One of the more transparently sordid episodes of The Russian Connection was the Trump Tower Rendezvous.
Donald Trump, Jr., Son-in-Law-in-Chief Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met up with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, for a secret chat in June 2016. When it became public a year later, Junior initially said it was about “Russian adoption.” Except it soon emerged, partly thanks to Don the Younger’s big-brained decision to tweet out his own emails, that they took the meeting because a bizarre intermediary, Rob Goldstone—a music publicist friend of a Russian oligarch’s son—promised them Veselnitskaya had dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Meanwhile, everyone in Trump’s orbit has lied incessantly about the meeting, including that there were an additional five people there, among them a Russian-American lobbyist who was once part of a Soviet counterintelligence unit. And we recently learned—definitively—that Veselnitskaya is quite close to the Kremlin indeed.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is carrying out an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that is separate from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s, has promised to release transcripts of the panel’s interviews with participants in that infamous Trump Tower conclave. The Washington Post got hold of some excerpts on Wednesday morning. And the gist is that, just like in the immediate aftermath of the initial New York Times reports exposing the meeting, the Official Line from all involved is that we tried to collude, but she didn’t come up with the goods!
It was a waste of time, said the president’s son and campaign adviser. I expected compromising information on a political opponent from a hostile foreign power! It has never occurred to anyone involved here that maybe they should emphasize they were not working against the American national interest during their campaign to run the country. The idea that there might be things you should not do even though they are to your own immediate benefit has never registered for a member of the Trump clan.
One red flag here, according to the transcripts, was that the Russians involved were pushing really, really hard for this meeting:
As observers have pointed out with increasing frequency, it is redundant to say “Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.” If you are an oligarch, you’re close to Putin—or you’re stripped of your holdings, so you’re no longer an oligarch. Or you’re dead. It’s barely an assumption to dismiss the idea that Agalarov was operating independently of the Kremlin. When you take into account that Veselnitskaya, the dirt-promising lawyer, recently admitted that, “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general,” the plot only thickens. After all, there likely isn’t much the Russian prosecutor general gets up to without Mr. Putin’s approval, particularly when it involves meddling in another country’s elections.
(The fact that Junior initially explained away the meeting by saying it was about “Russian adoption,” and we now know Veselnitskaya was mostly concerned with getting rid of the Magnitsky Act, only drives home that this was a priority initiative for the Kremlin at the highest levels. In a fascinating conversation on Preet Bharara’s podcast, Bill Browder—an American-born British financier who did extensive business in Russia before he became an enemy of Putin and was driven from the country—explained that Putin banned American citizens from adopting Russian children in direct retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. Browder believes that law, which imposed steep sanctions on a group of Russian oligarchs, specifically impacted Putin’s assets along with those of his closest allies, and thus it is a major priority for him to see the sanctions rolled back.)
What the transcripts really cement, however, is how outlandish the protests against the various investigations into Russian collusion have become. What serious observer, looking at all this, is still wondering whether the Trump campaign was ready and willing to accept help from Russia, a geopolitical adversary, to defeat an American rival?Would anyone with integrity, or the slightest bit of shame, really call this a “Witch Hunt”? The only real questions remaining concern whether laws were broken in the process.
It’s a lot like the debate still inexplicably raging over whether the president obstructed justice when he fired James Comey. Trump told Lester Holt on national television that he was considering “the Russia thing” when he defenestrated Comey—a direct admission that the investigation the FBI director was leading into his associates was motivation for firing him. (It also confirmed his first laughable excuse, that Comey had mishandled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, was an outright lie.) Rudy Giuliani confirmed the Russia investigation was a factor this month. What are we still debating, except how far Trump’s allies will accompany him down this dark path?
That question was driven home by Wednesday’s reports as well. There is no question in these transcripts what was at the root of the meeting: a professed desire from Russia, through intermediaries, to provide information that would help the Trump campaign. Goldstone does not mince words. This makes a mockery of the House Intelligence Committee report, released by the Republicans (led, realistically, by the impossibly compromised Devin Nunes, even after he pledged to remove himself from the Russia probe) amid accusations from their Democratic colleagues that they concluded the investigation early, without interviewing key witnesses. That report would not even admit that the Russians interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf—a contradiction of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment and, as we now know, what everyone involved in the meeting has essentially admitted.
The Senate offers more reason for hope, but the WaPo report hints at partisan schisms and Democratic suggestions that Republicans on the committee may try to conclude their probe early as well. The committee has not, for instance, heard testimony from Manafort or Kushner—participants in the Trump Tower meeting and, in Manafort’s case, a guy with a lot of (Ukrainian) baggage. Will the Senate retain enough of its integrity to carry out a thorough, independent, and legitimate investigation? Or are we all really dependent on the special counsel to find the truth?