On July 19, 2016, a little more than a month after he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who he thought might help to damage Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, Donald Trump, Jr., spoke in support of his father at the Republican National Convention. He had been a visible part of the campaign for months, appearing on television to complain about the elder Trump’s critics or, often enough, firing guns with local politicians—Trump had offered his sons’ record as avid hunters as evidence that he was eager to loosen gun laws. (Donald, Jr., who was photographed triumphing over a dead elephant, has decried restrictions on silencers as a restraint on sportsmen.) There was talk, in some quarters, that he might be a more serious politician than his father—whatever that might mean—and a possible future mayor of New York. And his speech included what passed, at the Convention, for classic conservative tropes, such as this:
Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.
There was a brief contretemps after “The Daily Show” pointed out that this was similar to a line in an essay by Frank Buckley, published in The American Conservative, but it turned out that Buckley had also been a writer on the speech, and so the line, if not something earned, was a gift—or, rather, a purchase, not a misappropriation. All of those things can be hard to tell apart in the world of the Trumps—as is the difference between an unqualified dilettante and a political operative working on behalf of a Presidential candidate. But one aspect of the line that Donald, Jr., probably came by on his own was his disdain for “Soviet-era department stores.” Shopping malls like the one in Moscow owned by Aras Agalarov, the billionaire who, with his son, a family-subsidized Russian pop star named Emin, were so much better. Whether or not they benefitted the customers, the Agalarovs helped to fund the 2013 run of the Miss Universe pageant, an operation partly owned by Trump, which was held outside of Moscow—and so, if nothing else, they seem to have benefitted the Trumps. Emin had been at the pageant; a Politico piece from last year, looking back at the proceedings, links to a music video that features him in various T-shirts, alongside several contestants in bathing suits and sequinned dresses, and Trump, Sr., himself, in business attire.
“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Rob Goldstone, an “entertainment publicist,” as he was identified by the Times, which broke the story of Donald, Jr.,’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, wrote in an e-mail to Donald, Jr., on June 3, 2016. (After the Times said that it had obtained a copy, Trump, Jr., tweeted out the exchange.) The e-mail continued, “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
The Times noted that Russia doesn’t have a “Crown prosecutor”—mostly because it does not, or does not exactly, have someone who wears a crown. But Trump, Jr., seems to have had no hesitation about the presumption of oligarchical access. It seems to have made sense to everyone involved that a shopping-mall developer should have access to judicial files—just as it made sense, to the Trumps and their circle, that a real-estate billionaire should have access to the White House.
More important, from the perspective of the various investigations currently looking at Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election—which a number of senators have already said they would like to discuss with Trump, Jr.—is what the Trump team thought the Russians’ interest was. Goldstone’s explanation for why the Agalarovs had been given the information was direct and, one would have thought, troubling: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” he wrote. According to the Times, Trump, Jr., replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Later in the summer was the time of the Convention and the nomination, followed by the debates and the heart of the Presidential race. The direct result of this outreach from Emin was a meeting with a lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom Goldstone identified in another e-mail as a “Russian government attorney.” That took place on June 9th, at Trump Tower; Trump, Jr., was joined by Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband and now a White House adviser, and Paul Manafort, who was then the Trump campaign’s manager. Trump, Jr., has said in various statements that the meeting yielded nothing useful, which he presented as a disappointment. His father’s representatives have portrayed the whole transaction as entirely normal. Veselnitskaya, for her part, has said that her real interest was never the campaign but her clients’ concerns about the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions alleged Russian human-rights abusers. When NBC asked her how Trump associates got the impression that she did have damaging material, she said it was possible that “they wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”
And what if Veselnitskaya had come laden with real dirt, obtained in some illegal way—like, say, the hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, that soon emerged? Donald Trump, Jr., might have finally felt that the clerks in some post-Soviet intelligence shop were working for him, the customer. Would he have noticed, or cared, how Vladimir Putin, the proprietor of the emporium, was profiting?