In June 2016, three senior members of the Trump campaign met in Trump Tower with a group of representatives from the Russian government offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as, according to an email sent to Donald Trump Jr. soliciting the meeting, “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” A lawyer representing the Russian side led the group, who according to Trump Jr. spoke mostly about “adoptions,” which he, being Donald Trump Jr., at the time probably earnestly thought was boring and inconsequential. It’s not, though. It’s about billions of dollars, and the lives of Americans.
We don’t know for certain if the campaign struck any deals with Russia in that specific meeting, but an ocean of evidence suggests that at some point they certainly did. But what about those “adoptions”? In President Trump’s cockamamie press conference in Helsinki last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the elder Trump oaf another shot at the Trump Tower deal last week. Putin offered Trump—in public—a quid pro quo about adoptions and a line of attack on Hillary Clinton, and Trump was in favor of it. When you break it down, and here’s that word again, it’s pretty much treason (Steve Bannon called the Trump Tower meeting “treasonous”), except by this point we don’t even need closed doors. We’ve become so inured to the obscenity of the Trump-Russia conspiracy that it went down right in front of our faces.
The first part of Putin’s proposition went like this: He would be gracious enough to allow Special Counsel Robert Mueller to hand him the evidence he used to indict 12 Russian military intelligence officials for carrying out a series of computer crimes in their conspiracy to attack the 2016 U.S. elections. Putin said Russian law enforcement would then use this evidence to interrogate the accused and get to the bottom of this whole election meddling thing once and for all.
This is prima facie a dumb deal for dummies: Putin gets an inside look at the case against him—probably conveniently translated into Russian—as well as at some of the information Mueller’s team used to build that case. Russian intelligence agents can then reverse engineer that evidence to figure out what we might know, and might not know, about their cyber operations. This will allow Putin to attack us more efficiently.
Putin knows this would be a non-starter for anyone except Trump. For Trump, however, it’s pure gold. The Russian interrogators (Putin said Mueller’s team can even come observe the interrogations!) would invariably declare Mueller’s case a sham, which would give Trump some desperately needed fuel for his now sputtering campaign to cast the investigation as a “hoax.”
Again: This is the part of the offer that’s supposed to be good for America.
In return for his largesse, Putin asked Trump to interrogate American citizens who Putin accuses of committing crimes on Russian soil. Beyond that, in reciprocity for allowing Mueller to observe interrogations of Russian officials, Putin would like Trump to allow Russian investigators to observe the interrogations on American soil. In other words, “If you let me see the evidence you have against me, I’ll let you allow me to exact revenge on my enemies.” But Putin didn’t stop there: He even gave Trump yet another angle of attack on Hillary Clinton, whom Putin preposterously accused in the press conference of accepting $400 million in illegal campaign donations from Bill Browder and some of his pals.
(Browder, for his part, says he’s never made a donation to any political candidate. He points out that Russia is known for wild accusations: they accused former Ambassador Michael McFaul of pedophilia, and they accuse Browder of being a serial killer, being an agent for the CIA and the British MI6, and of stealing $4.8 billion in the 1990s that Putin says rightfully belonged to Russia.)
So it’s not unreasonable to believe Putin expects Trump, pleased with these political gifts, to turn these Americans over. In the press conference Trump called this an “incredible offer.” Twice.
This is where we revisit Trump Tower.
In the press conference, Putin called Browder out by name. To most people watching, this probably seemed random. After all, Putin hadn’t even been asked about Browder, and probably 99% of Americans don’t know who he is or why he’s important. To Putin, however, Browder is the King Bowser in Putin’s mission to kill a large circle of people he perceives as participating in a plot to destabilize the Russian government. And this is the point in the press conference when Putin, a former KGB agent and a professional manipulator, turns a seemingly unrelated deal into Trump Tower Part Deux.
The short of it is that Putin wants to kill Browder, the billionaire CEO and co-founder of a group called Hermitage Capital, at one time the largest foreign investor in Russia. But in 2005, Russia banned Bowder from the country, citing him as a national security threat. In the Helsinki press conference Putin specifically accused of Browder and associates of evading taxes on $1.5 billion they made in Russia. Browder, however, has a different explanation: Putin wants him dead because he helped lift the curtain on corruption in the Russian oligarchy and government.
One of Browder’s lawyers was a guy named Sergey Magnitsky. That name might sound familiar: The Magnitsky Act was, ding ding ding!, one of the main subjects of the first Trump Tower meeting. Magnitsky, along with Browder and several other Russian journalists and dissidents, had unearthed a warren of corruption in the Russian government. Putin put Magnitsky in prison, where he was killed in 2009. Browder helped Magnitsky in this project, and he later lobbied the U.S. to impose restrictive sanctions on the Russian government. In 2012 the Obama administration passed the Magnitsky Act, which froze assets and canceled visas belonging to Russian oligarchs and government officials the U.S. accused of violating human rights. After the U.S., six countries including the U.K. and Canada (two of Trump’s favorite targets) passed Magnitsky Acts of their own. Eight more countries, including France, Germany, and Ukraine, now have Magnitsky sanctions moving through their legislative pipes.
These sanctions not only rocked Putin’s associates, they’ve apparently blocked access to much of his own vast and highly secret offshore fortune, suspected to be worth tens of billions of dollars. This means Putin is personally invested in getting Magnitsky lifted, and he’s also probably under increasing pressure from other powerful people in Russia to get the sanctions lifted.
Putin’s hand, though, is a little pathetic. In retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, he banned Americans from adopting Russian children. The Kremlin said this was a response to the death by heat stroke of a Russian adoptee a Virginia family left in a car. This is thinly veiled Russian trolling, because the government’s order only directly names people who worked on the Magnitsky Act. Hence the “adoptions” that so nonplussed Trump Jr.
But hold a second: This was actually the third iteration of the Trump Tower meeting. When news of the first Trump Tower meeting broke last year, Trump was at the G20 summit, which Putin also attended. Trump had one official meeting with Putin, but at a dinner function Trump pulled Putin aside and spoke with him privately for nearly an hour. What’d they discuss? “Adoptions,” Trump said. Then the news of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting broke, and Trump, in Air Force One on his way back from G20, helped craft the lie that covered up the real reasons for his son’s meeting. It’s quite likely that Putin helped Trump come up with this plausible deniability in that private hour at dinner.
Browder says that given the chance, Putin, so obsessed with Magnitsky sanctions — or possibly under pressure — will kill him. Browder points out that Putin has already systematically murdered several other people who helped Magnitsky:
Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician who advocated for Sergei’s killers to be sanctioned by the West; I believe they murdered Alexander Perepilichnyy, a whistleblower who died suddenly in the United Kingdom after coming forward with financial details on the criminal group behind Sergei’s murder; they attempted to murder the Magnitsky family lawyer in Moscow when he was thrown off a four story building (thankfully he survived); and they also attempted to poison Vladimir Kara-Murza, Boris Nemtsov’s protégé, who traveled the West trying to secure Magnitsky sanctions against the Putin regime.
By tying Browder to a fictional Clinton scandal, Putin also lent weight to another conspiracy Trump can use to vilify his opponents and further agitate his base in their unmoored frenzy.
So there you have it: quid pro quo. Putin wants revenge for Magnitsky and in return has offered Trump the chance to both torpedo the Mueller investigation and demonize Clinton, giving Trump and his flunkies another chance to derail or delay the Mueller investigation. It’s the exact same stuff Putin offered at Trump Tower: “Adoptions” and dirt on Clinton.
It’s worth noting, though, that Bill Browder isn’t even an American. He renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1998 so he could avoid foreign investment taxes. He’s currently a British citizen, over whom Trump has no prosecutorial power. Putin knows this, so why did he even mention Bowder? First, of course, to get the Clinton connection out there. But also, Putin used the specific name to distract from a second, even more insidious intent: “We have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided [Browder’s] transactions. So we have a — an interest of questioning them.”
These American “intelligence officers” aren’t intelligence officers, but former Obama officials such as national security spokesman Ben Rhodes and Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul. So look at that: Putin has married his goals to Trump’s—a chance to attack Obama.
How totally weird and inexplicable, then, that Trump was considering handing McFaul over to Russian investigators! And how weird that literally the entire U.S. Senate was so afraid Trump would actually commit this treasonous act that in a rare show of unanimity they passed a proposal that blocked the president from handing former American government officials over to a murderous adversary!
This is a long way for Putin to go to come back a short distance correctly. So if you didn’t notice it—and here I’m naturally assuming you’re smarter than Donald Trump Jr.—you can probably forgive him for at least some of his ignorant and instinctive willingness to sell out his country in order to help himself. After all, he wasn’t adopted.