A consistent pattern of the Russiagate affair is that the New York Times or the Washington Post “expose” what is presented as some dark and terrible twist to the story of Donald Trump’s connections to Russia.
The rest of the news media and the Democrats in Congress following up by greeting the “revelation” with a mixture of enthusiasm and feigned horror.
The days and weeks pass, it turns out that nothing of importance has been “exposed” and that the “revelation” is not so dark or terrible after all.
At that point it quietly drops out of the news.
This has happened with the telephone conversation between ambassador Kislyak and General Flynn, the meeting between ambassador Kislyak and Geoff Sessions, the meeting between ambassador Kislyak and Jared Kushner (when they supposedly discussed setting up a backchannel), and the conversations between President Trump and former FBI Director James Comey.
The latest “revelation” of the meeting between Donald Trump Junior and lawyer Natalia Veselntiskaya on 9th June 2016 is a further example.
The outline of the story can be reconstructed in detail from the emails that Donald Trump Junior published earlier today. They show that the meeting was set up at the instigation of a British pop music presenter called Rob Goldstone.
On 3rd June 2016 Goldstone wrote to Donald Trump Junior the following email
Emin [Agalarov, a Russian pop star represented by Goldstone] just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras [a Moscow-based developer who tried to partner with Trump in a hotel project] this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] 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?
I can also send this info to your father via Rhona [presumably Rhona Graff, Trump’s longtime executive assistant], but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.
(bold italics added)
Donald Trump Junior replied on the same day as follows
Thanks Rob I appreciate that. I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?
(bold italics added)
Several emails followed but the only one of interest is a further email sent to Donald Trump Junior by Rob Goldstone on 7th June 2016. It reads as follows
Hope all is well. Emin asked that I schedule a meeting with you and the Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday. I believe you are aware of the meeting – and so wondered if 3pm or later on Thursday works for you? I assume it would be at your office.
(bold italics added)
There are a number of oddities about Goldstone’s emails which I will come to shortly. However here it is merely important to note the following:
(1) there is no reference in these emails to hacking whether of the DNC ‘s or of John Podesta’s computers or of computers belonging to anyone else;
(2) Donald Trump Junior is being led to believe that the Russian government is offering to provide the Trump campaign with official documents – which must mean official Russian government documents – detailing Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia.
(3) there is no suggestion that this help would be provided covertly or secretly. On the contrary since what is supposedly being offered are official Russian government documents it would be impossible to deny the source if this information was going to be used.
The meeting with Veselnitskaya duly took place on 9th June 2016. It turned out that she had no information about Hillary Clinton to offer and was not a “Russian government attorney”. Instead she wanted to discuss the Magnitsky Act, upon which a baffled Donald Trump Junior politely showed her the door.
That is the unanimous account of all the participants of the meeting including Donald Trump Junior and Veselnitskaya herself. All agree that the meeting lasted no more than 20 minutes.
There is no evidence that contradicts their account and the absence of any follow-up to the meeting essentially corroborates their account.
It seems that Donald Trump Junior and Veselnitskaya have never met since and have had no further contact with each other.
There is no evidence here of any crime or wrongdoing being committed or – contrary to what many are saying – of any intention to commit one.
What Donald Trump Junior was offered was official documents supposedly provided by the Russian government which would expose Hillary Clinton as a hypocrite in light of her dealings with Russia. At a time when Donald Trump was already being criticised for wanting a rapprochement with Russia it is not surprising that Donald Trump Junior’s interest was piqued.
However this information – whatever it was – would have had to have been made public if it was going to be used, and since it was supposed to take the form of official Russian government documents provided to the Trump campaign by the Russian government that would have meant that the fact that the Russian government was involved and was the source would have had to be disclosed. There was and could have been no intention to keep the fact secret.
That is what Donald Trump Junior obviously anticipated when he agreed to meet Veselnitskaya, and what he must have thought the Russian government intended. The emails cannot be read in any other way.
This is a wholly different scenario from the one suggested in the Russiagate affair. That alleges secret collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government as part of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign involving an illegal hack of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers in order to publish stolen emails which would swing the election from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.
This by contrast was or was supposed to be a straightforward and above the board offer of information by the Russian government to the Trump campaign that might be useful in the election.
There is nothing wrong or sinister or illegal in Donald Trump Junior being interested in this. There would have been nothing wrong or illegal in Donald Trump Junior receiving from the Russian government official Russian government documents about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia in this way.
Nor would there have been anything wrong or illegal if Donald Trump Junior or the Trump campaign had made this information public, all the more so as the fact that the Russian government was the source would have had to be disclosed.
Some people of course refuse to see it this way. Take for example these words in the Guardian’s editorial on the story
Mr Trump Jr stressed that the lawyer was not, in fact, a Russian government official. But he met her believing that she was, and having heard that Moscow wished to intervene in a US election. He did not report the approach to the FBI.
(bold italics added)
Why however should Donald Trump Junior have “reported the approach to the FBI”? Since nothing wrong or illegal was proposed or happened what was there to report?
To repeat, there would have been nothing wrong or illegal about Donald Trump Junior receiving openly from a representative of the Russian government official Russian government documents detailing Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. Not only would that have been neither wrong nor illegal, had it happened it would arguably have been in the public interest.
We now have come to the strangest aspect of this strange affair.
Veselnitskaya was not a representative of the Russian government. The Russian government claims to have no knowledge of her. She was definitely not a “Russian government attorney” (whatever that means). Not only did she turn up to the meeting empty-handed, with no information or official Russian government documents about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, but by her own account she was surprised that Donald Trump Junior expected her to be in possession of such information
“I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” Natalia Veselnitskaya said.
When asked how Trump Jr. seemed to have the impression that she had information about the Democratic National Committee, she responded:
“It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”
This is extremely strange, and is wholly at odds with how Rob Goldstone describes her in his emails.
In those emails Veselnitskaya is clearly described as a “Russian government attorney” representing the Russian government. Moreover she is coming to the US from Moscow on behalf of a senior Russian official – the “Crown Prosecutor of Russia” – who is supposed to have offered information including official Russian government documents detailing Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia in a conversation with the father of one of Goldstone’s clients. This supposedly was done as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump“.
Clearly someone was misrepresenting who and what Veselnitskaya actually was.
There is no Russian official with the title “Crown Prosecutor of Russia”. However the fact that Goldstone claims that it was this official – whoever he is – who instigated Veselnitskaya’s mission after making an offer to help the Trump campaign to the father of one of Goldstone’s clients argues against Veselnitskaya being the person who was behind the deception.
Veselnitskaya’s claim that she was baffled that Donald Trump Junior seemed to expect her to have information about Hillary Clinton might therefore be true.
In that case it must have been either the “Crown Prosecutor of Russia” – whoever he is – or the father of Goldstone’s client, or Goldstone’s client, or conceivably Goldstone himself, who was behind the deception.
I am not going to try to guess who was the person behind the deception. The one point I would make is that Goldstone is British and that though Russia has no official with the title “Crown Prosecutor of Russia” the title “crown prosecutor” is used in Britain as the official title of state officials roughly analogous to US District Attorneys.
Possibly someone who knows Goldstone is British and therefore familiar with the title “crown prosecutor” took advantage of the fact to deceive him, though in that case whoever that was must have some knowledge of Britain.
Whatever the truth of this, there is no doubt that a deception took place, and Goldstone’s emails show that the person who was the target of the deception was Donald Trump Junior.
That in turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether what we have here are the traces of a failed sting operation.
I have previously pointed out that the first entry of the Trump Dossier dated 20th June 2016 makes no reference to hacking but instead speaks of the Russians helping Donald Trump by providing his campaign with information from a secret Dossier they hold on Hillary Clinton.
Here we have in Goldstone’s emails proof that in early June 2016 – the same month that the first entry of the Trump Dossier is dated – an offer was indeed made via Donald Trump Junior to the Trump campaign – but importantly not by the Russian government – to provide the Trump campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, presumably from a file or a Dossier the Russians hold on her.
The follow up to these emails was a meeting between Donald Trump Junior and a Russian lawyer – Veselnitskaya – who allegedly has some connection to Fusion GPS, the company which paid for the Trump Dossier.
In the event the sting operation – if that is what it was – fell apart when it turned out during the meeting that Veselnitskaya had no information to offer and did not represent the Russian government, and that rather than press her further for ‘information’ about Hillary Clinton or admit either verbally to Veselnitskaya or in an email that the Trump campaign was already in receipt of such information from the Russians, Donald Trump Junior instead showed her the door.
This is of course speculation, though fact based. As I have said previously, there is no doubt a deception of some sort took place and that Donald Trump Junior was its intended target.
What is not speculation – what is on the contrary incontrovertible fact – is that Donald Trump Junior at no time acted improperly or committed any crime either in the emails he wrote or when he met Veselnitskaya.
That for the moment is the single most important fact about this incident.
There are many unanswered questions about this incident, as indeed there are about the Flynn affair. Perhaps one day we will have the answers to these questions.
The key point about these unanswered questions is however that they do not concern Donald Trump Junior. It is for others not him to answer them.
On the contrary he is the only person of whom it can be said with confidence that he behaved straightforwardly and honestly throughout this whole strange affair.