Was the real Russian goal the collection of Kompromat rather than finding partners for collusion when the meeting occurred with Trump campaign representatives June 9, 2016? That's what I'm wondering after recent revelations about the Trump Tower confab attended by three Americans (Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner) and five Russians. Much of the focus thus far has been on the intent on the American side of the table. But let's think this through from the Russian perspective.
Remember, only recently did the American people learn about this confab, but presumably the Russian government was already in the loop. Just as was the case regarding Michael Flynn's meeting in late December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn lost his job as national security adviser when the Washington Post reported the meeting had occurred, in contravention of what Flynn told Vice President Pence.
But who already knew what Flynn had represented was not true? The Russians. Their possession of embarrassing, potentially incriminating, information would have been of great value as leverage against the administration.
Maybe that's what they intended at Trump Tower. Consider that Rob Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr. by email June 3, 2016, at 10:36 a.m. and offered to help the Trump campaign "incriminate Hillary" Clinton with "very high level and sensitive information" that was part of "Russia and its government's support" of Donald Trump over Clinton. How interested was Junior?
Well, it took him all of 17 minutes to reply. That's when, at 10:53, he said: " … if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer." And, despite Junior's initial claim that the focus of the meeting was adoption, a subject not addressed in the emails, we know that he invited Manafort and Kushner to join him.
Goldstone, four days after his initial email to Junior, sent another communication, this time referencing one of the participants as "the Russian government attorney." And Junior forwarded the email chain to Manafort and Kushner so that they, too, would have seen the subject line: "Russia – Clinton – private and confidential." So now, they also were part of the paper trail planning a meeting where the Russian government sought to provide high-level and sensitive information that would incriminate Clinton.
The minute the meeting took place the damage was done, regardless of any outcome. As of that moment, Russia held sway over the American participants.
It's almost too clean. Too perfect. Wrapped with a bow.
Here are written communications to someone named Donald Trump offering support in his American campaign from the government of Vladimir Putin. That alone would have been a strong bit of Kompromat, or compromising material, to hold over their heads if only the New York Times hadn't broken the story. Maybe that was mission accomplished?
Now, before you put me in a tin-foil hat, let me wrap myself in the curriculum vitae of Keith Darden. He's a political scientist at American University who is writing a book on Kompromat in the post-Soviet era, and he does not scoff at my idea.
"It's entirely plausible," he told me. "That's the standard mode of operation for the KGB; if they had material on someone that incriminated them or was morally compromising, something that would embarrass them publicly. They held that information until the time when it was perhaps useful to employ the person who was the object of that information. …
"And they could come to that person and say, 'Look, we have this information on you. It would be a shame if we had to release that. But we have these favors that we need to ask of you. We need you to spy on this neighbor. We need you to open a bank account in this name. We need you to recognize the annexation of Crimea.' There are all sorts of things that an agent of influence of Russian intelligence could be asked to do. This is the primary mode through which they would gain that agent's influence."
Darden told me that Kompromat is not the same thing as the sort of opposition research to which we are accustomed in the United States. The media and the president have often treated the two as the same. For example, on July 17, President Trump tweeted: "Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That's politics!" Not exactly, according to Darden. The former is held for leverage, while the latter always gets dropped.
"Opposition research is not held in reserve as a way to blackmail the object of that research," he said. "Journalists put it out right away. They want to get the scoop. Lawyers don't sit on incriminating information, they bring it to trial. This [Kompromat] is a very different thing. The KGB was not a law enforcement agency. Nor was it providing a public service or providing information about people. It was holding that information so that it could blackmail large segments of the population into compliance."
Flynn didn't lose his job because of what he talked about with Kislyak. It was that he hid the conversation from the FBI and from his security disclosures in a way that gave the Russians leverage over him. They were probably disappointed when the Post made the meeting public. So, too, might be the Russian view after the New York Times brought to light the attendance June 9 of Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner. If so, it makes you wonder what else they might have in their files.