The House Intelligence Committee has released a highly redacted report that purports to exonerate the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians. It will become the biggest joke in the history of Congressional oversight. I’ve delved into this question deep enough on my own to know better. A good place to start is with two pieces from last November: A #TrumpRussia Confession in Plain Sight and the follow-up Does a Russian’s Confession Fit What We Know?
You don’t even need to get into the weeds to see the inadequacies of the House Intelligence report. You can look at the front page of today’s New York Times and see solid confirmation of collusion.
The Russian lawyer who met with Trump campaign officials in Trump Tower in June 2016 on the premise that she would deliver damaging information about Hillary Clinton has long insisted she is a private attorney, not a Kremlin operative trying to meddle in the presidential election.
But newly released emails show that in at least one instance two years earlier, the lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, worked hand in glove with Russia’s chief legal office to thwart a Justice Department civil fraud case against a well-connected Russian firm.
Ms. Veselnitskaya also appears to have recanted her earlier denials of Russian government ties. During an interview to be broadcast Friday by NBC News, she acknowledged that she was not merely a private lawyer but a source of information for a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, the prosecutor general.
“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” she said. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”
There are terms of art in the spy business, and “informant” isn’t really the appropriate word here. Ms. Veselnitskaya is a somewhere between a source and an agent. The best background on these arrangements is still the 25,000-word cover story Carl Bernstein had published in Rolling Stone on October 20, 1977: The CIA and the Media. Spy agencies utilize ordinary citizens to gather intelligence all the time. Anyone who frequently travels or works abroad and has interactions with powerful people is someone that the intelligence community wants to debrief. Media figures have always been near the top of the list. You can call these people informants, but that term is better suited to people who are working against their home country rather than for it. In general, these relationships are informal, often uncompensated and voluntary, and involve little to no training. If people are trained and compensated, they can be given limited information gathering missions. We might call these people “agents.” They are run by an intelligence officer who oversees and often directs their activities. Ms. Veselnitskaya fits the profile of an agent more than an informant or simple source.
Even her overt legal activities in the United States can be considered operations, since they were coordinated with officials high up in the Kremlin hierarchy who had a keen interest in preventing and undoing sanctions that had been imposed on Russia. But her trip to Trump Tower was most definitely an operation approved and designed by Russian intelligence and Russia’s prosecutor general Yuri Y. Chaika.
While the full design and goals of the operation aren’t known, there is no doubt that Trump’s preexisting close relationship with the Agalarov family, which was firmly established through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, was utilized as the entry point to get Russian intelligence a seat at the table. The Russians were in possession of information that they knew would be damaging to Hillary Clinton, and they wanted to see what they could get in return from Trump. At the top of their list were sanctions relief, acquiescence in the annexation of Crimea, and a freer hand in Syria. Lower down their list was convincing the West to end the NATO commitment in the Baltics. They have also had a general goal of creating fissures and weakness in Western societies, especially if those caused paralysis and an inability to present a common front.
From the Russians’ perspective, the Trump Tower meeting could go in a variety of different directions, but the mere fact that it was happening at all was a coup for them that they could exploit as leverage over Trump. In accepting the meeting and its offer of stolen documents and then not disclosing any of it to our intelligence agencies, the Trump team was making themselves accessories to a crime and partners with a hostile intelligence service. The operation would have been a failure if nothing came of it and the approach were duly reported to the proper authorities. Once the meeting went unreported, the operation was guaranteed to be considered a major success.
Subsequently, Trump would argue that Crimea liked their new Russian overlords, that Russia could take care of ISIS in Syria on their own, and that his administration would seek a reset with Russia and sanctions would be lifted. Trump would also attack NATO, calling it obsolete and threatening its funding, while applauding Brexit and savagely attaching the European Union.
In return, the Russians timed the release of their stolen documents to maximally damage Clinton and to help Trump. The first tranche was released during the Democratic National Convention and was aimed at infuriating Sander’s supporters and preventing the left from uniting. The first Podesta emails were delivered an hour after the Access Hollywood tape came out and the same day that the Obama administration released their report on Russia’s election meddling activities. And the rest of the Podesta emails were rolled out methodically during the last weeks of the campaign.
None of this is particularly controversial outside of the right-wing fever swamp. The details are being investigated rather than the basic picture. For one thing, we’d like to prevent this kind of interference from being so easy and effective in future elections. That requires a thorough understanding of the mechanisms and personalities that were involved in this conspiracy. The basic conspiracy is that Trump adopted positions towards Russia in return for their assistance in helping him win. That’s so observable that it’s essentially proven. It’s possible that the conspiracy goes back earlier in time and has deeper roots. In other words, what originated as efforts to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin for business reasons morphed into a political campaign. The role of compromising material and blackmail leverage over Trump is also important, as Russia cultivated Trump with carrots and sticks. That’s how the Trump Tower operation was designed, and that’s how things still appear to be operating.