My posts here are usually designed to provide a long-term perspective on events, not add to the cacophony about the news of the day, but there are times when the major media seem so brain dead that I feel I have something different to contribute. It seems pretty clear to me what was going on last summer, but no one seems to be paying very much attention.
The Russian government and people have been hurt significantly--although hardly critically--by the American sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea, and other measures taken in response to human rights violations within Russia. As the election campaign unfolded, they knew that Hillary Clinton would continue or even increase the sanctions. On the other hand, Donald Trump had long-standing ties to Russia. It is also possible,. according to news reports, that Russian intelligence possessed compromising information about Trump. In any case, the Russian government had some reason to believe that Trump might be willing to ease the sanctions.
Now while I doubt that any of the participants in the famous meeting of a year ago among Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Natalia Vesenitskaya has been completely frank about their discussions as yet, the emails that surfaced yesterday, combined with Trump Jr.'s testimony, give a reasonable picture of what was up. As the New York Times points out today, Ms. Vesenitskaya is a trusted Moscow insider with many high-level connections. Working through the publicist Rob Goldstone, she offered dirt on Hillary Clinton developed by the Russian government to the Trump campaign in order to arrange a high-level meeting. Such dirt may well have been discussed at the meeting, although no one has confirmed that as yet. But in the course of the meeting, she turned the discussion to specific sanctions against Russians--the so-called Magnitsky Act--which she hoped a Trump Administration might lift. She also brought up the ban on US adoptions of Russian children that Putin had imposed in retaliation for that act, in effect proposing a deal, and confirming, critically, that she was at least claiming to be acting on behalf of the Russian government.
Now this was not the only instance we have discovered of negotiations for a quid pro quo between teh Trump campaign and Russian officials during the campaign. Last March my brother Charles brought some tweets from a statistician (not a journalist) named Carolyn O to my attention, in which she demonstrated the results of simple triangulation. Here is what I said here then:
"On September 2, President Obama met with President Putin at a G-8
Summit. They discussed US sanctions against Russia that Obama had
imposed the day before, and Putin described them as an obstacle to
cooperation between the two nations.
"Five days later, on September 7, James Clapper, the Director of National
Intelligence, suggested for the first time that Russia had hacked the
Democratic National Committee.
"On the very next day, September 8, Trump told a Russian TV correspondent
that he did not believe Russia was behind the hack, and Sessions met
with Kislyak. [n.b.: This was the meeting that Sessions did not disclose in his confirmation hearing.] Trump also said publicly that, 'If we had a relationship
with Russia, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work on it together
and knock the hell out of ISIS?' And on that same day, Trump and Pence
made a whole series of statements praising Putin's leadership style. and
on the same day, Tass announced, 'Moscow expects Washington to display
political will on building good relations with Russia after the
presidential election," quoting Dimitry Peskov.'"
The July meeting, it seems, may have been the start of something. By September, it looks as if a deal was in operation. Russia would continue releasing hacked emails, and perhaps trying to hurt the Clinton campaign in other ways. Trump would try to exonerate the Russians for the hack (as he still intermittently continues to do.) He and his surrogates would also promise better relations.
Trump did, of course, win the election, but the clear evidence that the Russians had hacked the DNC and the evidence of contacts between them and his campaign have made it difficult to carry out the deal. Early last month it seemed that the Russians had won one victory since the Trump Administration was reported to be ready to allow them to re-open two listening posts in the US that the Obama Administration had ordered closed. And the President himself still speaks intermittently about the possibility of more cooperation with Russia. The Congress, however, has moved to impose more sanctions.
The Trump campaign, in short, appears to have secured help from a foreign government that carried out the modern equivalent of a Watergate break-in to help it win the election, in exchange for unknown promises of better relations which it has not been able to keep. The situation would truly be parallel to Watergate were any evidence to surface that the Russians carried out the DNC attack after discussing it with the Trump campaign, but there does not seem to be any such evidence as yet. The Russian hacks began perhaps a year before the meeting that is in the news this week. A careful analysis in today's New York Times tends toward the conclusion that what has been revealed this week does not rise to the level of a crime.
Putin's investment in Trump has already paid off handsomely in the form of disarray within the NATO alliance and a general loss of respect for the US around the world. But his government has not gotten what it wanted. This raises the question of whether he can, or would, turn to sticks as well as carrots--perhaps threats to release compromising information about Trump, which a respected retired British intelligence officer concluded that he probably had. The real story, in any case, is about the evolution of a long relationship between Trump and Russian interests, before, during, and perhaps after his campaign. Given the level of indiscretion revealed in the recently released email chain, more evidence seems very likely to emerge.