Trump Wanted to Collude, But Did Putin?
Political memories are short, but they shouldn't be this short. Amid all the outrage about Donald Trump Jr.'s willingness a year ago to find out what dirt the Russian government may have had on Hillary Clinton, it's worth remembering his father's press conference on July 27, 2016.
"I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump told reporters in Florida. He was talking about Clinton's emails from her time as secretary of state that she had reportedly failed to turn over to the government. "Let's see if that happens. That'll be next." Trump also made it clear that he considered any foreign meddling in the election a sign of disrespect for the Obama administration -- something that should play in his favor with voters.
Trump's opponents were as indignant then as they are today. "This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent," said Jake Sullivan, policy adviser to Hillary for America. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta said Trump's comments were "beyond the pale" because he was "asking the Russians to engage in American politics."
The U.S. public has known for a year that Trump would have no scruples about using the spoils of Russian spying against Clinton. (He tweeted later that he'd encourage the Russians to turn over any Clinton emails to the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- but that was just an attempt to divert the criticism).
So the public hasn't found out much that is new from the decision of Donald Trump Jr. to take a meeting with a Russian lawyer who had been described to him in an email as a Russian government representative bearing anti-Clinton gifts for his father. In the summer of 2016, with Trump far behind in the polls, the family would have accepted that kind of help from the devil himself, not just Russian President Vladimir Putin. The candidate wasn't making much of a secret about it. Moreover, unlike his son, he expressed willingness to accept Russian intelligence as a campaign tool after the Democratic National Committee hack was reported. President Obama and Clinton made clear they would treat this as a national security breach rather than another part of winning the race for the White House. Trump made no such distinctions.
Almost all Trump supporters I talked to at rallies across the U.S. last year explained their preference by praising Trump's perceived frankness. "He tells it like it is," I heard again and again. In this case, too, he unashamedly spoke his mind, doing just what his voters admired. Many of them liked Putin more than Clinton, too, so accepting his help against her didn't look all that un-American to them.
Thanks to those people, Trump is now U.S. president. It's only natural that his sole comment on his son's decision to publish what many saw as incriminating emails -- and still more saw as a gigantic lapse in judgment -- was to praise his openness and transparency. It was another way to protect his brand’s strongest selling point to his base.
I find a different aspect of the Russian lawyer episode more intriguing than Donald Trump Jr.'s willingness to accept Russian help.
It's probably safe to say that lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya delivered no such help -- not because both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya say so, but because the Trump campaign never revealed any kompromat, to use a Russian word, on Clinton's ties with Russia. Music promoter Rob Goldstone, who arranged the meeting, emailed the candidate's son that this is what Veselnitskaya would bring, but he was clearly wrong, intentionally or not.
It probably wouldn't have been hard for the Kremlin to use Trump's Russian business partners -- such as the Agalarov family, involved in arranging the Veselnitskaya meeting -- to pass on information. It missed the opportunity, however. Months into the investigation of Russian election meddling, no information has come to light suggesting that Russia actually provided any ammunition to the Trump campaign, even though we know the Trumps would have welcomed it and a Republican operative, Peter W. Smith, also tried to solicit it, perhaps acting on the campaign's behalf.
It takes two to collude. The Trumps and other people on their side were ready to dance. But the partner, apparently, was a no-show. At most -- and that is still not proven -- the Russian government provided the spoils of several hacks to WikiLeaks, not to the Trump campaign.
If it's true that the Kremlin did not want to collude with the Trump camp -- and it certainly looks that way – its possible reasons are the most interesting part of the story. An obvious explanation that comes to mind is that Putin didn't believe in his ultimate victory and so didn't want be caught helping him because of possible retaliation from President Clinton. The only thing for Putin to like about Trump is the chaos he can cause with his overconfident novice's ways, but it can also be a threat. The Kremlin ultimately likes predictability and is itself predictable.
Another possible explanation is that Putin's U.S. experts thought helping Trump directly could have harmed his campaign. Where Trump was openly careless, the Russians are crafty enough to anticipate the political fallout. WikiLeaks damaged Clinton without directly involving Trump in the dirty business of hacking and colluding.
This, of course, is only guesswork. Yet I wouldn't completely give up hope that we'll know one day. Putin waited a year before he revealed the details of his planning for the 2014 Crimea annexation. Perhaps a moment will come when he feels free to talk about the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in a similar way, and we'll be able to piece together the story of the Kremlin's hopes and fears for that race.
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Mike Nizza at firstname.lastname@example.org