You have to hand it to this First Family. As advertised, they do nothing small. Buildings wreathed in gold, steaks thiccker than city sidewalks, golf courses manicured like supermodels … and scandals rich enough to clot the blood. The present Russia eruption is a sumptuous feast with all the trimmings, served by a court jester named Junior who, as Stephen Colbert recently observed, decided to be his own "Deep Throat" on the front page of every news publication on the planet.
All the way back to the campaign, the members of the Trump crew have been dogged by questions regarding their relationship with Russia. Before last weekend, Trump and company were content to smother themselves in smug denials while hoping Robert Mueller would get lost on his way to his office, but that all went up in a cloud of stink when The New York Times stepped to the plate.
We have emails, it said, detailing a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and some mysterious Russian lawyer. Junior, who had denied the whole thing until the Times told him they were about to print the emails, threw caution to the wind and released the emails himself. All of them. Maybe.
The content in brief: HEY JUNIOR, I KNOW THIS RUSSIAN LAWYER WITH TIES TO THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT WHO HAS DIRT ON CLINTON SHE WANTS TO GIVE YOU BECAUSE THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT WANTS TO HELP YOU WIN.
Reply: I LOVE IT, LET'S MEET AT TRUMP TOWER OF ALL PLACES AND I'LL DRAG IN THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN THE CAMPAIGN, BUT BE SURE TO KEEP QUIET ABOUT OUR SECRET PLAN TO HAVE THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT HELP US WIN.
It does come across as just that absurd. That meeting with the Russian lawyer so meticulously documented by Junior was in all likelihood what they call in the intelligence business a "dangle": An offer of information with no real substance to gauge the interest and enthusiasm of the intended target. The fact that Russia made direct efforts to help Donald Trump win in 2016 is now settled fact, but there is far more to this than the election, and the depth of it is dangerous in the extreme.
Some years back, Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor for a Russian law firm, uncovered a tax fraud scheme in his country so vast as to beggar historical precedent. The perpetrators were stealing whole corporations, looting them, and then using the stolen corporations to launder vast sums of dirty money. In some cases, Russian security forces were involved in these crimes.
Other instances of money laundering involved "Manhattan real estate" entities, according to the criminal complaint filed by former US Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump not long after the inauguration. That Bharara complaint, by the way, was filed against a man named Denis Katsyv, who was the alleged mastermind of the scheme uncovered by Magnitsky.
The story did not end well for Sergei Magnitski. He was arrested for tax evasion and jailed at the behest of the very oligarchs he was investigating, and later died in prison under very suspicious circumstances. In retaliation for his death, Congress in 2012 passed a law freezing the assets of 18 Russians involved in the annihilation of Magnitski. His investigation went nowhere, and when Preet Bharara lost his job as US Attorney, the whole thing quietly blew away.
Or did it? Vladimir Putin was not happy when those 18 Russians had their assets frozen, and retaliated by ending all adoptions of Russian children by US families. To promote this edict, Putin tapped an attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya to help with the public relations push. Natalia Veselnitskaya was also the attorney for Denis Katysyv, author of the scheme uncovered by Magnitski, in the matter being pursued by Bharara.
Natalia Veselnitskaya was the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon at Trump Tower in June of 2016 as part of the Russian government's effort to help Donald Trump win the election.
On Friday morning, the story took a remarkable twist when NBC News revealed the existence of a fifth person present at the meeting with Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and Veselnitskaya. Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former counter-intelligence officer with the Soviet military, accompanied Veselnitskaya to the meeting. Red flags began waving immediately upon this revelation: Not only were Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin associates in the lobbying effort to undo the sanctions against those 18 Russians involved in the Magnitski affair, but Akhmetshin has been accused of orchestrating a massive international hacking conspiracy at the behest of a billionaire Russian industrialist. It is worth noting that Akhmetshin is a US citizen, and Robert Mueller's subpoena power absolutely includes US citizens.
… and then, just before 9:00am on Friday morning, Trump Jr.'s own lawyer revealed the existence of a sixth person who was present at the Trump Tower meeting. At the time of this writing, the name of that sixth person remains unknown. Before 5:00pm on the same day, CNN was reporting that eight people or more actually attended the meeting.
Magnitski to Katsyv to Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin to Trump Tower, with Vladimir Putin hovering over it all and an indeterminate number of others along for the ride.
Junior's first explanation for the meeting was that Veselnitskaya wanted to talk about "adoptions," which may well have been code for a push to have the sanctions lifted against those 18 Russians involved in the Magnitski matter, should Trump emerge victorious in November. Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin have been working for years, the former at the behest of Putin, to undo those sanctions. It is all of a piece, and as the old saying goes, when you hear hoofbeats, don't think of zebras.
We are dealing with some very grim possibilities here. In the worst case scenario, the president of the United States, his son and top campaign/administration staffers got themselves involved with an agent for the Russian government who is neck-deep in a massive money laundering scandal that may very well have gotten a guy killed in prison. These issues could explain why Robert Mueller has tapped the best money laundering prosecutors and investigators in all of US jurisprudence to join his team.
It would seem that whatever slivers of credibility the Trump administration ever possessed have been consumed by this bonfire of hubris, lying and shady dealing (though much of his base remains loyal). Congressional Republicans are trying to pretend the White House doesn't actually exist as their legislative agenda founders like a rot-riddled rowboat. The only statement coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is "Talk to the lawyers," lather rinse repeat.
Junior is about to have a series of incredibly unpleasant conversations with some very serious people, whereupon he may come to learn -- perhaps for the first time in his life -- the meaning of the word "consequences." Messrs. Kushner and Manafort, who were actual campaign employees when that fateful meeting took place, and are therefore subject to a whole raft of other laws, can expect the same. The legal fate of the other meeting attendees remains to be determined.
And as for the Tweeter in Chief? On Thursday, he blamed the whole thing on Loretta Lynch and the Obama administration for allowing Natalia Veselnitskaya to enter the country in the first place. This is the growling of a cornered animal.
Any takeaway from all this, though, must not include "Donald Trump is finished," because sometimes a cornered animal is exceedingly dangerous. Trump and his whole crew are preposterous frauds, but he still retains the enormous powers of the presidency, and he is watching much of his world collapse around him. At this point, he is capable of just about anything, especially if he believes he is defending his family.
Thanks to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Trump has the power to start and/or escalate wars at will, and war is a time-tested method of distraction. He still has control over a vast nuclear arsenal. The current scandal is yet another glaring indication that Trump and his people are more than comfortable engaging in shady dealings behind closed doors. Plus, in the event of a terrorist attack, real or imagined, Trump has astonishing police powers at his disposal. None of us can accurately guess what he's capable of as president.
This is not alarmism. This is enlightened self-interest. Fear and vigilance are highly appropriate responses at this juncture. More than at any point since January, Donald Trump is, right now, the most dangerous man in the world.