Fascinating bit of news on the Manafort front from NBC News. Manafort’s notes from the infamous Don Jr./Trump Tower meeting with that Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer contain a reference to “donations” which are “near a reference to the Republican National Committee,” as the NBC report puts it. The report also says that the meaning of the notes is “cryptic.”
Now, it goes without saying that it is quite difficult to divine the meaning of stray notes, the contents of which we’re hearing about at one of two stages of remove. The reference to their being “cryptic” doesn’t surprise me. Often when I take notes in a meeting I just jot down stray words that catch my attention in the moment. Often I don’t even remember when I meant unless I review and write up the notes within a short period of time. However, in a meeting with a foreign national, who’s there as part of her country’s stated support for Donald Trump and either offering dirt on Hillary Clinton or pushing to change US law, it’s fairly hard to think of an innocent or even legal reason why anything about “donations” would come up in the discussion.
Let’s consider a few possibilities.
It’s possible that this was just a ‘dangle’, a phony offer or discussion meant to gauge the Trump campaign’s openness to work with Russia or simply to compromise people at the top of the campaign. It’s also possible that “donations” was about potential donations to the RNC – what the proximity of the reference to the RNC seems to indicate. If Russia was going to siphon money into the Trump campaign, the RNC is hardly the stealthiest way to do it. And there have been consistent unconfirmed reports that a major right-wing activist group received millions of dollars from Russia which were then used in field operations supporting Trump.
Donations, albeit indirectly, to Trump are the juiciest possibility. But here’s the possibility that intrigues me the most. The Trump staffers in that meeting say it was a bust and nothing came of it. According to Donald Trump, Jr., the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, said she knew about illicit money transactions by the DNC. But when he asked whether she had evidence to back it up, she said the Trump team would have to do the research themselves. But the Russian-American lobbyist who was in the meeting, Rinat Akhmetshin, told a different or at least more detailed story. He said Veseknitskaya had non-public documents that proved or at least suggested DNC wrongdoing.
Here’s a snippet from an AP interview with Akhmetshin …
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, Akhmetshin said. Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the campaign, he said.
“This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money,” Akhmetshin recalled her saying.
Now, if making the information public could help Trump, that had to mean the information wasn’t already public. That almost certainly means they were acquired by illegitimate means. There is at least some evidence that the hacks themselves focused on people in the committee’s finance department.
In any case, we seem to be on pretty strong ground with the assumption that questions about the DNC’s finances and the contributions it received were a subject of discussion at the meeting. There’s good reason to believe it was the entirety of the discussion. Don Jr. and the other Trump staff at the meeting say so. They just say Veselnitskaya said she didn’t have any proof. But Akhmetshin says she did or at least that she had a dossier of documents she said contained key details. It’s still guesswork. But it seems the most logical explanations of Manafort referencing “donations” would be a reference to this conversation about secret documents about the DNC’s finances.
With all that, was the meeting really such a bust? We know that Russian intelligence operatives already had a huge cache of documents and emails tied to the DNC’s finances and fundraising. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to think Veseknitskaya brought some of them with her from Russia. It’s by far the most logical read – either that she had some of them and was ready to share or that she was there to test the Trump campaign’s interest in such documents. (It’s possible that the Trumpers readiness to do business with this clandestine outreach was all she was there to confirm.) The man who set up the meeting between Don Jr. and Veselnitskaya said the offer was tied to the Russian government’s support for Trump’s campaign. If Veselnitskaya had documents, what happened to them? Did the Trump team get them? Did they refuse to take them? I don’t think we have close to the full story yet about what happened at that meeting.