Some revelations aren’t very revealing. Following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s email correspondence with publicist Rob Goldstone, we have learned that the Trump campaign would have been happy to receive from the Russian government damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Indeed they loved the idea. But we already knew that. In July 2016—six weeks after the Goldstone exchange—Donald Trump Sr. addressed the Putin government directly, in a news conference: “I tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you can find the thirty thousand emails that are missing.” In effect, he openly invited the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email—which is far more than Donald Jr. welcomed in secret.
And still, the revelation is shocking. Indeed, it feels like it changes everything. After months of talk about what it would take to get Trump impeached, analysts are calling this the “smoking gun” that could actually bring his downfall. Why does the occasion feel so momentous (other than because we want it to be)? After all, we learned only that Don Jr. said in confidence roughly the same thing that his father said for all the world to hear. But the news has been as shocking as it has because, after all this time, we still have not learned to take Trump’s public utterances seriously.
Trump’s public statements and tweets pose an obvious challenge to conventional interpretation because he lies so often and so blatantly. (A recent New York Times analysis found that he had said “something untrue” on at least 75 percent of his days in office. “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter…”) But that is not all. His speech exposes us to a view of the world that is so strange, so antithetical to the norms of American political culture, that many Americans find it basically unbelievable. Through Trump’s statements, especially when they concern Russia—whether Trump is calling on Putin to hack Hillary or expressing his admiration for Putin’s gift for power, or promising to cooperate with Russia on securing America against cyber attacks—we get a glimpse of a world run by a fellowship of rich powerful men bound by no principles, beliefs, or understanding of history. This is indeed the world in which both Trump and Putin live.
There is, in other words, an underlying truth to all of Trump’s lies (and occasional non-lies). His statements reveal his understanding of the world. In Trump’s world, President Obama could have had him wiretapped, millions of immigrants could have voted illegally, most of the media could be lying all the time. It’s not that Trump believes that all these things happened—it’s that he finds them conceivable. Just as it would have been conceivable for him to weaponize Hillary Clinton’s emails obtained by Russian hackers. It’s Trump’s gift for producing an endless stream of statements that most of us find inconceivable—the gap between his world and the world we believe we inhabit—that makes his speech so difficult to absorb.
Those Goldstone/Trump emails come from the Trumpian world, which is what makes them so shocking. Commentators have tried to frame their outrage in legal terms. Trump Jr. should have called the FBI, writes Nicholas Kristof in the Times; a former ethics lawyer for George W. Bush says the same thing. The word “treason” is once again being bandied about. This, however, assumes that Trump Jr. knew—or should have known, or that we know—that whatever information the Russian lawyer was offering had been obtained through espionage. This is not the case. And for Trump Jr.’s actions to rise to the legal standard of treason, the United States would have to be at war in Russia—for starters. This is also not the case. The fact is, based on what we know so far, Trump Jr. may not have broken any laws. Yet it seems obvious that he should have called the FBI—and it seems just as obvious that in the Trump world, the thought simply did not occur to any of the participants, including Paul Manafort, who, unlike the others, had political experience—much of it in the world of mafia-type autocrats.
The cast of characters is also part of what makes the correspondence so shocking. A washed-up British tabloid journalist, a tasteless Russian singer with a filthy rich father bankrolling his career, a corrupt Russian lawyer, an American reality TV star running for president, his son, and a tacky international beauty pageant that binds them all together. This list reads like an insult to American democracy. It also provides some clues about what really happened.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer, has a long career of fighting cases in the Russian Arbitrage Court, where entrepreneurs go to strong-arm one another into giving up their businesses. Veselnitskaya reportedly has a good track record, aided in no small part by her marriage to a prosecutor who retired with the rank of general. (In Russia, prosectors have ranks similar to the military’s; they are also known for using their power to amass vast wealth—Veselnitskaya’s husband appears to be no exception.) In 2009, Veselnitskaya secured her credentials as a defense attorney, which allowed her to represent clients in criminal court. The main instruments of Russian criminal defense attorneys are money and, to a lesser extent, political influence. Veselnitskaya became known as an effective criminal defense lawyer. In 2013, the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a law that imposes sanctions on Russian citizens believed to be guilty of grave human rights violations. The sanctions are designed to be painful: they not only prohibit entry to the United States and ban individuals from holding assets in the US but they effectively prevent them from taking part in any transaction in US currency. At least one of Veselnitskaya’s clients was subjected to the sanctions, and this landed her in US courts and in Washington, fighting against the law.
The Trump-Russia story is unusually difficult to report because both parties to the possible collusion lie constantly, as a matter of course. But to the extent that any facts can be teased out, it appears that Veselnitskaya’s agenda is known: she wanted to get the Trump campaign to commit to repealing the Magnitsky law. As her go-between, she drafted the British producer, Rob Goldstone, a frequent visitor to Moscow, who had bragged of his contacts with Trump—who had appeared in a music video by Goldstone’s Russian-Azerbaijani client, Emin Agalarov. It’s also possible that the idea of reaching out to the Trump campaign came from Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, whom Goldstone names in his email as the source of information on Hillary Clinton, and that Chaika chose Veselnitskaya as his emissary. Back in 2013, Chaika’s name appeared on an early list of officials who may be sanctioned under the Magnitsky law; in the end, his name was not on the public list (there is also a secret list, which may or may not contain his name), but several of his senior staff have been affected. Emin Agalarov’s father, the very wealthy Aras Agalarov, is a close ally of Chaika who publicly defended the prosecutor general when Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny published a deep and damning investigation of the prosecutor’s business dealings. (Later, Pussy Riot made the prosecutor’s corruption the subject of a music video.)
The Russians decided to use bait to get the campaign to take a meeting with Veselnitskaya. This was the promise, made by Goldstone on Chaika’s behalf, to supply “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” The offer seems bizarre, if not outright absurd. What official documents? What dealings with Russia? The wording seems to suggest that the Russian prosecutor general was offering to help the Trump campaign to smear Hillary with the Russia brush—something that would tap into Americans’ long-held fear of Russia, which was, coincidentally, the weapon the Clinton campaign would start using against Trump in a couple of months. In late August, the Clinton campaign released a video showing Trump’s then-adviser Mike Flynn sitting at a dinner table with Putin, and later, during a debate, Clinton accused Trump of being a “Putin puppet.” The Goldstone letter seems to dangle the promise of a similar accusation that could have been leveled against Hillary Clinton herself. But nothing of the sort has ever emerged. Nothing of the sort has even been rumored to exist. It seems that nothing like that was or could have been brought to the table by Veselnitskaya. If anything is safe to assume, it’s probably that Hillary Clinton has not had dealings with Russia that could be used to discredit her with American voters.
It’s possible that something got lost in translation or transmission, from Chaika to Agalarov to Goldstone, making the offer sound stranger than it was. It is possible, though extremely unlikely, that Veselnitskaya was coming to the table with the promise of emails obtained as a result of the hacks of the Democratic National Committee (which had already occurred). But this hypothesis raises more questions than it answers, including: How did Trump manage to keep quiet about the hacked trove for months afterward? How did the campaign agree to leave the release of the emails up to Julian Assange? And why hasn’t Trump made any attempt to get rid of the Magnitsky Act?
More likely, Trump Jr. has told a kind of truth: Veselnitskaya had nothing of the sort that she had promised. The whole email exchange had been a con aimed at getting Trump’s top people to take a meeting with a Russian lobbyist. What makes it shocking is that the con worked, quickly and easily, because the conmen and their marks live in a shared world that runs on greed and the thirst for power—and nothing else.