Did the Russian lawyer offer Team Trump dirt from ... the DNC hack?

One curious coincidence of timing between the meeting and Team Trump’s interest in Hillary oppo has already been noted. Chuck Ross notes another from this morning’s AP story on the latest attendee at the meeting who’s been identified, Rinat Akhmetshin, who claimed that lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya offered Trump Jr something showing money flowing to Clinton and the DNC from people tied to Russia.

Where’d she get that information? Because if Veselnitskaya had her hands on documents that came from the DNC hack, suddenly not only is there evidence of Don Jr’s willingness to collude, there’s evidence that he was in the same room as some of the hacked documents before they became public.

Just nine days before they became public, in fact, as Ross points out.

A former Soviet military intelligence officer told the Associated Press on Friday that a Russian lawyer he accompanied to a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower offered to provide information about illicit financial activity carried out by the Democratic National Committee.

Nine days later, on June 18, Guccifer 2.0, the hacker believed to be a front for Russian spy agencies, dropped a bombshell.

“NEW DOCS FROM DNC NETWORK: LOTS OF FINANCIAL REPORTS AND DONORS’ PERSONAL DATA,” was the headline plastered across the Guccifer 2.0 website.

Another good catch by Ross: It wasn’t DNC stuff that was dangled at Trump Jr in the original email from Rob Goldstone. It was “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” Veselnitskaya showed up with DNC dirt, though, and then lo and behold, Guccifer 2.0 was publishing DNC dirt himself within two weeks. There are lots of possible explanations for that. Maybe it really was a pure coincidence, or maybe the Russian government tried shopping documents hacked from the DNC to the Trump campaign and was rebuffed before deciding to publish the documents itself under the “Guccifer” persona. Or, if you’re into the collusion theory, maybe Guccifer sprang into action only after the Trump campaign quietly accepted Moscow’s offer of coordination and encouraged them to start leaking at a particular moment.

That could explain the purpose of the meeting, according to a former CIA officer. It would be odd and unusual for someone like Veselnitskaya to be trusted by the Kremlin to transmit actual, highly sensitive intelligence. But it wouldn’t be unusual for the Kremlin to use someone like her to make the initial approach and gauge whether Team Trump was interested in a more serious offer. Maybe that was the point of dangling something DNC-related to Don Jr — if he showed interest, then Putin would know that the campaign would probably also be interested in the cache of material it had lifted from the DNC’s servers.

My read, as someone who has been part of the U.S. intelligence community for more than four decades, is that Veselnitskaya is probably too well-connected to have independently initiated such a high-level and sensitive encounter. If she had, her use of known Trump and Kremlin associates (Aras and Emin Agalarov) to help make introductions and the suggestion, in Goldstone’s account, that she wanted to share “official documents and information” as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for Trump could have gotten her into significant trouble. Her efforts to meet Trump associates would have surely come to the attention of Russian authorities at some point, given Russian government email monitoring and other means of surveillance. The Kremlin would look harshly on someone going rogue in a manner that would surely damage ongoing Russian intelligence operational efforts related to the U.S. presidential campaign.

A better explanation is that Veselnitskaya is far enough removed from Moscow’s halls of power to make her a good fit as an intermediary in an intelligence operation — as a “cut-out” with limited knowledge of the larger scheme and as an “access agent” sent to assess and test a high-priority target’s interest in cooperation. She may have had her own agenda going into the meeting: to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, which happens to impact some of her clients. But her agenda dovetailed with Kremlin interests — and it would have added another layer of plausible deniability. Russian intelligence practice is to co-opt such a person. News Friday that she was accompanied by Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who is reportedly suspected of, though denies, having ties to Russian intelligence, further bolsters this reading.

“The point [of such a meeting] is to test the target,” writes the officer. “Are they open to entering into a compromising relationship?” Don Jr certainly seemed open to the pitch in Goldstone’s email. There’s no evidence that he was open to using the specific info that Veselnitskaya offered him, but that’s beside the point. If he showed up and then rejected using the info as unethical, then Russia would know that Team Trump wasn’t interested in collusion. If instead he rejected using the info because it wasn’t juicy enough, well, that’s a different matter. Juicier material could always be provided later as long as the potential recipient showed interest initially in using it.

By the way, there are seven known attendees at the meeting as I write this: Don Jr, Kushner, Manafort, Goldstone, Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin, and a translator. There was, reportedly, an eighth. Who was it? According to the Times reporter who’s been working this story, we’ll all know soon. Stay tuned.

Jazz Shaw Jun 22, 2021 6:01 PM ET