Looking Deeper At What Happened at the Big Meeting

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TPM Reader RM thinks TPM Reader JB is missing a key point. Here’s RM and then I’ll share a few thoughts at the end …

I think TPM Reader JB misses a key point of the Trump Tower meeting. Specific ‘collusion dirt’ was provided by the Russians in the Trump Tower meeting. The issue was that Junior didn’t like the ‘dirt’ that was offered and implied through his specific criticisms and subdued response that the Russians needed to bring better ‘dirt’, and that the Trump campaign left the door open to further explore matters should such ‘better dirt’ be provided. In addition, the Russians made a big deal of the Magnitsky Act and Bill Browder, indicating that they demanded something in exchange for the ‘dirt’ they were willing to provide to help the Trump campaign. That’s a quid pro quo: ‘we give you dirt, you consider our wish list’. Junior gave every indication of support for that concept in this meeting.

This sequence of events, in my view, makes the Trump Tower meeting legally damning on its own merits even without reference to DC Leaks, Guccifer 2.0, and the subsequent release of DNC/HRC emails. In short, I believe the lead up to the Trump Tower meeting + the actual meeting are enough to indict several people for conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin provided specific information regarding the Ziff Brothers, whom they alleged were financially corrupt donors who supported the DNC. This is the specific dirt that was offered by the Russians.

Veselnitskaya claimed that the Ziff Brothers engaged in a tax fraud scheme in Russia (with Bill Browder), made big money and then laundered that foreign money obtained from their Russian tax fraud scheme back into the US. Some of those ill-gotten gains were funneled into DNC campaign contributions to support Clinton. This would be a guilt by association argument similar to a claim leveled by the GOP against Bill Clinton as some argued that Chinese money made its way into the DNC coffers to support President Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Congressional hearings were held on the subject.

Ike Kaveladze described very clearly how Veselnitskaya and Akkmetshin tried to convince Junior, Kushner and Manafort that the Ziff Brothers story had value for the Trump campaign. As he described Veselnitsaya’s sales pitch, the Ziff Brothers money was “criminal money because it’s tax dodging”. It was laundered out of Russia to Ziff Brother accounts/shareholders in NY. That ‘illegal’ money could be used to taint the Democratic Party because in the words of Kaveladze, “Ziff Brothers are heavy sponsors of the Democratic Party, then, you know, basically this whole chain was kind of like portrayed as a negative for the Democratic Party.”

Kaveladze then added, “I think Mr. Akhmetshin suggested that the same thing could have been done with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” (Meaning a guilt by association and a potential argument that HRC/DNC should be investigated as to whether they knew about the Ziff Bros operation and welcomed the ‘dirty’ money into their campaign).

Junior understood the issue right away. He simply didn’t think the Russians had offered the right kind of ‘dirt’ that would be effective for the campaign. Per Kaveladze, Junior responded to the Ziff Brothers story to say that the Ziff Brothers support everybody, and that it wouldn’t be a strong enough story to utilize (again…the wrong kind of ‘dirt’).

Per Kaveladze, Junior specifically asked if the Russians had anything on Hillary (again…damning in my view as to intent to ‘collude’). Akhmetshin then told Junior in a somewhat frustrated response, “Why don’t you do your own research on her? We gave you the idea.”

The Russians, for their part, seemed genuinely surprised that the Ziff Brother story didn’t move the Trumpers’ needle.

Akhmetshin testified that he watched Kushner closely when the Ziff Brothers came up and seemed surprised that Kushner was subdued. “She [Veselnitskaya] talks about the Ziff Brothers and they’re billionaire kids, and he’s a billionaire kid, Jewish billionaire kid himself…I looked at him and I thought that there are not that many billionaires in New York of that age. So he probably knows them well.”

Junior also acknowledged the Russian interest in repealing the Magnitsky Act and didn’t say no. In fact he said that ‘if we win, we might get back to you and continue that discussion about the Magnitsky Act’

In short, Donald Trump Jr took a meeting with Russians with the intent to obtain ‘dirt’ on HRC for use in the campaign. The Russians provided what they thought would be useful ‘dirt’. Junior evaluated that ‘dirt’ and was underwhelmed. He implied that he wanted better ‘dirt’ and specifically stated that he might consider the Russians policy wish list. The implication is that if the Russians provided better ‘dirt’, the Trumpers would push the Russian demands to the top of their priority list. A criminal conspiracy does not have to be successful to be a crime.

All that said, the other events mentioned by JB did happen in close proximity to the Trump Tower meeting. It is quite possible (if not likely) that feedback regarding the Trump Tower meeting was considered by the Russians and they responded with the ‘dirt’ that the campaign wanted: emails. This request was made plain by Trump in many public statements. We don’t yet have the factual hook or piece of evidence that links the Trump Tower meeting to the activities of DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0, but from a legal standpoint, what Junior did in that meeting does rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. Establishing that first will make it easier to obtain the other evidence needed to link the different information threads together.

Let me add a few points. First, I agree that some or perhaps all of what RM argues here is correct. It seems clear that the Trumps were at least to some degree disappointed. Or at least they thought they’d get more dirt out of the meeting itself. I think this is clear if from nothing else from the fact that Trump himself teased his big Hillary dirt speech and then ended up canceling it. Meetings like this are often what are called ‘dangles’. The point isn’t to do business but to test the counter-party’s openness to crossing lines. If that was the case, it was definitely mission accomplished from the Russian side.

But my point is a broader or more total one. The only information that we have about this meeting is provided by interested parties with strong interests in exculpating themselves, with strong interests in lying. The Russians or Russian-Americans seem more open than the Trump people. But their interest in deceiving us is also clear. So my point is: we don’t really know if any of this is true. Every public source of information about what was discussed has a strong interest in lying to us. As RM notes, we have testimony suggesting that there was a standing offer on the table from Don Jr: give us more help than this and we can help you. But it’s entirely possible that much more happened that we in the public at least know nothing about. Given the strong interest all of our witnesses have in lying, that’s hardly a wild supposition. I suspect this is also one of the reasons the Manafort trial causes the President such acute anxiety and triggers such anger.