To believe the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” is to believe that all the connections between Trump and those in his orbit are not inter-connected; that it’s all one huge coincidence. Here are the various dots (I may be missing a few):
- George Papadopoulos’ Russian contacts (through an intermediary) in early 2016.
- The June 2016 Trump tower meeting.
- Manafort’s many Russian connections and his willingness to manage Trump’s campaign at no charge, at a time he was deep underwater financially.
- Roger Stone and his connections to Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0.
- The mysterious softening of the Republican platform position on Russia.
- Trump’s public ask for help from Russia finding HRC’s emails within hours of when Russia launched its hacking operation.
- The efforts to create a back channel, by both Jared Kushner and Erik Prince (the Seychelles meeting).
- Michael Flynn’s Russia contacts regarding sanctions.
As I said, I’m sure I’m leaving out a few.
Recently, I’ve started following blogger Marcy Wheeler, of Emptywheel. Marcy’s analysis during the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby imbroglio was brilliant. On several occasions, she figured things out that the mainstream media had missed.
Her analysis of Mueller investigation related matters has been stellar as well.
Wheeler makes the connection between Papadopoulos and the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Both were part of the Russian effort to offer dirt to the Trump campaign. The reason Mueller recently moved to sentence Papadopoulos, who wasn’t cooperating, is that he no longer needed much from him on that front:
Consider: along with whatever else Rick Gates gave Mueller’s team in February when he became state’s evidence, he also probably described what Paul Manafort (and possibly, Don Jr) understood about the dirt Russians were offering to the Trump campaign when both attended the June 9 Trump Tower meeting. Indeed, one of the details included in Papadopoulos’ plea deal is that Gates and Manafort discussed how to respond to Russian (and Greek) offers for a meeting.
[from the plea deal] On or about May 21, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS emailed another highranking Campaign official, with the subject line “Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump.” The email included the May 4 MFA Email and added: “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”2
2 The government notes that the official forwarded defendant PAPADOPOULOS’s email to another Campaign official (without including defendant PAPADOPOULOS) and stated: “Let[‘]s discuss. We need someone to communicate that OT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”
That detail — that the campaign knew Russians were offering emails as dirt to help Trump — was one of the things that might have helped Papadopoulos avoid a prison sentence. But since he pled, others have almost certainly provided substantially the same information, based both on what Papadopoulos told them, and on what they in turn told their superiors on the campaign or what their superiors told them.
We know that the Trump Tower meeting involved discussion of the Magnitskty Act sanctions and related freeze by Russia on American adoption of Russian babies.
Rachel Maddow has noted on several occasions that the Magnitsky Act sanctions ultimately will be a major element here. The sanctions are hurting Russian oligarchs big time (bigly?) and impact Putin financially.
So the Magnitsky Act discussion was not incidental to the Trump Tower meeting.
And it wasn’t incidental to the change in the Republican platform at the convention. Did Manafort play a role in implementing that change?
In It is False to Claim There Was No Follow-Up To The June 9 Meeting, Wheeler makes the case that the discussions between the Trump campaign and the Russians continued after the Trump Tower meeting.
On July 15, 2017 — a week after the June 9 meeting was reported in a NYT story publishing the first of numerous White House statements attempting to explain the meeting — Rhona Graff sent Rob Goldstone an email (PDF 44). With only a garbled (perhaps autocorrected) explanation, she forwarded back to Goldstone an email Goldstone himself had sent her the previous November, attaching some talking points from Natalia Veselnitskaya about Bill Browder and the Magnitsky sanctions (for a copy of the talking points, see PDF 37 ff).
A week after the White House had first issued a statement saying, in part, “there was no follow up” on the June 9 meeting, Trump’s Executive Assistant was sharing with Goldstone a paper trail showing that there had been.
It only was a week after that meeting, on June 15, 2016, when Guccifer 2.0 started releasing documents and information.
What happened? Here’s my guess: Between the time the Trump Tower meeting was arranged and June 9, 2016, when it took place, Trump Sr. had a campaign event at which he promised he would be announcing information about Hillary Clinton. Trump never made that promised announcement, but a ton of information about Clinton (and the DNC) ultimately surfaced.
Coincidence? On second thought, two coincidences? Two, because you’d have to believe (1) Trump Sr. had no advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting, and just coincidentally popped off about having information about Clinton almost immediately after the meeting was scheduled, and (2) Trump Sr. made his announcement with no basis for doing so, then, magically, Guccifer 2.0 began releasing information fewer than ten days later.
There’s an alternate, I believe more plausible, explanation. After Trump Sr. made his announcement, Manafort and others told him it can’t be done that way, because, you know, it’s illegal for a campaign to work with (i.e., collude or conspire) with a foreign government. Which put an end to Trump’s plans for his own dramatic announcement. He had to settle for Guccifer 2.0.
Enter Roger Stone, who ultimately had contacts with Guccifer 2.0 and Wikileaks.
Then, a few weeks later, at the Republican convention, the platform change was implemented.
But, as Wheeler explains, the Magnitsky Act part of the deal didn’t end there:
According to most participants in the meeting who offered testimony to SJC, the Russians were right to expect a follow up discussion on Magnitsky sanctions. In fact, all the participants representing the Russian side save Goldstone (including Anatoli Samochornov, who is the only witness on either side not to have compared notes with at least some of the others before testifying) remembered Don Jr ending the June 9 meeting by saying they’d revisit the issue if or when his father won.
And did they revisit the issue after Trump won? You betcha. Wheeler:
As I lay out below, Aras Agalarov’s US Vice President, Ike Kaveladze, pushed Goldstone to set up a second meeting, even if with lower level people. As far as we know, that meeting never got scheduled.
But even as the Agalorov effort to obtain sanctions relief fizzled, a more formal Russian effort started, then moved to a back channel.
The most important moment in any follow-up on the June 9 meeting request for sanctions relief came in the December 29, 2016 phones calls between Mike Flynn and Sergei Kislyak about sanctions, a discussion in which Flynn took close directions from KT McFarland, who was with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Those are the phone calls Flynn lied to the FBI about, in spite of broad knowledge of the calls among transition aides. Those are the phone calls about which he got a plea deal to cooperate with the Mueller team.
So, it all really does fit together. The underlying deal is straightforward: Russia provides help getting Trump elected and, in exchange, Trump provides sanctions relief. Everything connects to that exchange.
But what about Manafort?
Check out the timeline of Papadopoulos’ involvement in the Trump campaign and his Russia related acts:
March 19, 2016: The chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, John Podesta, falls victim to an email phishing scam. It is believed this is how a group of Russian hackers gained access to his email account.
Early March 2016: George Papadopoulos joins the Trump campaign as an adviser. While traveling in Italy in mid-March, Papadopoulos meets a London-based professor whom Papadopoulos understood to have “substantial connections to Russian government officials.”
March 21, 2016: Trump identifies Papadopoulos and Carter Page as members of his foreign policy team, in an interview with the Washington Post.
March 24, 2016: Papadopoulos meets in London with the professor who introduces him to a female Russian national who Papadopoulos believes to be a relative of Putin with links to other senior Russian officials.
March 29, 2016: Trump taps Paul Manafort to manage the Republican National Convention.
March 31, 2016: Papadopoulos tells Trump, Jeff Sessions and other campaign members that he can use his Russian connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
April 2016: Papadopoulos’ professor source tells the Trump adviser about a meeting with high-ranking Russian government officials in Moscow who have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
April 2016: Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak attends Trump’s foreign policy speech in Washington, where he meets Trump’s son-in-law and campaign adviser Jared Kushner. [emphasis mine]
By all appearances, Manafort’s involvement in the Trump campaign originated at the same time Russian efforts to influence the campaign in earnest. Which raises the $64,000,000 question: Did Manafort stand to gain financially (from Russia or Russian oligarchs) for assisting Russia’s efforts or, in the alternative, did he do so under threat? There’s no clear evidence of either, but three circumstances are highly suggestive: First, as just discussed, there’s the timing of Russia’s and Manafort’s involvement in the campaign. Second, there’s Manafort’s otherwise bewildering willingness to assist Trump for no pay at a time he was drowning financially. Third, there’s Manafort’s unwillingness to cooperate with prosecutors, which no sane person would believe stems from his loyalty to Trump (although he could be angling for a pardon).
Mueller of course is aware of countless details not available to us. So the picture will become even clearer as time passes and those details are made public. And some of my conjecture may well be proven wrong.
But the probability that the dots don’t connect has gone from low to zero.