Editor’s Note: Ryan Goodman is professor of law at New York University and co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, an online forum on national security law and policy. He served as special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense from 2015 to 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the director of the Intelligence and Defense Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He served as director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Department of Energy 2005 to 2008 and as chief of the CIA’s European Division 2004 to 2005 as part of a 23-year career in the CIA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
Mowatt-Larssen & Goodman: We need to focus more attention on what happened after Donald Trump Jr. meeting with Russian lawyer
The pattern of activity suggests that the alleged collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin continued far beyond June 9
Many in the media have focused too narrowly on how Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lobbyist and lawyer in Trump Tower looks bad.
But what the media, the public and investigators should really focus on now is what happened after the meeting. The key is to think more broadly, including asking two questions.
First, assuming this was an overture by Russian intelligence agencies, despite the Kremlin’s denials, what would the Russian government most likely have done next?
Second, how should we then interpret subsequent actions of the Trump circle in light of the actions the Kremlin would have pursued? The answers to those questions suggest that the alleged collusion between the Trump circle and Putin’s team could well have continued far beyond June 9.
Instead, the media coverage seems geared toward making the meeting explicable in terms of an ill-advised, short, perhaps even forgettable meeting for which Donald Trump Jr. takes the heat. That narrative often also includes the idea that this may have been an independent, ill-conceived attempt on the part of a Russian lobbying group to provide what was ultimately fairly useless information about Hillary Clinton.
We have focused on how the meeting bears all the hallmarks of a Russian intelligence operation and, in particular, a test to gauge whether the Trump campaign would be open to assistance from the Russian government.
In that event, Moscow got a green light. The only problem with the Russian attempt, according to Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer, was that the quality of the information on Clinton was poor. Trump Jr. and his team apparently wanted more.
So why would the Kremlin provide nothing of value to the Trump principals and disappoint them, especially when we know that by May, according to the US intelligence report, Putin had in his possession what he needed from the DNC server?
The logical explanation is because their intention was to establish interest in the Trump campaign’s receiving compromising material, not in satisfying their appetite for it. The information that was reportedly passed at this meeting has the feel of representing intelligence “feed material” to establish interest in more, higher quality information in the future.
Coincidentally, perhaps, it was only after the meeting that the DNC emails began to leak as part of a large scale influence operation to affect the presidential election.
Putin would need to keep a close eye on Donald Trump himself to see if his mercurial and contradictory positions on various issues during the campaign were ever reflected in his approach to Russia. Presumably, it would also be in the Russian interest to seek a direct signal from Trump himself that he was on board with the operation.
The Trump team’s actions in the days following that fateful meeting are incriminating, and bear a stunning consistency with what is reported in the Christopher Steele dossier.
Rather than notify authorities about the Russian overture, they kept it mum and denied any Russian contacts when asked. In early July, according to Politico, Carter Page was dispatched to Moscow. The Trump team would have had to know, at the very least, that Page would be approached by Russian intelligence agents. The campaign and Page long refused to say whether he was authorized to travel to Moscow, until the news media discovered that the campaign did indeed authorize the trip.
During the summer months, American intelligence, reported by the New York Times, began picking up conversations in which Russian officials were discussing contacts with Trump associates, and European allies were starting to pass along information” that described “meetings in European cities between Russian officials –and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin – and associates of President-elect Trump.” Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials. .
The Washington Post reports that Michael Flynn’s undisclosed communications with the Russian ambassador involved a “series of contacts … that began before the Nov. 8 election.” In late July, within a few days of officially securing the GOP nomination at the Republican convention, candidate Trump openly invited Russian assistance and election interference.
And in December, Jared Kushner, in an undisclosed short meeting with the Russian ambassador, proposed establishing a channel of communications with Moscow inside a Russian embassy or consul.
Was that also just another ill-advised idea of a neophyte? The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a Russia hand, Flynn was the other member of the Trump transition team who actively participated in the meeting. He knew better, just as Paul Manafort did during the June 9 meeting. The list goes on.
Two other pieces of information that stand out: First, Trump has always denied Russian election interference, which is bizarre given the consensus of opinion among US and foreign intelligence communities.
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Why does he do this? Here’s a theory: Because it takes two to collude, and if one party doesn’t know what the other is doing, that’s a way out politically and legally. Second, it is not uncommon for foreign governments and their diplomats to communicate with a presidential campaign and the major party candidates. Why then completely deny it ever happened?
Based on recent reporting, we know now that the June 9 meeting included, on the Russian side, two active supporters of one of Putin’s top priorities: getting rid of the Magnitsky Act. What was offered in the room that day – remarkably in accord with what Trump Jr. and Rinat Akhmetshin, one of the Russian-American lobbyists in attendance, have themselves both said on the record – boils down to a quid pro quo for incriminating information on Hillary Clinton in exchange for sanctions relief.
Understanding the context for each drip of information associated with the Trump campaign and Russia is crucial for properly interpreting the significance of each event, and how each fits into a greater whole. Through this process, America will finally have the truth that is being sought.