Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rashomon Salad

 

Rashomon Salad is my indie band name, of course, but... Drawing by Reuben Bolling (thanks, Jesse!) via TVTropes.

Live-blogging Volume 5

Of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Russian active measures in the 2016 election, focusing (this final volume) on counterintelligence aspects, that is, on the

threat posed by the Russian influence operation. For example, the Committee examined Paul Manafort' s connections to Russian influence actors and the FBI' s treatment of reporting produced by Christopher Steele. 

And a good deal more. It was released this morning, as I learned from a couple of eager tweets from Emptywheel, and I guess it's going to take over my life for a while.

It really is almost 1000 pages long (the last piece, "Additional Views of Senator Wyden", comes on pages 949-66), and that doesn't mean with a lot of filler, as far as I can tell, though there's pretty heavy redaction in some spots. The report on the 9 June Trump Tower meeting (pp.322-95), which I couldn't help peeking at, reads like a kind of Rashomon salad, with all the participants' conflicting accounts chopped and tossed together on the page. Incidentally, 

Michael Cohen told the Committee that, in his opinion: "The reason why Jared and Manafort were in that meeting is because Mr. Trump would never have allowed Junior to be in that meeting by himself. Mr. Trump was very quick to tell everybody that he thinks Don Jr. has the worst judgement of anyone he's ever met in the world. And I can assure you that when that meeting, conversation, took place, that Mr. Trump turned around and said: Make sure that Jared and Paul are part of the meeting. Because he would never let Don Jr. handle that meeting by himself." Cohen Tr. II, p. 376; Cohen's statement is notable only because of the access-he had to the individuals involved, including Trump, at the time of meeting. The Committee did not find information that corroborate's Cohen's statement, and did find information that contradicts it. (360, fn. 2321) 

Pretty sure the contradictory information concerns how Kushner and Manafort got involved in the meeting (their information makes it clear that Junior invited them himself, and even kind of pestered them, in what looks to me like recruiting them as witnesses to what he expected to be a glorious intelligence coup), not Trump's opinion of Junior's judgment. 

I was thinking about taking it in order from the executive summary onwards, but the Trump Tower meeting is really getting in the way, because of the report's bearing on my old hypothesis—that the meeting we know about was an elaborate construct devised by Russian intelligence at the highest levels to disguise the real thing, in which Junior and Natalya Veselnitskaya were not the principals or even aware of what was going on, a heads-up from Russian intelligence to Manafort on the theft of the Democratic National Committee emails. I can't say SSCI confirms that, since it doesn't tell that story at all, but it offers a whole lot of surprising material that turns out to corroborate it, in addition to clarifying part of the story that I wasn't able to decide at all, which of the Russians was that guy.

Namely, Rinat Akhmetshin, the "Soviet-born US lobbyist" as the Mueller report calls him, ignoring the longstanding rumors of his connections to Russian intelligence, who we are told was invited by Veselnitskaya to lunch that day, when she learned he was in New York, and dragged along to the meeting afterwards as if just for fun, as to a random social event.

In fact, we learn from SSCI in four heavily redacted pages, he is

a Russian-American lobbyist who has worked on a number of foreign lobbying efforts, some of which were undertaken with Veselnitskaya. Akhmetshin first worked with Veselnitskaya on issues related to the Prevezon case. Akhmetshin also worked with Veselnitskaya through [her Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGI) organization] and on HRAGl's efforts related to countering the Magnitsky Act. Akhmetshin told the Committee that after doing research on Browder related to depositions in the Prevezon case, he had the idea to establish HRAGI and proposed it to Veselnitskaya and her client in Russia, [Denis] Katsyv. Akhmetshin said he didn't know who the financial backers of HRAGI were, but believed that Katsyv was one of the smaller contributors. In testimony to the Committee, Akhmetshin sought to downplay the extent and nature of his work for HRAGI. (339)

and

has connections to the Russian government, a Russian oligarch with ties to Putin, and to Russian intelligence. Ih several cases these ties were more extensive than what has previously been publicly known. The Committee found that Akhmetshin was not fully forthcoming in his testimony. (340)

Moreover,

Akhmetshin has a history of allegations against him regarding hacking and the dumping of stolen information as part of influence operations. (342)

Who claims (contrary to some redacted evidence) never to have met Manafort until the Trump Tower meeting but knows of him, and definitely has spent time with Manafort's Ukrainian fixer Konstantin Kilimnik (at least on the occasion of President Yanukovich's visit to New York for the UN in 2010) and is a longtime friend of the Republican lobbyist Sam Patten, who was convicted of FARA violations in 2018 when he

admitted that he laundered a $50,000 contribution from Kilimnik to the Trump inauguration committee, by having the money transferred from a Cypriot bank to his company and from there to an unnamed American who sent it to the committee. According to the charge, Patten knew that it was illegal for a foreign national to give money to the committee. He also admitted that he lied to a Congressional committee about the inauguration donation and about his foreign lobbying work, and that he intentionally destroyed documents about that work.

(and apparently a long acquaintance of Glenn Simpson, the ex-journalist founder of Fusion GPS, but I'm not moving on to that chapter).

The visible history of the meeting goes back, as we've always understood, to the Azeri real estate tycoon Aras Agalarov (Trump's shepherd in the 2013 Moscow Miss Universe—if Trump saw a "Golden Showers" act in Las Vegas that year, as Corn and Isikoff suggest, Agalarov was at the table—and partner in at least one incarnation of the Trump Tower Moscow scheme), who told his son Emin, the gangsta singer, who told his English publicist Rob Goldstone, who sent Junior his first email on the subject on 3 June, always with the promise that the Trump campaign would get possession of some "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, but none of them felt they had a clear idea what or whom Aras was doing this for (Emin said his father was "not the kind of guy you get to ask questions. If I'm dying, I'm not going to ask him a a question"). 

Agalarov's Crocus Group's US representative, Irakly "Ike" Kaveladze, was also in on it early on, and Agalarov ordered him on 6 June to fly to New York for an "important meeting", making contact with Veselnitskaya (whom he had not met before) and going over the topic of the meeting with her in advance. When he heard he was going to be meeting with Trump's son and son-in-law and campaign manager instead of staff lawyers, he later said, he was perturbed, and when another associate, Roman Beniaminov, told him (apparently on the basis of something he had heard from Rob Goldstone) that Veselnitskaya would be bringing "negative information on Hillary Clinton", still more so. He may have been reassured when Agalarov faxed him a summary of Veselnitskaya's points about the Magnitsky Act and the Ziff brothers, but he still would have preferred to be meeting with lawyers. Also on 6 June, Junior seems to have informed a "family meeting" in his office (Eric, Manafort, Gates, Hope Hicks, and later Jared and Ivanka), reminding Manafort to come, and may have called Big Donald (who didn't attend "family meetings", or at least not this one), to tell him about the plan, later on (according to Michael Cohen, but the call could have been a day or two later). 

Akhmetshin happened to take the Acela to New York that morning, with the intention of going to see a Russian-language play in which a relative of his was appearing (I don't know if SSCI checked it out, but I can report that the play itself was absolutely real: a touring Russian troupe, the Theater of Nations, was in New York for a four-night run of a dramatization of stories by the beloved Soviet writer Vasily Shushkin at the City Center). At some point Natalya Veselnitskaya also happened to call him, and finding that he was in town, invited him to lunch at a particular place near Trump Tower (Petrossian's and the Russian Tea Room are both a couple of blocks away!). The same morning, Veselnitskaya was in a taxi with a Russian-English interpreter who worked for her frequently, Anatoly Samochornov, telling him she needed him for a meeting with Donald Trump Junior, and then passed one of her numerous phones to him asking him to send a text in English asking someone to "add Mr. Akhmetshin to the meeting". 

Kaveladze, looking at Veselnitskaya's materials over lunch, was relieved to find no mention of the kind of "dirt" he'd feared, just the Magnitsky Act and her complaints about the Ziff brothers, although it was also mentioned that the Ziff brothers were contributors to the Clinton campaign. Akhmetshin, arriving late (so late that Kaveladze didn't think he had been there at all but joined them later on the way to Trump Tower), 

felt that he did not need to review the documents that Veselnitskaya brought with her because he assumed that they covered issues that he had heard Veselnitskaya discuss previously, and believed he was already familiar with the documents' contents. He believed that the documents were written in English. It was Akhmetshin's assumption that Veselnitskaya planned to distribute these documents at the upcoming meeting.

Which is very interesting because, as you'll remember, that's not exactly what he told the Associated Press around the time the story originally broke, in July 2017:

In his first public interview about the meeting, Akhmetshin said he accompanied Veselnitskaya to Trump Tower where they met an interpreter. He said he had learned about the meeting only that day when Veselnitskaya asked him to attend. He said he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Veselnitskaya brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats, Akhmetshin said. Veselnitskaya presented the contents of the documents to the Trump associates and suggested that making the information public could help the campaign, he said.

“This could be a good issue to expose how the DNC is accepting bad money,” Akhmetshin recalled her saying. 

That is clearly not the memo Veselnitskaya is known to have brought to the meeting:

The memo Veselnitskaya gave to Trump Jr. contained only one reference to Clinton, claiming that it could "not be ruled out" that the Ziff Brothers "financed" Clinton's campaign.

Nobody had mentioned the DNC, and there were no plural documents (like the "official documents" Goldstone's email had promised), just a piece of turgid prose. But it does sound, once more, like something that might describe a set of printouts from the Russian-stolen DNC emails, such as the "donor vet" reports of DNC attempts to figure out whether a particular contributor had a criminal record 

What, once more, was Akhmetshin talking about? And further, when he told SSCI that he hadn't looked at the materials in the folder at all, was he being more truthful than he'd been with AP? Or less?

Then they walked over to Trump Tower and through security (oddly enough, Goldstone, who wasn't even going to attend the meeting, was the only one whose ID was checked, even though Akhmetshin hadn't been on the list until that morning) and up to the 25th floor.

Volume 5 doesn't add much new detail on the meeting itself, except that the interpreter Samochornov thought Veselnitskaya's spiel was "completely unconvincing", which I can well believe. But there's a very interesting about afterwards:

Once the meeting was over, the participants generally parted ways. Goldstone went home. Veselnitskaya, Samochornov, Akhmetshin, and Kaveladze went briefly to a bar in Trump Tower for a drink. Samochomov told the Committee: "Ms. Veselnitskaya was very disappointed in the meeting. She said something along the lines: 'That was it?' Mr. Akhmetshin and Mr. Kaveladze were trying to tell her: 'Well, you informed them about the issue; this is good; they know about the issue. ' So they were kind of telling her something comforting and conciliatory. We had a couple of drinks, and Mr. Kaveladze left first and Mr. Akhmetshin left second. Then I believe that was the end of that drink situation." 

But after that, Akhmetshin got back together with Veselnitskaya and Samochornov and the three of them all went to see "Shushkin Stories" at Town Hall (Kaveladze had already seen the play in Moscow, and recommended it highly). Obviously, Ahkmetshin wanted to go back to his hotel and change out of his jeans and t-shirt before the play, but between leaving the bar (5:00 or 5:30?) and the early Thursday curtain time (7:00) wouldn't he have had time to connect with Manafort, perhaps at the latter's own Trump Tower apartment, and pass him a sample of DNC printouts and a quick explanation, before heading back to the hotel?

My idea is that this was all extremely closely planned by Akhmetshin (he of the association with hacking and "the dumping of stolen information as part of influence operations") and handlers back in Russia, with the kind of tradecraft you really do get from a Le Carré novel, for maximum deniability all round, so that nobody other than himself and Manafort would be in a position to reveal what they had done, whether by blurting out an inconvenient confession or by trapping themselves in a lie. On the Agalarov side nobody but Aras himself knew anything but what he told them, not Emin or Goldstone or Kaveladze, and they knew not to ask questions, and Aras himself didn't need to know too much. 

On the Trump side all Manafort needed to know, perhaps, was a heads up for a surprise coming from Russia (perhaps communicated through Kilimnik), and he took a distant attitude, warning Junior that "they usually have an agenda when they're coming from that part of the world," but cooperated patiently; the others were simply trapped in their well-attested greed for the "dirt" that had been carefully dangled before Papadopoulos, Stone and Caputo, Smith, and perhaps others. Veselnitskaya was simply trotted out (by prosecutor Chaika) to do her well-known shtik that had already been tried out on Rohrabacher, and left entirely in the dark, poor thing, to wonder why Junior kept heckling her, though everybody agreed he was pretty courteous:

Akhmetshin told the Committee that, regarding Veselnitskaya's presentation, "Junior said: 'That's very interesting, but so could you show how money goes to Hillary's campaign? Do you think it goes to Hillary's campaign or just DNC?' He said: 'Could you show us how the money goes to Hillary's campaign?" Veselnitskaya recalled that Trump Jr., "asked a clarifying question, whether I had the financial records indicating that the particular funds that were obtained ... in the United States were transferred directly to Clinton Foundation." When Veselnitskaya said that she did not have more information to share, and suggested that the Campaign continue its own research on the topic, Akhmetshin recalled, "I could tell the light kind of went out of their eyes. They said, 'ah,' and kind of like they checked out from this whole thing."

That was the kind of thing Junior was hoping for, evidence of Hillary using the Clinton Foundation as a money laundry and slush fund the way Trump used his. These people believe everybody wants to live the way they do, that no number of millions is ever enough, and that there's bound to be evidence somewhere.

Part of Aras's job was to schedule the meeting for sometime during the run (7-10 June) of the Shushkin play, so that Akhmetshin would have a completely irrelevant reason for trucking up to New York from Washington. It strikes me as likely that Akhmetshin called her up when he got to Penn Station rather than her calling him, perhaps inviting her to the play, knowing she'd want to take him to the meeting, and nobody including Natasha would ever realize that was his plan.

Finally, when Akhmetshin told AP that story about Veselnitskaya's plastic folder, just after the Goldstone-Junior email chain was published, he was probably arming himself and his patrons against the possibility that the cops had found those printouts he'd slipped Manafort. Afterwards, when it became clear they hadn't, he dropped that and reverted to the planned story that he hadn't seen her folder at all (which is presumably true; he knew all about the Ziff brothers shtik already).

And the object of the exercise? To enmesh the Trumps as much as possible in the kompromat system, on the political strand as well as the commercial and personal ones (with which Aras had had a good deal to do) so they could tell less and less what the Russians had on them but could be counted on to perform the way Putin might need them to perform. I'm more convinced than ever.

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