimes.”

    But I also disagree with McCarthy. He thinks we’re quite far from impeachment–and I’m not sure if he means the existence of adequate justification for impeachment or the political possibility of this happening. If it’s the former, I disagree. McCarthy said this about impeachment:

    The principal duty of the president is to safeguard the nation against foreign threats to our security and system of government. If a president instead has put them at greater risk, if he has conducted himself in such a way as to raise the specter of blackmail by a foreign power, it is always appropriate to question his fitness for the nation’s highest office.

    My response:

    Trump has been lax to the point of negligence with regard to protecting classified information–from using an insecure phone, having classified discussions in an unclassified setting (at Mar-a-Lago) to giving critical classified information to Russia–information that came from a key ally.

    By all indication, he is not only calling into question Russian interference, but he is doing little to nothing to protect our elections.

    Finally, there are huge questions about whether Trump is blackmailed, beholden, or under the influence of a hostile foreign power. He has violated previous norms by not releasing his tax forms or divesting his businesses, which raise questions about his trustworthiness–and create serious conflicts of interests. To make matters worse, he seems dismissive of these concerns or transparently bogus attempts to assuage them.

    Doesn’t this seem like sufficient reasons to impeach Trump, if McCarthy’s description of the process is correct?

    Now, if McCarthy is referring to the likelihood of Trump’s impeachment–which comes down to Republican willingness to impeach him–I agree with McCarthy. The Republicans seem far from being willing to do this.

    What I find reprehensible is that I believe that the majority of Republicans wouldn’t dispute what I wrote above–if they were being honest and not simply being partisan. I believe most know that he is wildly unfit, and they may be concerned he poses a danger to our country.

    If this is true, they are basically covering this up, and lying to the American people–and many of their followers are buying this. This is really terrible because to impeach the president, without tearing the country a part, Republicans have to convey that there are valid reasons for impeachment. Right now, they’re conveying that there really aren’t good reasons to impeach Trump. I suspect they’re wanting this to depend on a legal decision (which, McCarthy says is not really appropriate) or they’re waiting for Trump’s approval numbers to drop among Republicans. Essentially, they’re gambling with our country and maybe even the world.

  8. Reid

    So, There Was Another Guy in the Meeting, Who Was in the Russian Military

    Rihat Ahkmetshin–he’s described as a Russian-American pro-Russia lobbyist, who was also in the Russian military, some say in counter-intelligence. He claims that he was at the meeting, too. He also claims that the Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya left some information:

    From AP

    During the meeting, Akhmetshin said Veselnitskaya brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democratic National Committee. Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the Trump campaign, he said.

    “This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money,” Akhmetshin recalled her saying.

    Trump Jr. asked the attorney if she had all the evidence to back up her claims, including whether she could demonstrate the flow of the money. But Veselnitskaya said the Trump campaign would need to research it more. After that, Trump Jr. lost interest, according to Akhmetshin.

    “They couldn’t wait for the meeting to end,” he said.

    Akhmetshin said he does not know if Veselnitskaya’s documents were provided by the Russian government. He said he thinks she left the materials with the Trump associates. It was unclear if she handed the documents to anyone in the room or simply left them behind, he said.

    Two reactions:

    1. Yes, this creates an even worse impression of the meeting, especially since the Trump team patted themselves on the back for being transparent;

    2. Why would Akhmetshin (and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya) be so open to talk about this? Maybe I’m paranoid, but it kind of feels like a set up. (I haven’t really anyone raise red flags about this, so I suspect I’m off base.)

    Edit

    I didn’t read the following…

    …but I don’t get why she would say this publicly. This is strengthening her links to the Russian government, which would strengthen the claim that Russian interfered in our election–a claim Russia has denied. Unless Veselnitskaya cut a deal with the U.S. government and the latter is now protecting her, why would she do this? I feel like her saying this puts her life in jeopardy…or at least would cause her to fall out of the good graces of the Russian government. Or, is there something I’m missing here?

    Addendum: I read the article. Veselnitskaya claims to have been regularly communicating with a Russian prosecutor, giving him information about Bill Browder, an American who supported the Magnitsky Act. She wasn’t claiming to have regular contact with the Russian government (i.e., Putin, GRU or FSB). I think that changes things a bit.

    Edit

  9. Reid

    New York Times has an op-ed by Daniel Hoffman, a former chief of station for the CIA officer who worked for over 30 years including in Russia.

    Hoffman’s theory is that the Russians wanted this particular meeting to be discovered, claiming the Russians left bread crumbs behind, knowing the U.S. media would discover them one by one, and report on them. This would dominate the U.S. news, causing a frenzy, spurring on investigations. It makes sense that the Russians wanted to sow chaos and that this would do it.

    Here’s what I don’t get. If the Russians wanted the meeting to point back to them, to cause a media frenzy, etc., that seems like an incredible risky move. Why? Because this sort of thing could galvanize American public opinion against Russia–seeing them as a hostile enemy. The meeting and the Russians involved creates the appearance at least that the Russians tried to collude with the Trump campaign. I understand how this would create a diversion, but I don’t understand why the Russians would want to strengthen this impression.

    One possibility: the Russians have determined that the revelation of certain incriminating details are inevitable. They know they’ll be caught. So playing the hand they’re dealt, they’re going to trying and create as much chaos as possible. At this point, maybe they want Trump removed–because, for sure, that will cause a lot of chaos in the country.

    Hoffman also points out that the meeting lacked subtlety if the Russian really wanted to collude–they explicit language in the emails and the Russians that were involved. That always seemed fishy to me, too. I wonder if they were careless because they were certain that Trump had no chance of winning. If he lost, they may have calculated that the U.S. news media may not have any interest in investigating the Trump campaign. Not being knowledge about Russian intelligence operations, I have no idea if this is plausible or not.

    One more point Hoffman makes–namely, that Russians wanted to be caught because it would elevate their status on the world stage–that they would be seen as world power. I don’t know how other world leaders or citizens of other countries would react, but the revelation doesn’t really have that effect on me. Yes, this proves that Russia is formidable and can influence the most powerful nations. But what they’re doing is diabolical, and in my eyes they would be pariah–a nation that the world would revile and never trust. On a balance, if world leaders think like me, they would lose far more power than they gained.

  10. Reid

    New York Times op-ed by Steve Hall and John Cipher, both former members of the C.I.A. They disagree with Daniel Hoffman–they believe that the Russians could have tried to collude with Trump team, and that collusion is still a distinct possibility.

    One thing I want to comment on. They say that Trump isn’t attacking like an innocent person, citing the way he’s attacking the institutions that can hold him accountable. This is a valid point, but based on my impression of Trump, I wouldn’t rule out another explanation–namely, narcissism. It seems possible that Trump equates the Russian investigation with an attempt to de-legitimize his electoral victory. That is, he’s convinced there is a conspiracy by the “deep state” to undermine his presidency. Most presidents wouldn’t believe this, but it’s believable to me that Trump does. Consider also the lengths Trump went through regarding the inaugural crowd size and claiming that millions illegally voted for Clinton. These claims, said repeatedly, aren’t normal. If Trump is capable of acting that way towards the inaugural crowd sizes and votes, then it doesn’t seem beyond the pale that he would attack the investigation because he seems it as a way to de-ligitimize his victory.

    Having said that, he could be guilty as heck, too. (I do think the investigation will reveal really shady financial dealings, if not outright lawbreaking. I’d be surprised if he’s completely clean.)

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