In “The French Connection II,” Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, quitting heroin cold turkey, asks for a big, juicy American hamburger with the blood dripping out of it and ketchup and onions piled high. It’s not available to Popeye in the movie, but it’s being served raw in the White House right now. And Donald J. Trump is about to choke on it.
The meal in question was given its sobriquet, “a big nothing-burger,” by Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who thus described the revelation of a meeting in June 2016 between the three then-principals of Trump’s presidential campaign — son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort — with a Russian operative, Natalia Veselnitskaya. Thus commenced a sequence of lies and concealments with more layers than a Russian doll. It is best to strip them away one by one.
The first concealment concerned, of course, the fact of the meeting itself. Trump Jr. is not an official member of the White House staff, and Paul Manafort was dismissed as campaign manager soon after the Republican Convention when his own shady ties to a Russian oligarch were disclosed. But Jared Kushner, as a White House staff member, was required to list all contact with foreign individuals as part of obtaining his national security clearance. Kushner omitted disclosing the contact with Veselnitskaya — and, as it turned out, with about a hundred other people as well.
Once the meeting became public knowledge, Trump Jr. characterized it as relating to the question of “Russian adoptions.” This seemed an odd matter for busy campaign managers to concern themselves with on the eve of a nominating convention, but the backstory was more interesting. The case of a Russian dissident, Sergei Magnitsky, who had exposed corruption among the oligarchs and died in prison under suspect circumstances had resulted in congressional sanctions against senior figures in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and Putin, in retaliation, had frozen a Russian adoption program with the U.S. Veselnitskaya, as it turned out, had lobbied intensively for repeal of the so-called Magnitsky Law, a chief Putin policy objective. A meeting with her to discuss this subject would seem on the face of it to violate federal laws against interfering with the foreign policy of a sitting president; to conceal the meeting involved a raft of other laws about electioneering.
Trump Jr. tried to evade this point by suggesting that he had not known in advance about the subject of the meeting, which only raised the obvious question of how it had been put to him and why he had accepted it. Another lie: to protect Kushner in particular, Trump Jr. further claimed that Kushner and Manafort had only been casually invited to the meeting at the last minute, and that they, too, had no idea what it was about.
Trump Jr. only came clean when The New York Times told him it was about to publish an e-mail chain leaked to it that would describe the full background of the meeting. In the interests of “transparency,” as he put it, he then put the chain online himself. The emails revealed that the meeting with Veselnitskaya had been brokered by a Trump associate, Rob Goldstone, who had allegedly been approached by Kremlin contacts with an offer of compromising information about Hillary Clinton. This broke a slew of other laws about accepting items “of value” from foreign governments pertaining to an American election. Instead of rejecting this overture, Junior responded enthusiastically — “I love it!” — and immediately copied Kushner and Manafort to bring them on board. He also indicated that he would welcome a continued flow of information from his new sources to be released at strategic moments in the summer and fall. At this point, he was going beyond statute violation into the murky area of conspiring with a foreign power to tilt a presidential election — that is, flirting with treason.
Kushner clammed up, saying only that he had failed to disclose his participation in the meeting inadvertently. Manafort refused all comment. Junior was hung out to dry, with even his father limiting himself to the ambiguous observation that he was “a highly-quality person.” Benedict Arnold had been so regarded too.
The drip of lies continued.
Junior had repeatedly stated that the meeting had been limited to the four persons named, and that when Veselnitskaya’s objective of repealing the Magnitsky Law became apparent, both Kushner and Manafort left it. Junior himself, alone with Veselnitskaya, had reportedly terminated the conversation a few minutes later. Nothing of “value” had been proffered by the Russian, he contended, and no material was left or exchanged.
Not so, alas. At least two other persons were in fact in the room: an associate of Veselnitskaya’s with a counterintelligence background and an unnamed “translator.” Possibly two other persons were present as well, thus far unidentified. And material was indeed left for Junior, to this point undisclosed.
With the e-mails now public, Junior could no longer claim that the meeting had not been set up to get dirt on Clinton. This he characterized as “opposition research” of the kind routinely done by political campaigns against each other. When what Veselnitskaya had to offer proved uninteresting, he had rebuffed her on the Magnitsky issue. Case closed — except for that business of federal election law, in which the mere solicitation of or willingness to receive objects of “value” is tantamount to accepting them, and the apparent fact that something had indeed been accepted.
At this point, the Russian objective was clear enough: to entrap the Trump campaign — collectively as well as individually liable as a matter of law — in a compromising position that would give the Kremlin leverage over American foreign policy should Donald Trump be elected. It is quite possible that the Russians dangled similar tidbits about Trump himself before the Clinton camp, or made them indirectly public — the so-called British dossier on Trump’s alleged sexual indiscretions in Moscow comes to mind. But Trump won the election, and the trap laid for Junior became the operative asset. Only The New York Times knows where its information came from; it has referred to five independent sources, who are presumed to be White House leakers. Perhaps; but even if the leaks do come from within, it isn’t clear where the faucets are. It is hard to imagine that many patriots lurking in the Trump administration, thirsting to reveal the information that might bring down their boss.
Which brings us to Donald Trump himself.
Trump has disclaimed any knowledge of the meeting with Veselnitskaya prior to its public disclosure; such knowledge, of course, would have made him a party to it, and therefore of a conspiracy to collude with a foreign power. It beggars belief that Trump would not have been informed of such a meeting when it took place, and that it would have been kept secret from him for months into his administration as Congressional and Justice Department investigations into its contacts with Russia mushroomed all around him. There is, moreover, strong contemporary evidence from Trump himself that he not only knew of the meeting with Veselnitskaya in advance, but had high expectations for it: just before it took place, he promised a speech within days with major revelations about Clinton. When the meeting fizzled, the speech was quietly shelved; but Trump would publicly encourage Russian hacking against Clinton later that summer, in effect cheering on foreign electoral interference.
A prima facie case can easily be made that Trump has, in fact, been acting as someone in fear of blackmail. His fulsome praise of Putin personally and his contemptuous takedowns of NATO; his backdoor offer, as president-elect, to revisit the question of Russian sanctions and the subsequent attempt of Jared Kushner to establish a private channel to Moscow through the Russian embassy itself; his appointment of a virtual Russian apparatchik, Michael Flynn, as his National Security Advisor; his disclosure of intelligence secrets to the Russian ambassador at a meeting barred except to Russian media; his bizarre offer of bilateral collaboration with Russia on cybersecurity. Some of these things, perhaps, could be attributed to naivete or sheer stupidity, but the sum of them is simply too damning and the conclusion to be drawn from them is too grave to ignore — namely, that American foreign policy is in thrall to a hostile power. Of one thing, at any rate, we can be reasonably sure: given Trump’s extensive business and personal history in Russia and his known association with oligarchs, Putin would have a veritable archive of material on him.
In defense of Trump, one might point out that diplomatic relations with Russia have turned not warmer but in general frostier in his six months in office. But there are many counter-pressures on him, some from the senior military figures he has gathered around him (not in all cases willingly). From this point of view, might we not regard disclosure of the Veselnitskaya affair as a shot across the bow from Putin, a warning to Trump to toe the line? Putin does not, of course, need Trump; his real goal is a weakened America with a destabilized political system. If stringing Trump along can best achieve that end — a presidency deeply suspect and mired in endless scandal — Putin will play this card; if bringing him down with the attendant chaos and division it will sow serves it better, that too is in the deck. I have to think that hawkish Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain are having such thoughts, and their Democratic counterparts too. Meanwhile, the various investigations grind on, like so many time bombs ticking away.
America is in the midst of a crisis the like of which it has never experienced, at least not since the edgiest moments of the Cold War. Then, Joe McCarthy accused the state department of being honeycombed with Communists, and Republicans spoke, generically, of twenty years of treason. But all eyes are focused now on the Oval Office, and its present occupant. Harry Truman was, certainly, no Russian agent. But who, exactly, is Donald Trump?