By early last summer, Russia and its intelligence services, the GRU and the FSB, were hip-deep in hacking the Democratic National Committee, and by mid-July the first leaked DNC emails had started to surface on WikiLeaks. That same month, the FBI quietly opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian hacking and the possibility of collusion between Moscow and Donald Trump's campaign.
And now we know that smack dab in the middle of all that, on June 6th, three people at the very heart of Trump's team secretly met in Trump Tower with a well-connected Russian operative who promised to deliver damaging information to them about Hillary Clinton's campaign. According to The New York Times, whose reporters broke the story in two stunning pieces on Saturday and Sunday, the three Trump minions were Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Until this weekend, there'd been lots of smoke, but little actual fire with regard to the Trump-Russia story. Now, the Trump administration is ablaze. The revelations, The Times reports, "represent the first public indication that at least some in the campaign were willing to accept Russian help."
Of course, it is neither shocking nor surprising that three of Trump's most intimate advisers would take the bait the Russians were dangling. After all, throughout 2016 and up until Trump's inauguration in January, a veritable who's who of the Trump machine held a dizzying array of tête-à-têtes with Russian officials and intermediaries, mostly neglecting or refusing to disclose those contacts until media reports forced them to admit them. That list includes, just for starters, former National Security Adviser General Michael T. Flynn's unreported conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions' September sit-down with that same ambassador and Kushner's hush-hush request that the Russians set up a covert, back-channel communications system between Trump's transition team and the Kremlin – again, through Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
But Trump's not always articulate PR team could dismiss or explain away all of that by saying Trump's people were just, you know, talking foreign policy with a key nation. No longer. What the June 6th, 2016, meeting tells us is the Trump-Russia connection was about politics, too. As damaging as that might be, or perhaps because of it, both the White House and the Kremlin have issued denials saying they knew anything about the meeting.
Last summer, you'll recall, Trump – never suspecting any of these recent revelations would come out – urged the Russians to hack Clinton. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you'll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," he blurted at a news conference. Russia, of course, was listening – but so was the FBI, which, unbeknownst to Trump, had already assigned agents to figure out if there were underground ties between Moscow and Trump World. Later, Trump would say he had been joking when he asked for Russia's help. But weeks earlier, his son, son-in-law and campaign manager really did seek such assistance.
Keep in mind that these latest revelations in The Times are only one data point in a vast universe of investigative leads. In Washington, there are at least four sets of bloodhounds on the trail: the special counsel's growing team of prosecutors, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller; the FBI's own, original inquiry; and parallel investigations by the (politicized) Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. All four are traveling down three separate paths: Did the GRU and FSB hack into Democratic servers and leak anti-Clinton stuff to WikiLeaks, DCLeaks and other outlets? Did officials of the Trump campaign – including Manafort, whose ties to Russia and pro-Russian officials in Ukraine are, well, manifold – wittingly or unwittingly aid the Russians? And are the White House and the Justice Department engaged in an illegal cover-up and an effort to quash the investigations – the possibility of which arose when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia," in Trump's own words?
The Russian intermediary who met with Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort last June is a top-flight lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. According to The Times, she represents Russian state-owned businesses and members of the Moscow elite, whose questionable activities had attracted the FBI's dogged attention long before the encounter with Trump's team. (Indeed, one of the strangest – hilarious, even – aspects of all this is that operatives in Trump's sphere kept meeting Russians whose every move, meeting and communication were already being tracked and transcribed by the U.S. intelligence community.) Typically, given Trump's pre-politics career, Veselnitskaya was referred to Trump Jr. by a wheeler-dealer connected to Trump's Miss Universe 2013 contest in Moscow, a man named Rob Goldstone from an outfit called Oui 2 Entertainment.
When The Times first reported the Veselnitskaya meeting, Trump Jr. scrambled to admit that, yes, they'd met, but only to discuss the Russian foreign adoption program. Nothing wrong with that, right? But the next day, when the paper reported that Veselnitskaya had offered to deliver damaging secrets about Clinton, Trump Jr. suddenly recalled that, oh yes, there was something about Clinton there. "I was told [she] might have information helpful to the campaign," said Trump Jr. – something about "information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton." Not only did the younger Trump's memory improve overnight, but he wants us to believe the meeting focused on suspicions that the Russians were helping Clinton.
Clearly, there's a lot more – a lot more – still to emerge, some of which will leak and some of which might come out only when Mueller and his team conclude their investigation. (There's no timetable for that, and the ultimate result isn't clear: Will the full report be published, or only a sanitized version? Will Mueller recommend indictments, and if so, how high up? Could it lead to impeachment proceedings?)
But one additional note, for now: While Veselnitskaya's main focus has been to defend Russia's odious human-rights record, she also has important ties to shady real estate deals, and – as The Times reports – one of her clients is the owner of Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus-based investment firm alleged to be involved in money laundering in real estate. Why is that important? Because the Trump and Kushner families, a marriage between two of New York's leading real estate dynasties, are in numerous ways connected to Russian real estate deals. ("We don't rely on American banks," said Eric Trump in 2014. "We have all the funding we need out of Russia.")
And as Bill Clinton found, once a special prosecutor – in this case, special counsel – starts an investigation, there's no telling where it'll go. Back in the Nineties, when Kenneth Starr, the bulldog special prosecutor empowered to look into Whitewater, got going, he soon expanded into the Monica Lewinsky blow-job scandal. This time around, Mueller, hired to investigate the Russia-Trump affair, conceivably could expand his unrestricted inquiry to include the Trump real estate/hotel empire, and not just the Russian-connected part of it, but the whole, tangled ball of twine. (Mueller has already hired, among his still-assembling top-notch team, Andrew Goldstein, a former Manhattan assistant U.S attorney who knows more than a little about New York City's raucous real estate operations.)
As the four inquiries – especially Mueller's – move forward, it's likely more and more fires will be found beneath the smoke.