On Trump’s collusion with Russia, if you add nothing to nothing, what you get is still nothing
A few days ago, the New York Times published yet another story about the allegations that Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia during thee election, which has since then resulted in massive hysteria in the media. It may have been just smoke before, we are told, but this time we finally have a proof. It was followed by another piece on the next day which gave further details about that meeting. According to these articles, Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., but also Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, met with a “Kremlin-connected” lawyer during the campaign after being promised dirt on Clinton. The day after it published the second article, the New York Times, which serializes these revelations so as to sell more paper and maximize the political damage to Trump, published another story according to which Donald Trump Jr. was told before the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer in question, that the information he was promised was part of a Russian effort to help Trump win the election.
The next day, Donald Trump Jr. published the emails where he was told about this on Twitter, no doubt because it had become clear that the New York Times would eventually publish excerpts of them.
After he posted that, all hell broke lose, there was no stopping the hysteria. Not only did people start talking about impeachment again, but many even accused Donald Trump Jr. of treason, proving they have completely lost contact with reality.
So let’s look at the facts and determine whether, as countless people are claiming, these emails really prove that Trump colluded with Russia during the election. The answer to that question, as I will now argue but as should be totally obvious to anyone who actually read the press carefully about this, is a clear no. This email was sent to Donald Trump Jr. by Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who represents Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani pop star famous in Russia. He is the son of Aras Agalarov, a real state tycoon who owns a lot of properties in Russia. Aras is known to have worked with Trump when he organized Miss Universe in Moscow back in 2013 and was already mentioned in the infamous dossier on Trump published by Buzzfeed a few months ago. The part that people think is really incriminating is the passage where he says that Emin told him his father had met with the “Crown prosecutor of Russia”, a title that doesn’t actually exist, who offered to provide Trump’s campaign with “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to [Trump]”, before adding that it was “part of Russia and its government’s support for [Trump]”. Moreover, when he replied to this email, Donald Trump Jr. agreed to talk about it and said that “if it’s what you say [he] love[d] it”.
This is the exchange which, according to many people, shows that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia during the election. But it clearly shows no such thing since, as a matter of definition, it takes two to collude. This isn’t a deep observation, it’s just a basic point about the meaning of the word “collude”, which should be totally uncontroversial. But except for that email, we have no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the Russian government talked to Aras Agalarov, and offered to provide Trump’s campaign with documents “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia”. In fact, we can be pretty sure no such documents were provided to Trump’s campaign by anyone, since no such documents were ever produced during the election. The only embarrassing documents for Clinton that came out during the campaign were the DNC/Podesta emails, but they had nothing to do with Clinton’s alleged dealings with Russia. Rumors about Clinton’s alleged shady relations with Russia had been floatedfor years by some right-wing commentators, but as far as I know, nothing in the emails released by DCLeaks and Wikileaks substantiated any of them.
Indeed, as even the New York Times admits, there is no evidence that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort for 20-30 minutes on 9 June 2016, provided any such information during that meeting. Donald Trump Jr. said that, although he asked her about it, she didn’t give them anything on Clinton, but talked to him about the Magnitsky Act and Russia’s decision to block adoption by American couples in retaliation. Of course, if we just had his word, we’d have no particularly good reason to believe him. But the fact remains that no documents of the sort described in Goldstone’s ridiculous email ever surfaced during the campaign, which makes what he is saying about how the meeting went down pretty convincing, at least on this specific point. It should be noted that Donald Trump Jr. has offered to testify under oath about anything related to this meeting. Moreover, he also said during the interview he gave to Sean Hannity that there was no follow-up to this meeting, which is unlikely to be a lie since he must know that, given the hysteria about this meeting, it would come out. He may not be the brightest guy in the world, but surely he or at least the people who advised him before that interview are not that stupid.
What Donald Trump Jr. said about the nature of his conversation with Veselnitskaya is also consistent with what we know about her activities in the US. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in a piece about her on which I will come back shortly, she is known for lobbying against the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act is a bill voted by Congress and signed by Obama in 2012. It imposes sanctions on several individuals allegedly connected to the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison in 2008. His death sparked a campaign led by William Browder, a US hedge-fund manager who employed Magnitsky and used to be a vocal supporter of Putin, to enact a law that would punish the persons he claimed were responsible. Despite the fact that he relinquished US citizenship to avoid paying tax, Browder was able to use his clout to lobby Congress into voting the Magnitsky Act. According to Browder, companies he owned in Russia had been highjacked by corrupt Russian officials, who misappropriated $230 million as part of a complex tax fraud scheme. Suspecting that something was off, Browder sent Magnitsky to investigate. Still according to Browder’s narrative, Magnitsky uncovered the fraud and denounced it, but he was arrested by Russian officials who benefited from it and sent him to prison, where he was physically abused and died of heart failure. Russia denied this account and, after Obama signed the bill, Putin decided to ban American couples from adopting Russian children in retaliation.
But while Browder’s account of the events that led to Magnitsky’s death is virtually undisputed in the media, it has been questioned by Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian director who made a documentary about the case. Although he is now vilified by the media in the US, Nekrasov is a well-known critic of Putin. In particular, he made a documentary in 2008 that accused the Kremlin of being responsible for Alexander Litvinenko’s death in London, which at the time was praised by the same people who now vilify him. Nekrasov initially set out to make a documentary, with Browder’s encouragement, that would support the dominant narrative about Magnitsky’s death. However, as he investigated the case, he came to be convinced that Browder had misrepresented the facts and that it was actually him who had committed tax fraud. In other words, despite his original intention, Nekrasov ended up supporting the version put forward by the Russian authorities. This infuriated Browder who largely succeeded in preventing Nekrasov’s movie from being screened in the West by threatening lawsuits and using his influence among politicians. In particular, the public Franco-German television channel Arte decided not to air it, despite the fact that it had commissioned Nekrasov to make a movie about Magnitsky in the first place. Browder was also able to block a screening of the movie at the European Parliament, where it was scheduled to premiere, before the event was canceled at the last moment. He also tried to block a screening in Washington DC around the time Veselnitskaya met with Donald Trump Jr. but was unsuccessful.
Veselnitskaya represents Prevezon, a Russian real-estate company registered in Cyprus, which has been prosecuted in the US of laundering money from the tax fraud scheme allegedly uncovered by Magnitsky. The case was recently settled after Previzon accepted to pay the US government $6 million with no admission of guilt. As the New York Times article I mentioned above reports, Veselnitskaya organized the screening in Washington DC of Nekrasov’s movie about Magnitsky’s death, which as we have seen Browder unsuccessfully tried to block. Her lobbying against the Magnitsky Act is part of her work for Prevezon, since the case against her client, who registered the nonprofit she set up in Delaware to lobby against the bill, depended on the truth of the allegations that motivated that bill. In the days before she met with Donald Trump Jr., she met with several other Americans, who told The Hill that she was lobbying against the Magnitsky Act. Since that’s exactly what Donald Trump Jr. claims she talked about during their meeting, this further supports the view that he is telling the truth, at least about that. Interestingly, as part of her work to defend Previzon, she hired Fusion GPS, the firm that paid Christopher Steele to compile the infamous dossier that Buzzfeed published in January. I’m sure conspiracy theorists on the right will have a blast with that information, but unlike them and the New York Times, I have standards so I’m not going to speculate about what this could mean.
The New York Times also claims that Veselnitskaya has “has connections to the Kremlin”, which some people take as evidence that, when she met with Donald Trump Jr., she was acting on behalf of the Russian government. The New York Times made that claim repeatedly and, in the piece I already mentioned, it even claims that she is seen as a “fearsome Moscow insider”. The problem is that, when you read that article, it doesn’t contain any evidence that she has ties to the Kremlin. In fact, this article is a great example of propaganda, of the subtle but no less dishonest kind you can find in the New York Times. The only thing it establishes is that she has connections with officials in the Moscow region. In particular, the owner of Prevezon is Denis Katsyv, the son of Pyotr Katsyv, who used to be minister of transport in the Moscow region and is now the vice-president of a state-owned railroad company. Since it broke that story, the New York Times has repeatedly used the fact that Veselnitskaya had worked for state-owned companies to suggest that she had ties to the Russian government, but that’s absolutely ridiculous. According to the most recent study I found, state-owned enterprises in Russia are responsible for at least 30% of the country’s GDP, so it’s probably hard to find a corporate lawyer in Russia who never worked for one. But obviously the vast majority of them don’t have “connections to the Kremlin”.
Moreover, in that article, the New York Times lies to exaggerate the extent of Veselnitskaya’s ties to officials of the Moscow region. Indeed, in the opening paragraph of that piece, the authors first mention her work for Denis Katsyv and then write “when Moscow regional officials battled Ikea over the Swedish retailer’s expansion, she took on their case”. However, once you reach the 29th paragraph, you can read this:
In another such case, Ms. Veselnitskaya took on Ikea, claiming that some of the land under an office complex owned by the Swedish company on the outskirts of Moscow belonged to an old farming cooperative.
It was one of many cases brought against the Swedish giant, and a former board member said they never could figure out who was behind them. This case was ultimately dismissed by the Russian Supreme Court.
In other words, despite what the New York Times flatly asserts in the opening paragraph of this article, we do not know that Veselnitskaya was working on behalf of Moscow regional officials in that case.
What the New York Times and other newspapers who emphasize Veselnitskaya’s ties to Moscow regional officials also forget to mention is that, as Leonid Bershidsky pointed out, the Moscow region does not include the city of Moscow. As he explains, regional officials are “several notches below the Kremlin level”, which is why he describes Veselnitskaya as a “low-level” Russian connection, not a “fearsome Moscow insider” as the New York Times described her in a headline. It’s also worth noting that Bershidsky, who is a fierce critic of Putin in self-imposed exile, can also hardly suspected of sympathy with the Kremlin. In the same article, the New York Times also quotes Browder as saying of Pyotr Katsyv, the father of Veselnitskaya’s employer, that “in the world of Russia he’d be the equivalent of a Chris Christie: no formal relationship to the Kremlin, but with very strong relations to the powers that be”. However, for reasons that should now be obvious after my discussion of the controversy about the Magnitsky Act, he can obviously not be considered reliable on this issue.
In another article published after Donald Trump Jr. released his emails with Goldstone about this, the New York Times claims that Veselnitskaya is “known to be close” to Yuri Chaika, the Prosecutor General of Russia whom many people speculate is what Goldstone had in mind when he talked about the “Crown prosecutor of Russia”. Unlike regional officials, Chaika actually is a big player in Russia, but the New York Times doesn’t give any evidence that Veselnitskaya is close to him or even describe the nature of their alleged relationship. Shaun Walker wrote in The Guardian that a source who knows Veselnitskaya had confirmed this to him, but doesn’t give any detail about his source or how Veselnitskaya knows Chaika. Robert Mackey in The Intercept also claims he confirmed that Veselnitskaya is a “close associate” of Chaika, but he doesn’t give any evidence for that claim. I asked him by email how he confirmed that Veselnitskaya knows Chaika, but he didn’t reply to me.
It’s hard to see why a low-level corporate lawyer such as Veselnitskaya would know Chaika, let alone be a “close associate” of his. It may be true that she knows him, but I don’t see why we should put much trust into anonymous sources we know nothing about, when there is no publicly available evidence that she is connected to him, we don’t even have any details on the nature of the relationship they supposedly have and nothing in the public record suggests they have ever been near each other. Even if Veselnitskaya knows Chaika, and the Kremlin was trying to make a deal with Trump, it wouldn’t make sense for the Russians to use her of all people to reach out to him. Not only does she not speak a word of English, but she is a known lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act and had to get special permission to enter the US, which means she was most likely on the FBI’s radar. Just ask yourself this question: if you were Putin and planned to make a quid pro quo kind of deal with Trump, would you send a woman who doesn’t even speak English and whom you have every reason to believe is a person of interest for the US intelligence to broker that deal? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s funny how the people who constantly depict the Russians as evil geniuses who secretly control everything that happens in the world at the same time ascribe to them actions that only complete fools would ever contemplate…
Of course, it’s possible that the Kremlin nevertheless used Veselnitskaya to carry a message to Trump’s campaign, but it’s extremely unlikely. Except for the email sent to Donald Trump Jr. by Goldstone, a British music publicist, there is not a shred of evidence that she acted on behalf the Kremlin. In fact, as I already pointed out, it’s extremely unlikely that she was assigned by the Kremlin to give dirt on Clinton to Trump’s campaign, since the information mentioned by Goldstone in that email never surfaced during the campaign. What probably happened is that Donald Trump Jr. was baited by Veselnitskaya with the promise of information on Clinton and she used that promise to obtain a meeting during which she talked about the Magnitsky Act, which she had been paid to lobby against for years. Again, we know that, in the days before and after she met with Trump’s campaign, she met with several other people in Washington to talk about that. In any case, what is clear is that, despite what many people think, the emails released by Donald Trump Jr. don’t show that anyone in Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. As I noted before, it takes two to collude, but there is no evidence except for Goldstone’s ridiculous email that Putin had anything to do with this meeting and many reasons to think he had nothing to do with it. There are many things reasonable people can disagree about, but this isn’t one of them.
The emails released by Donald Trump Jr. only show that he and probably other people in Trump’s campaign were willing to receive dirt on Clinton, even if they believed it ultimately came from the Russian government. (If you find that surprising, I have another news for you: the sky is blue.) You can call that a willingness to collude if you want, but let’s clear that, in the context of the allegations of collusion made about Trump during the past year or so, this is extremely dishonest. It’s dishonest because everyone knows that, when people were accusing Trump of colluding with Russia, they weren’t talking about something as trivial as getting dirt on Clinton from Russia. As I pointed out repeatedly, it wasn’t clear what they were talking about, since they rarely explained it. But whenever they did, it always involved some kind of quid pro quo and a coordination with Russia, not providing Trump’s campaign with embarrassing information on Clinton.
In particular, people suggested that people in Trump’s campaign met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in the US, at the Republican convention and agreed to remove anti-Russian language from the GOP platform in exchange for the release of the DNC emails hacked by Russia. Indeed, a few days ago, a group of Democrats whose emails were hacked last year filed a lawsuit against Trump’s campaign for, as the New York Times summarized it, “conspiring in the release of hacked Democratic emails and files that exposed their personal information to the public”. Their complaint is actually a very good description of what people were talking about in the past year or so when they were accusing Trump of having colluded with Russia. Another possibility that was floated is that Russia coordinatedwith Trump’s campaign to target specific voters in key states to flip the election in his favor. But there is still no evidence whatsoever that anything of the sort happened and there will never be any because it never happened except in the fertile imagination of American liberals who still can’t accept that Clinton lost because she did a poor campaign. Since despite months of looking for it, no evidence of that sort of things was in sight, they are now pretending that, during all that time, they were always talking about something as banal as a campaign getting dirt on their opponent from a foreign government. But it’s not what they were talking about and, except for those who are completely delusional or didn’t follow that story very closely, they know it. It’s amazing that many of them are now accusing people who never believed that collusion nonsense of moving the goalposts, when it’s absolutely clear that it’s them who are doing that.
This is why everyone is now pretending that getting dirt on your political opponent from a foreign government is beyond the pale and swears that nothing of the sort usually happens during a presidential campaign. We are told that no responsible campaign would ever accept opposition research from a foreign government, but that it would immediately inform the authorities that it was approached in that way as soon as they hear about something like that. It’s really amazing how people can say that kind of things with a straight face, but it’s even more amazing that so many people are stupid enough to believe them. The truth is that any campaign would accept dirt on the other side, even if they thought it came from sources linked to a foreign government, as long as they also thought it could be used against their opponent without backfiring on them. Even the New York Times doesn’t claim that campaigns never collect opposition research from sources linked to a foreign government, but only that they rarely do it.
This is no doubt because, as the New York Times knows perfectly well, Clinton’s campaign actually did what, as far as we know, people in Trump’s campaign were only willingto do, namely use dirt on their opponent even though they knew it came from a foreign government. Indeed, as I noted at the time, Politico published a detailed article in January which revealed that the DNC collaborated with officials at the Ukrainian embassy during the election in order to get dirt on Trump’s campaign. Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American working for the DNC, collaborated with the Ukrainian embassy and other Ukrainian officials in Kiev to dig up information on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, with the encouragement of the DNC. Moreover, people in Clinton’s campaign were fully aware of that effort, since Chalupa occasionally shared the results of her investigation with them. We actually know this happened since it was confirmed to Politico not only by people at the DNC but also by someone at the Ukrainian embassy. Indeed, a man who worked at the embassy during the campaign is quoted under his name as saying that they “were coordinating an investigation with the Hillary team on Paul Manafort with Chalupa”, whom he says “the embassy worked very closely with”.
Although this has been known for more than 6 months, nobody has accused Clinton or anyone in her campaign of colluding with Ukraine to steal the election. Indeed, I checked on their websites and, until this week, neither the New York Times or the Washington Post had written a single word about this. (I’m really baffled that so many people are still dishonest or stupid enough to deny that journalists are biased against Trump. Even if it weren’t obvious in their reporting, which it is, it should be clear from the fact that, according to the Center for Public Integrity, more than 96% of the donations made to a presidential candidate went to Clinton. Even if you believe that journalists are typically competent, in which case you really are a fool, you can’t seriously think that such an environment would not give rise to a lot of bias.) They mentioned it for the first time a few days ago, after Sean Hannity brought it up again to denounce the double standard and challenged mainstream journalists to explain it. The Washington Post and New York Timeseach published a piece in which they argued that it was not the same thing. The mental gymnastic by which they reach that conclusion is one of the most shameful thing I have ever read in my life and, since I read both the New York Times and the Washington Post on a regular basis, that’s really saying a lot.
Their main argument is probably that there is no evidence that Kiev engaged in a concerted effort to help Clinton on the scale of Russia’s effort to help Trump. The problem with that argument is that, as I argued at lengths a few months ago, the evidence that Russia engaged in that kind of effort is far from conclusive. (Jeffrey Carr, whom I cited in the past on that issue, recently wrote a shorter piece in which he makes the same point.) There is absolutely no doubt that, as far as the publicly available evidence is concerned, we have far more evidence that Ukraine intervened in favor of Clinton than evidence that Russia intervened in favor of Trump. Indeed, we know for sure that at least some people in the Ukrainian government tried to help Clinton, whereas we have no proof that anyone in the Russian government tried to help Trump. I know many people will find that unbelievable, but it’s absolutely indisputable and I challenge anyone to refute that claim. Beside, if we don’t have any evidence that people at the highest level of the Ukrainian government were part of the effort to help Clinton, it may have something to do with the fact that nobody in the media investigated this after Politico broke the story more than 6 months ago, so that’s hardly a good defense against the accusation of double standard.
Another argument is that, whereas in the case of Trump we know that members of his inner circle were at least willing to accept information from Russia, we don’t know that anyone with a comparable level of access in Clinton’s campaign knew about Chalupa’s coordination with Ukrainian officials. The obvious reply to this argument is that, if we don’t know whether that’s the case, it probably have something to do with the fact that nobody in the media investigated this story after Politico broke it. In particular, as I noted above, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post wrote a single word about this in more than 6 months, so again they really have no shame to defend themselves against the accusation of double standard by making that point. Another problem with that argument is that it neglects the fact that, although there is no evidence that anyone in Clinton’s inner circle knew about Chalupa’s effort, we at least know that some people in both her campaign and at the DNC were aware that someone working for them was actually coordinating with a foreign government and even encouraged it, whereas there is no evidence that anyone in Trump’s campaign did such a thing, only that some were willing to do it.
The New York Times and the Washington Post also point out that Trump’s campaign isn’t only accused of accepting information on their opponent from the Russians, but also of promising them something in return and coordinating with their larger effort to undermine Clinton, for instance by directing their efforts to influence specific group of voters online. But again there is still not a shred of evidence that anything of the sort happened. This is exactly the strategy I denounced above. They are using the emails released by Donald Trump Jr., which only show a willingness on the part of Trump’s campaign to accept information even if they believe it ultimately came from Russia, to pretend that it supports the accusations of collusion people have been making against Trump for months, which concern something totally different and far more nefarious. So they are right that what the DNC did is not the same as what Trump’s campaign did, but that’s because it’s worse. Indeed, the DNC actually collaborated with Ukrainian officials during the election, whereas as far as we know people in Trump’s campaign were only wiling to do so. Beside, even if they were right and what the DNC did was not as bad, it still wouldn’t explain why they didn’t write a single word about it until they had to, whereas since Politico broke the story about Chalupa the New York Times and the Washington Post have published hundreds of articles about the alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. You have to be a complete fool not to see that the media is ridiculously biased against Trump.
But again let’s keep in mind that, as the total absence of interest in the story about Ukraine’s interference from the media shows, nobody is really shocked by the possibility that a campaign might be willing to use information on their opponent provided by a foreign government. Nobody cares about that unless it’s Trump who does it, in which case it suddenly becomes a major scandal. Political campaigns are nasty and you have to be really naive to think that politicians have moral qualms with that sort of things. Beside, to be honest, I don’t really see why they should. Indeed, while I can think of plenty of prudential reasons not to do that, I can’t think of any principled reason why a campaign shouldn’t use information that proves their opponent committed a crime even if they think it comes from a foreign government, as long as the evidence is conclusive and no crime was committed to obtain it.
Even if you think it’s always wrong to do that, which strikes me as preposterous, there is plenty of evidence that campaigns did far worse in the past. During the 1968 presidential election, Nixon’s campaign secretly asked Nguyen Van Thieu, the President of South Vietnam, to stay away from the negotiations with North Vietnam organized by Johnson to reach a peace agreement, in order to make sure the war would continue and Humphrey would lose the election. The Times of London revealed in 1992 that, according to a memo written by the head of the KGB and found in the archives of that organization when they were opened for a brief period after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sen. Ted Kennedy had explicitly proposed a quid pro quo to Andropov in 1983, when he was Secretary General of the Party. He wanted him to help the Democratic party to defeat Reagan in 1984 and offered to collaborate in order to achieve that goal. Now, this memo doesn’t prove that Kennedy really made that offer and, even if he did, there is no evidence that Andropov ever acted on it, but it’s still pretty strong evidence of something far worse than what Donald Trump Jr. was apparently willing to do, especially since it wasn’t supposed to be public. In any case, I have never heard any of the hypocrites who pretend to be outraged by the emails he released this week ask for a Congressional investigation into this, though I have heard many of them praise Kennedy on countless occasions.
Anyway, the moral of that story is that, despite the hysteria that engulfed the media since Donald Trump Jr. released its emails, this is another non-story that will go absolutely nowhere. It certainly isn’t a proof of the accusations of collusion that have been made against Trump in the past year or so, which isn’t surprising since nothing of the sort ever happened and you can’t prove that something that never happened. In my experience, when you point out that the revelation du jour doesn’t actually prove what people say it does, they react by saying that, although it may not prove anything on its own, there are so many other suspicious things that surely the accusations must be true. This is a version of the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy that every conspiracy theorist uses. In fact, it’s exactly the strategy that right-wing crackpots use when they want to make some crazy accusation against Clinton, because you can use it to “prove” anything. They make a lot of claims which they claim support their hypothesis, but whenever you look at one of them in details, you see that it’s either provably false/not supported by any evidence or that it doesn’t have any of the implications they say it has. Then, once you have said that about one of the claims they make to support their theory, they just say something like “that may be true, but there are dozens of other suspicious things, so surely my theory must still be true”.
But that’s not how it works. If you have pieces of evidence that don’t individually support your theory, putting them together doesn’t magically make them support it. They need to independently support it. Otherwise you can “prove” just about anything, since if you’re looking hard enough, you can always find spurious connections or, as they call it, smoke. This is not an extraordinary epistemic principle that I’m only adopting for the circumstance, it’s a totally uncontroversial principle that everyone relies on all the time. Except when it comes to issues that play a central role in their political tribe, such as this collusion nonsense for American liberals at the moment, in which case they just ignore it and interpret anything that seem to support their obsession as confirmation of what they have already decided is true. In the case of this week’s “revelation”, if you ignore the brouhaha and just look at the facts, all that’s left is a ridiculous email sent to Donald Trump Jr. by a music publicist. In one year from now, Trump will still be President, but liberals will still be convinced that impeachment is right around the corner. Perhaps the Democrats will benefit from this, since it’s clearly a distraction which prevents Trump from focusing on his agenda (whatever that is), but they may also come to regret their obsession with Russia if people are just tired of this story and feel they’re not talking about what they really care about.
EDIT: Since I published this post, The Hill revealed that Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist, had also attended the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. Although he is presented as an ex-Soviet counter-intelligence officer who still has ties to the Russian intelligence, there does not seem to be any evidence for that claim, except for claims by anonymous sources that he bragged about it. Even if he did brag about it, it seems unlikely to be true, given that he was only 24 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. He left Russia only 3 years later to live in the US, where he acquired the citizenship in 2009. Thus, if he ever was a Soviet counter-intelligence officer, he must not have had a lot of time to make contacts and is extremely unlikely to have known anyone important. Indeed, The Hill has modified its article to remove the claim that he was a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer (without acknowledging the modification), which can still be found in the archived version. His presence alongside Veselnitskaya at the meeting with Donald Trump Jr., which is presented as a big deal, is completely unsurprising. Indeed, as I noted above, Veselnitskaya doesn’t speak English and, as RFE/RL reported last year, Akhmetshinhas been working for the nonprofit she set up in Delaware to lobby against the Magnitsky Act for years.
ANOTHER EDIT: The Wall Street Journal just published a story according to which Veselnitskaya told the newspaper she knew Chaika. What she says about the sort of contacts she had with him seems plausible, so I think it’s now fair to say that part of the story was true, although the kind of relationship with Chaika described in that story is still a far cry from making her a “fearsome Moscow insider”. According to her, she just shared information on Browder with Chaika’s office, which is consistent with the fact that she has been lobbying against the Magnitsky Act. The article contains some interesting details about what information she wanted to provide to Trump’s campaign:
She did, however, share information similar to what the Russian prosecutor general’s office gave to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) in a Moscow meeting two months earlier. Namely, she said she wanted to inform the Trump campaign of allegations that an American firm Mr. Browder worked with, Ziff Brothers Investments, had dodged taxes in Russia and later donated to Democrats.
This is consistent with what Donald Trump Jr. said during his interview with Sean Hannity. Since they were promised information on Clinton, but apparently Veselnitskaya only wanted to talk about Browder, the man she had been fighting against for years, it’s not difficult to see why people in Trump’s campaign were disappointed.
YET ANOTHER EDIT: RFE/RL, a US government-funded outlet created during the Cold War to spread propaganda against the Soviet Union, just published a story with the headline “Russian Gave Trump’s Son Folder With Information Damaging To Clinton”. Now that makes it sound as if Veselnitskaya may have provided Donald Trump Jr. the information he was promised after all. Except that when you read the content of the article, it just confirms his version that she just told him about people who donated to the DNC and had been involved in crimes in Russia:
But in an interview with AP on July 14, Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet military officer, said he was present at the meeting when Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya told Trump Jr. that people tied to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and illegally supporting Clinton’s campaign.
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 Democrats.
Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to Trump Jr. and suggested that making the information public could help the campaign, he told AP.
“This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money,” Akhmetshin recalled Veselnitskaya saying.
Trump Jr. asked the attorney if she had sufficient 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 told AP he does not know if Veselnitskaya’s documents were provided by the Russian government. He said he thinks she left the materials in Trump’s office.
It was unclear if she handed the documents to anyone in the room or simply left them behind, he said.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that, as I concluded above, Veselnitskaya just baited Donald Trump Jr. with a promise to give him dirt on Clinton, when in fact she only had inconclusive evidence that some people had made illegal donations to the DNC, in order to get a meeting with people in Trump’s campaign and talk to them about the Magnitsky Act, which she was being paid to lobby against.