By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen,
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the director of the Intelligence and Defense Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He served for three years as director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Department of Energy and for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in domestic and international posts.
Donald Trump Jr. is seeking to write off as a nonevent his meeting last year with a Russian lawyer who was said to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton. “It was such a nothing,” he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “There was nothing to tell.”
But everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election campaign.
Let’s start with the interlocutor: Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. When arranging the meeting, music promoter and Trump family acquaintance Rob Goldstone referred to a “Russian government attorney.” Both Veselnitskaya and the Kremlin have subsequently denied any association. What’s beyond dispute is that she has lobbied for the United States to repeal Magnitsky Act sanctions against Russian officials, that she regularly represents the interests of the Moscow regional government and that her clients include the vice president of state-owned Russian Railways.
My read, as someone who has been part of the U.S. intelligence community for more than four decades, is that Veselnitskaya is probably too well-connected to have independently initiated such a high-level and sensitive encounter. If she had, her use of known Trump and Kremlin associates (Aras and Emin Agalarov) to help make introductions and the suggestion, in Goldstone’s account, that she wanted to share “official documents and information” as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for Trump could have gotten her into significant trouble. Her efforts to meet Trump associates would have surely come to the attention of Russian authorities at some point, given Russian government email monitoring and other means of surveillance. The Kremlin would look harshly on someone going rogue in a manner that would surely damage ongoing Russian intelligence operational efforts related to the U.S. presidential campaign.
A better explanation is that Veselnitskaya is far enough removed from Moscow’s halls of power to make her a good fit as an intermediary in an intelligence operation — as a “cut-out” with limited knowledge of the larger scheme and as an “access agent” sent to assess and test a high-priority target’s interest in cooperation. She may have had her own agenda going into the meeting: to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, which happens to impact some of her clients. But her agenda dovetailed with Kremlin interests — and it would have added another layer of plausible deniability. Russian intelligence practice is to co-opt such a person. News Friday that she was accompanied by Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who is reportedly suspected of, though denies, having ties to Russian intelligence, further bolsters this reading.
Trump Jr.’s assertion that Veselnitskaya didn’t deliver the promised dirt in that meeting is also consistent with how Russian intelligence operates. So, too, is Akhmetshin’s account that Veselnitskaya presented a document that she said suggested illegal payments to the Democratic National Committee, but told Trump Jr. that supporting evidence would require more research. Russia would have wanted to feel out the campaign before sharing its most prized material. Intelligence officers prefer to dip their toes in the water before taking a plunge. And it’s too risky to attempt a blunt approach to an extremely sensitive target (such as the son of the Republican front-runner for president), especially on hostile (in this case, American) soil.
Moreover, Russian intelligence presumably would not have risked passing high-value information through Veselnitskaya. As an untrained asset or co-optee — not a professional intelligence officer by any account — she would not have been entrusted with making a direct intelligence recruitment approach, including the passage of compromising information. Formalizing a relationship with the Trump campaign would be left for another day. If and when that day came, the pitch would be carried out by an experienced intelligence officer in favorable circumstances, with the right Trump associate and on friendly turf.
But even at the soft-pitch stage, standard Russian intelligence practice would require making clear what was on offer. The point is to test the target. Are they open to entering into a compromising relationship? Will they rebuff the mere suggestion of such impropriety? Will they alert authorities and thus stand in the way of Russian efforts?
And here, the deal should have been obvious to everyone. Moscow intended to discredit Clinton and help get Trump elected, and in exchange it hoped the Republican would consider its interests — in sanctions relief and otherwise. The Russian government appears to have signaled its direct involvement and real intention in advance of the meeting, presumably to avoid the possibility that its offer might be misconstrued, perhaps naively, as an innocent gesture of support and nothing more.
From the Russian perspective, the fact that Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting would have been the first promising sign. That veteran political operative Paul Manafort and senior adviser Jared Kushner showed up with him would have furthered the impression that there was strong interest in Russian assistance (and vulnerability to compromise) on the part of the campaign. But, according to standard espionage tradecraft, the most notable achievement of this encounter lay in the campaign’s failure to report it to the appropriate U.S. authorities — as Russia would have known when there was no immediate, dramatic increase in U.S. counterintelligence scrutiny of its election-related operations.
We should be cautious about overestimating the significance of this episode in isolation. Russia may have extended other feelers to other Trump associates at other points in time. Indeed, the Steele dossier suggests that the Kremlin was trying to cultivate the Trumps as far back as 2011. But, based on the publicly available information, the June 2016 overture seems to have been a win for Russia. It helped set the stage for the possibility of subsequent contacts between Trump associates and witting agents of the Russian government. (Some of these contacts are now known, and others, perhaps not.) And it would have allowed Russian intelligence to be comfortable initiating the next phase of its operation — systematically leaking information on Clinton and trying to penetrate the U.S. voting process — with the knowledge that the Trump campaign was interested in such Russian government assistance.
Although the Kremlin could have meddled without active or tacit approval from the campaign, having the campaign on board would have made the meddling more effective. For example, Russia could be sure that its actions would fit with Trump campaign strategy. Even Trump Jr.’s initial thought to drop the Clinton information later in the summer would be valuable for the Kremlin to know in terms of best timing.
Russia also would have wanted an implicit if not explicit agreement that intelligence assistance would be rewarded by a grateful Trump administration willing to relieve sanctions and embark on a more constructive relationship. The president presumably would not be nearly as willing to shift the long-standing, hard-line U.S. approach toward Russia — or its position on Ukraine, NATO and other issues — if he didn’t have a full appreciation for the Russian contribution to his election victory.
And after Russia’s overtures to the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign’s public denials that it had ever interacted with Russians, Vladimir Putin may have had the kompromat he needed to indirectly influence the Republican Party (such as the GOP platform on Ukraine) and Trump if he made it to the White House. The worst outcome would be that Trump would lose the election and, as a billionaire with global interests, still be a very useful ally for Putin.
Had this Russian overture been rejected or promptly reported by the Trump campaign to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence would have been forced to recalculate the risk vs. gain of continuing its aggressive operation to influence U.S. domestic politics. Russian meddling might have been compromised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before it reached fruition by the late fall.
So the suggestion that this was a nothing meeting without consequence is, in all likelihood, badly mistaken.
Ryan Goodman, a professor at New York University School of Law, an editor at Just Security and a former special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense, contributed to this essay.
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