How to Decode the Meeting Between Trump Jr. and the Russian Lawyer
Policy + Politics

How to Decode the Meeting Between Trump Jr. and the Russian Lawyer

Brian REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The revelations about communications between the top aides to Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and a lawyer reportedly promising Kremlin-sourced dirt on his Democratic opponent have not exactly redounded to the credit of any members of the Trump administration, with the notable exception of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Though the former federal prosecutor has kept a low profile in recent weeks, it is becoming increasingly plain that his decision earlier this year to appoint an special counsel to investigate the alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia was the right one, if only because the country desperately needs someone who can make sense of all the conflicting claims coming from the Trump administration, Russian officials, and the shadowy web of lawyers, fixers and spin-doctors that are now representing Kremlin-connected Russian oligarchs in their dealings with Washington.

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The hope is that Rosenstein’s appointee, former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller, will be able to untangle a web of confusing claims and counterclaims that have exploded onto the scene in Washington over the past several days after the revelation that Donald Trump Jr., senior Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort all met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower last June. The meeting took place not long before Russia-connected hackers began distributing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff.

Cast of Russian Names
(In order of appearance)
Natalia Veselnitskaya: The Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin who met with Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manfort and Jared Kushner.
Agas Agalarov: A Russian oligarch, represented by Rob Goldstone who told Team Trump that Veselnitskaya had damaging information about Clinton.
Denis Katsyv: Another oligarch with ties to Putin, represented by Veselnitskaya, whose company was implicated in a money-laundering scheme.
Sergei Magnitsky: The Russian lawyer who exposed the Kremlin corruption, was jailed, tortured and killed. His death led to the Magnitsky Act.
Dmitry Peskov: A Kremlin spokesman.
Peter Pomerantsev: author of a book describing how the Kremlin controls information.
Ostankino: Kremlin-controlled TV network.

And there will be plenty to untangle.

First, Donald Trump Jr. insisted that he had met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya to discuss Kremlin policies blocking Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

Then The New York Times reported that Veselnitskaya gained access to Trump not with a request to discuss adoption, but rather with promises of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Related: GOP and Dems Alike Stunned by Trump’s Plan to Act with Putin on ‘Cyber’

Trump Jr. executed a clumsy pivot the next day, arguing that, well, of course he met with her because she promised ‘oppo’ research on his father’s opponent. “Obviously, I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen,” he wrote on Twitter.

The effort to pass off the Veselnitskaya meeting as a routine bit of campaign-related due diligence might have provided a veneer of plausible deniability amid claims that the meeting smacked of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Except that by Monday night, The Times was reporting that Trump Jr. had been told in advance by Rob Goldstone, a British music promoter who represents the pop star son of a Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch Agas Agalarov, that Veselnitskaya was prepared to deliver damaging information about Clinton that had been gathered by the Russian government.

If true, that means that Trump Jr. is on the record admitting that he was happy to meet with a Russian attorney who was promising Kremlin-sourced oppo research on Hillary Clinton, which flies wing-meltingly close to the sun as collusion with a foreign power to interfere in a presidential election.

Confused yet? It only gets worse.

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Veselnitskaya, an attorney who practices in Moscow, is well-known for representing a different oligarch, Denis Katsyv, whose company was implicated in laundering a portion of the money that well-connected members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle collected from a massive case of tax fraud uncovered by another Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was jailed, beaten, and left to die in the custody of the Russian state, then posthumously declared guilty of the same tax fraud that he had uncovered. His death inspired the Magnitsky Act, a piece of US legislation that makes it difficult for Kremlin-connected oligarchs like Katsyv and Agalarov to access the global financial system.

Veselnitskaya has built her reputation, in large part, as a vehement critic of the Magnitsky Act, and has participated in multiple efforts to have the law repealed or its enforcement scaled back.

However, despite her connections to Katsyv, a close ally of Putin’s, and her advocacy against the Magnitsky Act, which Putin is known to despise, the Kremlin on Monday insisted that officials there did not know of her or her anti-Magnitsky Act efforts.

Related: How Long Until Trump’s Self-Dealing Becomes Our New Normal?

“We don’t know who she is and, naturally, we can’t track the meetings of all Russian lawyers domestically and abroad,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.

Further, Veselnitskaya on Tuesday told NBC News that she had never offered any compromising material about Clinton to the Trump campaign.

“I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” she said. “It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”

While the growing edifice of contradictory claims coming from Team Trump, the Kremlin, and Russians with obvious Kremlin ties who nevertheless claim to be independent actors may be confusing to Americans, to people familiar with modern day Russia and the techniques its power brokers use to keep the public confused and cynical, the methods are familiar.

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In his 2014 book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, journalist Peter Pomerantsev describes a world in which objective reality is actively undermined by people in positions of authority as a means of protecting their own power and prerogatives. As an example, he cites the consistently misleading programming on the Kremlin-backed television network Ostankino.

“...the lies are told so often that after a while you find yourself nodding because it’s hard to get your head around the idea that they are lying quite so much and quite so brazenly -- and at some level you feel that if Ostankino can lie so much and get away with it, doesn’t that mean they have real power, the power to define what is true and what isn’t?”

 The idea that egregious lies, repeated frequently enough, begin to take on the aura of truth is neither uniquely Russian nor unknown in the US. Donald Trump himself during his campaign and into his presidency has used the repetition of demonstrable falsehoods to shore up support from his base.

A key difference between Russia and the US, at least for now, is that there is at least some residual trust in the integrity of some of our public figures -- like Mueller, the man appointed by Rosenstein to serve as special counsel. Hopefully, the former FBI director and his team of investigators will be able to untangle the web of contradictions now threatening to strangle the public’s little remaining faith in its governing institutions.