This week witnessed if not the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, then quite possibly, in Winston Churchill’s phrase after the battle of El Alamein, the end of the beginning.
The chain of emails Trump’s elder son, Donald Jr., released on Tuesday after learning the New York Times had a copy, may not by itself be proof that his father’s election campaign colluded with the Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to smear Hillary Clinton. But they are anything but inconsistent with such a conclusion.
The correspondence, from early June last year, is between Junior and Rob Goldstone. Goldstone is a lunchy former UK tabloid hack turned manager of musical talent. His clients include Russian pop idol Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani property developer sometimes called “the Donald Trump of Russia”. The Agalarovs provided the Moscow venue for the 2013 final of the Miss Universe contest which Trump then partly owned. The two families, plus Goldstone, are close. There was talk of collaboration on a Trump-branded building in the Russian capital. In March 2016, Aras told the Washington Post he was rooting for Trump to capture the White House.
Under the subject line “Re: Russia – Clinton private and confidential”, Goldstone told Junior on June 3 that “Emin asked me to contact you with something very interesting.” Using an English term, he continued: “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents that would incriminate Hillary…and would be very useful to your father.”
Then the bombshell: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but it is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump, helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Junior replied enthusiastically, seeming to refer to the coming showdown with Clinton and the need for ammo: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week…”
Goldstone followed up on June 6: “Emin asks that I schedule a meeting with you and the Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow…I believe you are aware of the meeting…I assumed it would be at your office.” “Great,” said Junior, “It will likely be Paul Manafort (campaign boss), my brother in law and me.”
And so, at 4pm on June 9, Junior, Goldstone, Jared Kushner, dad’s chief consigliere, and Manafort, the Washington swamp creature whose clients have included Mobutu Sese Seko, Jonas Savimbi and more recently Putin’s gauleiter in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, sat down at Trump HQ with Natalia Veselnitskaya who had been introduced to them as “the Russian government attorney”.
What transpired at the meeting is as yet unclear. The official line at this point is nothing of substance. We are also asked to believe that Trump himself, though in the building at the time, had not heard of it until a few days ago.
Kushner and Manafort are not talking for the record yet. Junior’s story has evolved with each fresh revelation by the New York Times, culminating for now with the gloss he released with the emails on Tuesday “in order to be totally transparent” and preempt the Times. He agreed to the meeting, he concedes, expecting that “the woman” had “opposition research” — dirt — to share on Clinton. But “she had no information to provide and wanted to talks about adoption policy and the Magnitsky Act”.
That is plausible. Adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2012, the act imposes sanctions on individuals implicated in the 2009 murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor jailed after exposing after a massive tax scam by Russian officials. Putin counterpunched with a ban on US adoptions of Russian children. Veselnitskaya may not be a government lawyer in the strict sense, but she does represent clients targeted by the act and has been leading a high profile campaign for its repeal. It is scarcely credible that Manafort and Kushner would not know who she was.
The Trump mbongi chorus says Junior was duped. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post editorialised: “We see one truly solid takeaway from the story of the day: Donald Trump Jr. is an idiot.” Manafort and Kushner? The son-in-law “walked out after 10 minutes while Manafort did work on his phone”.
Here’s my working hypothesis. The Agalarovs were Putin’s cut outs. Veselnitskaya didn’t come with dirt. She came with a proposition: dirt for a promise from Trump to lift any and all sanctions if elected. Trump, way behind in the polls at that point and a man demonstrably devoid of principle, said sure. Whereupon the dirt, in the form of of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, began arriving at strategic intervals along with a torrents of disinformation spread via social media.
If special counsel Robert Mueller can stand that up, Trump will be impeached.