Earlier in the week, I had decided that I wasn’t going to write about Donald Trump Jr’s e-mail reveal. This is the biggest revelation so far in the seemingly endless stream of news regarding the Russian connection to last year’s election. Here at last we have evidence of an actual crime committed by someone close to Donald Trump Sr, his own son and son-in-law. The e-mail string makes it clear that they and Paul Manafort, Jr in particular, took the meeting with Natalia Vilnetskaya in the hopes of receiving information they could use against Hillary Clinton. Here is clear proof of intent, which is required to prove collusion. But I wasn’t going to write about it because everyone else already did. What more was there for me to add to the conversation, given the great reporting on this that I was seeing? I finally did decide that what I could add was context. By putting a collection of historical details together in one place, I hope to shed additional light on where we are and where we might be going from here.
Donald Trump Sr began his career in the 1970s in the family real estate business. It was immediately clear that he was not at all concerned with the legality of his actions. When he and his father were cited by the government for discriminating against minorities in their rental policies, they went right back to the behavior that had earned them the first citation, and were cited a second time. Clearly, they regarded this as an acceptable cost of doing business, part of their calculations of profit and loss. There was no consideration of the moral or legal aspects of what they had done. We know that Donald Trump still thinks this way: last year’s out of court settlement of the fraud charges against Trump University cost Trump $25 million, but that left him with a tidy profit.
In the 1980s, Trump began to cultivate ties with organized crime figures. To be fair, the mob controlled the concrete industry in New York City at the time, so you had to deal with them if you wanted to build something in the city. But the story that emerged last year of the alleged rape Trump may have committed twenty years earlier was chilling to me. In that case, “Jane Doe” persuaded a judge to ignore the statute of limitations because she had feared for her life, which was why she had not come forward sooner. She said Donald Trump had raped her repeatedly over a series of sex parties he attended. She further stated that she submitted to this, and did not speak out at the time, because another girl at these parties, identified as “Maria”, was going to speak out, but she disappeared instead. “Jane Doe” said further that Trump himself had led her to believe that she would share “Maria’s” fate if she resisted or went public with what she knew. Two things about the case particularly bother me. Did Trump have friends at the time who he could count on to make inconvenient people disappear? And, the case was quietly dropped last year after the election when “Jane Doe” began to receive death threats. Since her identity was never made public, who knew who she was, and how did they know? No jury ever got the chance to consider any of this, so we don’t know for sure if this account is what happened. But someone appears to have gone to some trouble to make sure of that.
Now at last we come to the Russian connection. Last year, in the heat of the campaign, something Donald Trump Jr said in 2008 came to light: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets”. In fact, starting with the first Trump bankruptcy in 1990, it became increasingly difficult for Trump to obtain financing from western banks. Trump’s business credit was shot, following a deal in which the banks never recovered what they were owed. So, even without Trump’s tax returns, we know that Russian interests provided important funds that were used for Trump’s operations. In return, they got space in Trump owned or operated buildings, and proceeded to use these spaces to conduct money laundering. Some of Trump’s new associates may also have been involved in sex trafficking and illegal drug and gambling operations. These are shady figures, so it is difficult to prove anything, but you can find more details here. It may be that Trump himself was unaware of these activities in his own buildings until they were discovered by the authorities. But at least one of these suspicious Russians, Felix Sater, had personal meetings with Trump and appears to have done business with him. The kindest interpretation is that Trump may have had some idea of what was going on, but refused to delve into the details, thereby evading personal or legal responsibility.
Given all of this, it seems likely that Trump already had the Russian contacts he needed to fix the 2016 election before the Vilnetskaya meeting. It does not seem to be much of a stretch to say that the Kremlin had reason to believe his campaign would be receptive to their overtures. As detailed here, the meeting seems to have been a feeler from Russian interests to make sure the Trump Campaign would accept their help before moving on to more substantive operations. The Russians wanted to know that Trump’s people would take the meeting and not report it to any authorities, and the Trump campaign passed the test with high marks.
I must hasten to add that I can not offer proof of many of the things I have stated in this post. I can observe that Robert Mueller seems to be thinking about at least some of these questions as he pursues his investigation. Why else would he have added to his team experts on money laundering, for example? But we must wait for more evidence to emerge before jumping to conclusions. Donald Trump Jr’s e-mail string and the subsequent revelations regarding the Vilnetskaya meeting are an important break, but this is only the beginning. Many years of possible wrongdoing are bound up in this knot, and we should not expect that it will be unraveled all at once.
For my musical selection this week, The Specials seem perfect to me: