Ever since Donald Trump returned from Hamburg, Germany – not quite in triumph, not quite wearing a laurel wreath of victory, not quite the conquering hero with slaves tossing rose petals ahead of his stately progress – the sour taste of reports about the Russian meddling in the US election has continued to dog him like an implacable bloodhound, with the scent now, finally, in its nostrils. Now, of course, it is “biggerly” than before. Yugely.
This latest round came as word had begun to circulate that the New York Times had new and explosive material on the Trump presidential campaign’s ties to Russia and was about to publish it. Now, deciding to pre-empt the original story, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, released an entire email thread, dating from June 2016 (just prior to Trump’s official nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate).
In this collection of messages – and we shall condense this whole tangled, twisted, near-unbelievable tale just a bit – Trump Jr, or just plain Junior, had been approached by a British music publicist, Bob Goldstone, whom his father had worked with in the course of organising the 2013 Miss World competition in Moscow. (The publicist had acted on behalf of a pop singer whose father was a Russian real estate developer, not unlike the Trumpster Senior, and whom Trump Sr had been involved with for the beauty contest as well and the singer had performed there.)
Goldstone was now acting on behalf of a Moscow-based lawyer and the publicist told Junior that he had access to explosive, scandalous information on Hillary Clinton via this lawyer. As a result, Junior and the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom we can fairly describe as an ever so slightly Mata Hari-esque character, should meet.
Veselnitskaya’s primary occupation seemed to be working on a lobbying campaign directed at influential Americans in order to get financial sanctions on leading Russian figures rescinded in order to open up the conduit of Russian orphans for adoption by Americans. Her work on sanctions/orphans was, of course, when she was not representing Prevezon, a kind of money laundering real estate purchasing scheme operated by a bunch of Russians who might have fitted nicely right into an intimate dinner party at the Trump Senior penthouse or at the Trump Grill over some taco bowls. All of that should have rung chimes, bells, warning buzzers, gongs, thermonuclear explosions in the consciousness of Junior, but not.
Instead, Junior chose to snatch the dangled bait of the promised derogatory material on Clinton, clinching the meeting arrangements with an excited, “I love it” in an email. Eventually, the two met in Junior’s Trump Tower office, along with brother-in-law Jared Kushner (Note to self: we’re going to have to find his diary too rather soon) along with the then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort. At least according to Junior, in the end, there was no there, there, in that promised, proffered material. On the other hand, Mata Hari-ski got little or no joy from Junior over the sanctions regimen. (How, exactly, he could have done so is a little mystifying, given the fact he was a private citizen and son of a not-yet-successful presidential candidate, but, anyway….)
Now, fast-forward to the present. Complaints by Trump senior’s personal lawyer that everything so far on the Russia witch hunt has been a “nothing burger” is now rapidly being overtaken by the simple fact that, right there, in black and white, Junior is as good as soliciting a verboten “some thing of value” (the wording right from the Federal election statutes) from a foreign power. Okay, such dealings aren’t treason because the US and Russia aren’t at war, but it is clearly not legal for political campaigns to receive contributions from foreign sources.
Meanwhile, ever since his not-quite-triumphal return from the Hamburg G20 meeting, Trump Senior has been cloistered inside the White House, barely able to muster much more than a “my boy is a good man, innocent and true”, anodyne statement, yielding to other White House denizens the need to try to mount a defence of this mess. This has left the field open for a growing number of Republicans to utter comments that have mimicked tongue clucking in obscure foreign languages and sage head shaking (unless they have been ducking reporters entirely). And Democratic Party figures have been edging up to the phrase, à la Virginia Senator Matt Kaine, that Junior’s bad behaviour was more than a little troublesome. Or, as Kaine put it, “We’re now beyond obstruction of justice… this is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into, potentially, treason.”
Okay, that last phrase may be an overstretch right now, but it is surely tempting to think it as the FBI and several congressional committees are all trying to sort out the tangled tendrils of Russian hacking or other interference into the 2016 election, especially in the wake of the intelligence community’s joint report that the reality of this interference is, well, real. Actually, this story in your hands was about to explore the results of Senior’s not so fabulous Hamburg trip, but even those misadventures have been overtaken by Junior’s actions.
Even Junior has admitted on Fox News that while the alarm bells of a Russian lawyer with obvious government connections peddling potential dirt on Hillary Clinton didn’t ring bells for Junior in June 2016, in the harsher light of hindsight, he said he would have handled things just a bit differently. Right you are, my boy, you got that one dead right; especially if what you did and said back then now manages to drag dad down into the quicksand of an unending, unrelenting scandal for the next three-and-a-half years of his term of office as president.
But, returning to Hamburg for a moment, in addition to letting former frock-seller Ivanka Trump sit in for him during part of the G-20 plenary session, his sticking with a climate accord position that someone like German Chancellor Merkel called “deplorable”, and his being the odd-man-out on the trade and globalisation part of the G-20 declaration, Senior’s two hour-plus meeting with Russian President Putin also calls for a bit of closer examination.
Putin obviously took this meeting more seriously than his interlocutor. He was well drilled and thoroughly prepared from over a decade of such meetings with previous presidents. Senior, however, thought he could wing it on the basis of his self-described deep insights into human nature and his clearly scintillating personality. The Greek word for this form of delusion is, of course, hubris.
The Russians had sought just such a meeting – given that the last such meeting was back in 2015 with a president they had obviously loathed. They expected that the result of the face-to-face conversation, with no expressions by their side of any contrition whatsoever over election meddling, would meet a key objective – re-establishing an equivalence of the two nations internationally and, hopefully, even the rollback of economic and financial sanctions imposed by the US over Crimea and Ukraine invasions and interference.
Then, bizarrely, the meeting opened the door for Senior to propose to Putin the idea of a bilateral cyber-security praetorian type guard to keep hacking at bay globally. Given that the topic had gained its salience precisely because of the evidence of Russian hacking in the US election (as well as in similar operations in other elections), even Republican senators called such an idea so laughable that they couldn’t even characterise it as stupid and ill timed. Within a day, the Trump White House had pulled back completely on this idea, with a Senior tweet that such a project won’t happen. If that was the case, why even suggest it?
As for the other great accomplishment, the partial ceasefire in south-western Syria, while any glimmer of hope for an end to the death and destruction in that unhappy land must be applauded, what this Russia-US-Jordan agreement does not do is make any sort of possibility for the end of the Bashar al-Assad government, the very government whose barbarity had been the proximate cause of the Arab Spring rebellion in Syria – in south-western Syria – in the first place. As such, protection of the al-Assad regime by its key supporter – Russia – continues unabated and the agreement doesn’t even address this question in any way.
The only real, tangible outcome for US-Russian relations is the understanding that the two nations would continue to make plans for leaders’ summits in future, even if none of the issues – Ukraine intervention, Crimea annexation, hacking, election meddling, an end of al-Assad’s reign – had gained any purchase from the US perspective. If one were scoring this meeting, Putin gained all the points in the first round.
Consider the outcome of that ill-fated Khrushchev-Kennedy meeting in Vienna, right at the beginning of the Kennedy administration. That meeting, and Kennedy’s weak performance in it, had convinced the Soviet premier that Kennedy was a lightweight who could be pushed around. Most historians find in that result the resolve in Moscow that nuclear missiles could be based in Cuba, destabilising the nuclear balance of terror, and the US would not push back. The result then, of course, had been the near-military confrontation in October 1962 over those missiles that many believe had had a rather good chance of pushing the two nations into a devastating nuclear exchange from miscalculation, accidental action, or simple sheer foolishness, military machismo or bravado.
Now, at least up to this moment, one question remains troubling. (Well, okay, there are lots of unanswered questions about the Trump White House, but this one is beginning to bother me more and more.) What, exactly were the Russian goals in all this business from the temptation of Junior? It is possible to discern several possible motives, or even, possibly, all of them, simultaneously.
First is that the Trump campaign would have been tempted with something just enough for them to use it to embarrass the Clinton campaign. In conjunction with all the hacking and subsequent releases, those bot-attacks, and so forth, the Clinton forces would become demoralised, or all of this would contribute to her defeat. And perhaps it did.
Second, what if Junior had taken the bait and released whatever Mata Hari-ski had been able to feed him over time? (And that is how it is done, after all, once the fish has been hooked.) That would have contributed to a further sense by Americans that the elections game is rigged, that everybody cheats, lies and steals, and that the whole thing is just a giant con game played by satanically amoral creatures. Well, score one for the team for that outcome.
Third, if Junior had been hooked good and proper with a flow of tantalising titbits fed by Natalia Veselnitskaya and then others higher up the food chain, in accord with the usual “spy game compromising the opponent” playbook, they could have had one truly humongous Sword of Damocles rather permanently positioned over the collective heads of the Trump campaign and presidency. Or maybe the plan was to play for all of these alternatives and go for the hat trick.
In any case, regardless of the Russian plan, now going forward, Junior’s misplay has given new life to federal investigators, actual investigative journalists, and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists alike. Moreover, it keeps the Russia connection on the front burner (despite the cries of fake news). Any potential legislative agenda, whether it is that repeal/replace Obamacare morass, tax reform measures, or anything else dreamt up in the Republican leadership huddle, now is distinctly off the boil. And it gives the Democrats a possible unifying theme for the midterm elections as a referendum on the Trumpian Russian swamp inside the White House. And that election comes round in November 2018 and the campaigning starts just over the next hill. DM
Photo: Donald Trump, Jr. upon his arrival in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, NY, USA, 18 January 2017. EPA/ALBIN LOHR-JONES / POOL
Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.
You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.
So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.
Eton College once provided free education to poor boys. Now it quite literally does the opposite.