Donald Trump Jr. scooped The New York Times Tuesday morning by tweeting out the email chain that has been the subject of three stories suggesting he knew that a meeting with a Russian attorney was part of Russia’s effort to assist his father’s presidential campaign.
The predictable claims that the emails are a “smoking gun” proving collusion and that such activity amounted to “treason” followed. But what the emails actually reveal is nothing of the sort. Instead, the emails depict what amounted to a really bad game of telephone (the email version, of course) and a rather ludicrous scenario onto which Democrats are latching as “proof” of “collusion.”
From the emails, and subsequent interviews, seven key figures emerge: (1) Yuri Yakovlevich Chaika, described in the emails as the “Crown prosecutor” of Russia, but, since Russia is not a monarchy, his official title is “prosecutor general”; (2) Aras Agalarov, a Russian real estate developer that licensed the then-Trump owned Miss Universe pageant in 2013; (3) Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov and Russian pop music star; (4) Rob Goldstone, a music publicist and former tabloid journalists; (5) Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer that attended the meeting at Trump Tower; (6) an unnamed person that Veselnitskaya said helped arrange the meeting on her end; and (7) Donald Trump Jr., son of President Trump and the person with whom Veselnitskaya met at Trump Tower.
With this cast of characters, here is how everything allegedly went down:
Chaika relayed the existence of the documents during a meeting to the elder Agalarov; Aras then told his son Emin, who then relayed that information to Goldstone, who proceeded to pass the information along to Don Jr., who said he would be willing to speak with Emin over the phone about the documents, but Emin told Goldstone to arrange a meeting between Don Jr. and Veselnitskaya, who Goldstone told The New York Times that Emin told him “has information about illegal campaign contributions to the D.N.C.,” so an unnamed associate of Veselnitskaya and Goldstone got into contact to arrange the meeting, but Veselnitskaya didn’t have any incriminating information and, according to Don Jr., instead merely made “vague” and “ambiguous” statements that “made no sense” and lacked “details or supporting information” after which she changed the subject to a now ceased adoption program that facilitated the American adoption of Russian children.
Here’s why this whole ordeal calls into question the veracity of any allegation of actual “collusion.”
First, when “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia was originally discussed it had always been within the context of the Trump campaign assisting the Russians with hacking the DNC. But with these emails, that theory immediately falls apart. As I wrote on Monday, the DNC knew in May that Russia hacked its network. Don Jr. met with the Russian lawyer in June, the month after the hack—meaning that Don Jr. could not collude to do something that had already happened.
Second, speaking of the timeline, it is important to remember that this meeting occurred before the DNC publicly disclosed that Russian hackers penetrated their computer network and stole a trove of their emails. Don Jr. met with the Russian lawyer on June 9th. The DNC publicly disclosed the Russian hack five days later on June 14th. So meeting with a Russian national then would not have evoked the same type of hysterical response that it does now, nor would such a meeting necessarily carry the treasonous connotation it does today.
Third, if this were really a meeting with a high-level Russian official, then that official would already know that they (the Russian government) stole emails from the DNC. So the fact that emails were admittedly not discussed strongly suggests that the lawyer was not actually an official of the Russian government. Or, if she was, then she was not a high-level official. Veselnitskaya told NBC News that she is not connected at all to the Russian government.
Fourth, the most cited portion of the email chain is really Goldstone editorializing about what he thinks is the significance of the information. In the introductory email, after explaining that Russia’s prosecutor general told Aras Agalarov about the alleged existence of “incriminating” information about Clinton, Goldstone says, “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.” But wait, what about the mere existence of “incriminating” information implies that the information is also “obviously” high level and sensitive? Even if, as Goldstone says, the information and documents were “official” that still says nothing about the content of the messages, their level, or sensitivity. Indeed, information does not automatically become “high level and sensitive” simply because a government official provided it. If that were the case, then all of the documents we get from filing Freedom of Information Act requests here in the U.S. would be considered “high level and sensitive.” Such a proposition is a little ridiculous.
Fifth, and finally, I thought Russian president Vladimir Putin was supposed to be some kind of KGB spymaster. By that, I mean what kind of apparent spy ring mastermind would risk entrusting his plans for political espionage to a British music publicist and tabloid journalist (Goldstone)? Isn’t that like the last person one would want to know about that kind of stuff? Of all the possible scenarios of collusion, the Democrats have decided that this one seems the most credible?
If somehow this turns out to be true, I think it might say a lot more about Putin than it does about Don Jr.