It’s a slow August news day, so let’s do a little parsing. Yesterday, CNN published a piece on the state of play in the Trump/Russia investigation that included the following passage:
In the summer of 2016, US intelligence agencies noticed a spate of curious contacts between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian intelligence, according to current and former US officials briefed on the investigation… CNN has learned that investigators became more suspicious when they turned up intercepted communications that U.S. intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, who served as campaign chairman for three months, to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, the US officials say. The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.
Okay. So, we have current and former intelligence operatives as sources here. Maybe the retired guy leaks it and then the active guy doesn’t tell the reporter that they’re wrong. You know the drill if you’ve ever watched All the President’s Men. The next thing that’s important in there is that the intercepts implicating Manafort were targeting suspected Russian operatives. In other words, these were people who have some form of cover. And it’s probably not “official” cover that comes with diplomatic immunity, because that’s a clear tie to the Russian government. It’s got to be “non-official” cover, which means that they work at a bank or as a journalist or at some fake business or maybe they’re a student or work in information technology. Whatever it is that they do, it’s a deception intended to give them an excuse to travel, meet with influential Americans, or to work for the Russian government (perhaps as a hacker) without having to admit that that is what they’re doing. Classic spy stuff, but the key is that our spies are watching them because they’ve already detected suspicious activity. And the things these folks talked about tended to bolster the suspicion, because they’re on tape talking about “working with Paul Manafort…to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects.”
I don’t think it’s too hard to suss any of that out. The guys the NSA were monitoring don’t have name tags that identify them as Russian intelligence officers and the Americans that they dealt with would not necessarily know that they were Russian intelligence officers. They might think they were just gangsters or a hacking group or maybe that they worked for a friendly intelligence service like Latvia’s or Ukraine’s. But, at any rate, our folks were looking at them because of their suspected ties to the Kremlin.
Now, let’s look at the reaction to this CNN story from Manafort’s lawyer:
Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, issued this statement on the latest round of accusations: “Paul Manafort did not collude with the Russian government to undermine the 2016 election or to hack the DNC. Other than that comment, we aren’t going to respond to anonymous officials illegally peddling second hand conspiracy theories. But the Justice Department, and the courts if necessary, should hold someone to account for the flood of unlawful government leaks targeting Mr. Manafort.”
There’s some bluster in there, but also an acknowledgment that the information comes from actual government leaks. It may be second-hand. It may rely on logic and analysis more than outright slam-dunk proof. But it’s real. There really are transcripts of this type.
Also, the denial here is that Manafort worked with the Russian government. Technically, he isn’t denying that he tried to undermine the 2016 election nor that he had anything to do with the hacking of the DNC. He’s only denying that he worked with the Russian government to do these things. He also doesn’t deny involvement in any hacking except for the DNC. Of course, by the time the Russians sat down with Manafort, Trump Jr. and Kushner in Trump Tower and pitched their plan, they had already done most of the hacking. The hacking that remained to be done was on the voter databases.
By wording things this way, the lawyer is giving us a roadmap to what he can safely deny and what he cannot. If our government can only say we “suspect” Manafort was working with Russian governmental operatives, then he safely deny that he knew any better himself. Of course, that assumes that the proof to the contrary in the email chain isn’t sufficient to show that Manafort knew the Russian government was offering the help. Likewise, there’s only one hacking job (the DNC) that is denied, not the voter databases, not the DCCC, not John Podesta or Colin Powell’s email. And there’s no denial that Manafort worked to exploit the DNC material, only that he worked “with the Russian government” to obtain it.
When you parse this down, it’s a very spare set of denials that allows for all kinds of wiggle room. What we don’t see is a blanket denial that Manafort asked anyone who could be reasonably suspected of working for the Russian government for help in damaging Hillary Clinton. We don’t see a denial that he talked about hacking or that he worked to exploit hacked material.
This is consistent with the defense Manafort offered back in February: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
Taken as a whole, the statement of Manafort’s lawyer reads more as an admission than an actual denial. Yes, he did it, but he didn’t know he was doing it.
And, as we know from dealing with our own kids, that is the very last excuse you’ll hear after every other one has been cut off.
It might have even worked except for those pesky emails. Like this one:
On Jun 3, 2016, at 10:36 AM, Rob Goldstone wrote:
Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.
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 and information that would incriminate Hillary 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, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.