For many months, Donald J. Trump and his closest associates have assured Americans that their presidential campaign had "absolutely no contact" with any Russians seeking to influence the course of the 2016 presidential election. Among those who issued the most vehement denials were Paul Manafort, the Washington influence peddler who served as campaign manager, and eldest son Donald J. Trump Jr., who called any such suggestions "disgusting."
Truly disgusting are the brazen lies uttered by these individuals. Everyone now knows about the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower where Trump Jr., Manafort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner hosted Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin.
Considering the history of falsehoods and evasions by Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort — plus the strong incentive to conceal wrongdoing — their accounts must be treated with profound skepticism. But both Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin (an immigrant who once served in Russian military intelligence) say that they came to offer "evidence" of alleged offenses by Democratic donors to Clinton.
And both say they sought to persuade the Trump camp that the Magnitsky Act of 2012 — an American law intended to sanction the officials who imprisoned and killed Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer and auditor who exposed massive fraud committed by Russian bureaucrats and businessmen — should be repealed.
To many Americans, that must sound like an obscure topic, distant from American politics. Certainly Trump, Jr. and the White House have attempted to spin it that way. Yet the sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act, a statute under consideration in other countries, are a major irritant to Putin.
Certainly, the Magnitsky angle fits neatly into the narrative outlined in the emails between Trump Jr. and Robert Goldstone, the publicist who set up the Trump Tower meeting. His first message indicates a series of connections that began with a Kremlin official whom Goldstone calls "the crown prosecutor" — apparently indicating Kremlin prosecutor general Yuri Chaika. That chain extends through billionaire developer, Trump friend, and Putin ally Aras Agalarov, to Agalarov's son Emin, and to Emin's employee Goldstone, who wrote:
"Emin just called and asked me to contact you...The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.
"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump - helped along by Aras and Emin."
Since the meeting's exposure, Trump Jr. and Goldstone have trashed Veselnitskaya, claiming she pretended to have Clinton dirt that she didn't actually possess. Instead, she supposedly made a few "inane" remarks about the Democrat's campaign financing. Then she droned on about the injustice of the Magnitsky Act.
Both Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin have more or less confirmed this version of events, while passively enduring Trump Jr.'s insults.
But that convenient narrative really makes no sense. Why would a sophisticated Moscow attorney like Veselnitskaya annoy the Trumps with a fake offer of opposition research? Why would she impose an arcane policy issue on a campaign that was preparing for an uphill general election? Why humiliate Agalarov by staging such a charade? And why embarrass Chaika, whose reported patronage has been important to her career?
And what about Emin and Goldstone? Did Trump Jr. complain to them about that "inane" June 9 meeting? Did they apologize for wasting his time?
If Trump Jr. truly aspires to transparency, he should post all of the relevant emails that followed the irritating episode he describes.
Because subsequent events suggest that may not be what happened at all.
Months later, in March 2017, the new president phoned New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who refused to return that improper call. The very next day Trump fired Bharara, whom he had previously asked to stay on.
Then in May, the Justice Department abruptly settled a major Russian money-laundering case that Bharara had been preparing for trial, against a company called Prevezon. The settlement cost Prevezon only $6 million — less than half the original amount demanded by the government lawsuit.
Prevezon was among the companies alleged to have received proceeds from the tax scheme uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky, Its principals wanted to avoid a public trial that would revisit the Magnitsky case. The Justice Department declared the settlement a victory, but so did the lawyers representing Prevezon and its owners.
And among those lawyers just happens to be the annoying Veselnitskaya.
Such circumstances bring back the old days in the Kremlin, when Communist hacks prefaced almost any political observation with the phrase, "It is no coincidence." Or is it? That is now a pressing question for the special counsel and Congressional investigators.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.