Did Trump Collude? Depends on Your Expectations.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An audio clip that has gone viral lately highlights the role past experiences and expectations play in perceptions: Experts say whether we hear “Yanny” or “Laurel” in the clip depends at least in part on what frequencies your brain emphasizes thanks to your experiences. It’s similar with the materials concerning the June 9, 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya, released on Wednesday by the U.S. Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary.
Trump’s partisan opponents hear echoes of collusion between the campaign and the Russian government. I hear a human comedy worthy of a Coen brothers movie, a sequel to “Burn After Reading” or “Hail, Caesar!”
The bare-bones plot goes like this. Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with ties to the prosecutor of the Moscow region, the constituent part of the Russian Federation which surrounds but doesn’t include the capital city, is working for a client from the regional elite, who has legal trouble in the U.S. under the Magnitsky Act. The law, which sanctions Russian human rights violators, was named after Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who died in a Moscow prison after exposing a massive tax scam. It was passed thanks to the lobbying efforts of investor Bill Browder, for whom Magnitsky had worked in Moscow. An early booster of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Browder is now one of his most vitriolic opponents.
Veselnitskaya lobbies tirelessly in the U.S. for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, to which the Russian parliament responded by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. She wants to reach out to presidential candidate Trump, who is close to winning the Republican nomination, so she gets in touch with one of the Moscow region’s richest people, property developer Aras Agalarov, who knows Trump because he organized the Miss Universe pageant for him in Moscow in 2013.
After the meeting, Emin Agalarov, the son of Aras and an aspiring pop star, calls his manager, Robert Goldstone, in the U.S. and asks him to organize a meeting with “the Trumps” for a “well-connected” Russian attorney. (This chain of events is established by Goldstone’s newly released testimony). Goldstone asks Emin what “connected” means – “Connected like as into the power grid?” –but the singer won’t clarify. It would have been a long story; Emin’s father’s holdings are only safe while he’s on good terms with the regional authorities, including the prosecutor.
Goldstone is leery of anything political: He’s just a music publicist and manager. But Emin at that time is his only client, and he goes ahead and tries to sell the meeting to Trump’s son, Donald Jr., by going out on a limb and describing Veselnitskaya as a representative of the Russian government which, he writes in an email, wants to help Trump and has dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. replies that he’d “love” to get his hands on this sort of thing “later in the summer” – meaning, according to his testimony, after the Republican convention – but agrees to the meeting. He invites the candidates’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort to come along.
Veselnitskaya shows up and begins talking what is, to Trump, Goldstone and Kushner (who comes in a little late, which adds to his confusion), incomprehensible gibberish. They’d never heard of the Magnitsky Act; its prominence has since grown, but at that point, you’d need to be a political nerd or follow Russia closely to be aware of it.
While Manafort is apparently able to follow Veselnitskaya’s convoluted story, in which she mainly seeks to discredit Browder, using research provided by Fusion GPS, a U.S. firm that worked with her to try to undermine the Magnitsky narrative -- the others appear to lose the thread quickly. They find themselves wondering why they’re listening to a stranger delivering, through a translator, a spiel that has something to do with Russian adoptions. Kushner quickly disappears, using a phone call as an excuse. Trump Jr. struggles to be polite as he ends the meeting. After Veselnitskaya and her entourage are gone, Goldstone feels compelled to circle back and apologize for the waste of time, though it’s all the fault of Emin with his “connected” innuendo.
One could read this as a key episode in a potential collusion story. I can only imagine how the Coens would have filmed this comedy of cultural misalignments. In it, the bit actors want to be part of something big – a brilliant attack on the opposing candidate, the repeal of a piece of legislation viewed by the Kremlin as a national humiliation – but they cannot even understand each other, much less collude. The savviest operator in the room, Manafort, appears to look for an angle that could be of use: He takes notes of Veselnitskaya’s Browder narrative; then he gives up without finding one.
I understand, however, that this is a Yanny vs. Laurel case. One can hear it as confirmation that Trump colluded with the Russian government – or as convincing evidence that they never even came close.
More than a year after all the Trump-Russia investigation started, all the hard evidence we have is of Russia’s propaganda and social network trolling campaign in 2016. It means little that this campaign benefited Trump: If its goal was to stir up political strife in the U.S., it could hardly be achieved by backing the incumbent party.
I, for one, am hungry for something unambiguous, something that couldn’t be turned into a Coen brothers script but could serve as a basis for a 21st century edition of “All the President’s Men.” Perhaps it’s coming yet, but the documents on the June 9 meeting are far from providing that sort of definitive material.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.