“Mr. Sessions, are you familiar with what spies call tradecraft?” Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June.
“A little bit,” replied Sessions.
“Do you like spy fiction: John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Jason Matthews?” Cotton continued, finally asking, “have you ever, in any of these fantastical situations, heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?”
Despite the rhetoric, Cotton was trying to make a point – in what was an open and televised hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee – that accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, then due to reported meetings between Attorney General Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, were far-fetched and a distraction from the business of governing.
Recent revelations of a June 2016 meeting between President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, then campaign manager Paul Manafort, and multiple Russian individuals have reignited those accusations and raised real questions about Russian active measures in the United States.
Last Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. released, via Twitter, pages of correspondence with Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who sought to arrange a meeting between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney, to discuss “information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information. But is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Goldstone wrote. Trump Jr. then responded, “if it’s what you say, I love it. Especially later in the summer.”
The meeting proposed in the emails took place on 9 June 2016 – with Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former member of the Soviet military who is rumored to have counterintelligence experience, as well as other, as-yet unnamed Russian individuals.
“Straight Out of the Russian Playbook”
What does this meeting, which Trump Jr. claims provided no information and ended quickly, mean in the larger context of Russian influence operations directed at the United States?
Despite Goldstone explicitly calling Veselnitskaya a “Russian government attorney,” a spokesman for Russian President Vladmir Putin denied that the Kremlin had any knowledge of her.
To former Acting Director of the CIA and Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin, “it looks to me like an elaborate operation carried out through intermediaries to probe the receptivity of the Trump campaign to assistance from the Russian government during the campaign.”
“It is not unusual for it to be carried out through such a long chain of intermediaries, because the tradecraft objective here is to separate the original ambition as far as possible from the ultimate result so it becomes very hard to trace back, as it is in this case, exactly what happened and who did what,” McLaughlin told The Cipher Brief.
As Cipher Brief Expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steve Hall told The Cipher Brief, “they wouldn’t want to send a senior intelligence officer or diplomat – somebody like a Russian ambassador. They would want to send somebody who gives them operational distance from the Kremlin.”
The Cipher Brief’s experts agree that this was likely only one of many attempts to gain access – or throw doubt over – the Trump campaign. In Hall’s view, the arrangements to speak with Trump Jr. represent classic Russian tradecraft to attempt to penetrate the Trump campaign. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “the Russians are absolutely expert at this.” According to him, Russian intelligence officers exploit American openness to information – based on a tradition of freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The result? “The Russians take that to the bank every time.”
However, Daniel Hoffman, a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency, frames it slightly differently. While he too sees the Kremlin’s hand in the meeting, he believes it was simply meant to create an image of collusion that will damage the reputation and legitimacy of the Trump Presidency, and cast doubt on the American electoral system writ large.
“This particular influence operation is straight from Russian intelligence playbook,” he told The Cipher Brief. “In this case, I believe the Kremlin wanted purposely to create a compromising situation with an eye towards soiling our electoral process.”
In his view, establishing coordination with the Trump campaign was not necessary for the meeting to be successful. “I do not believe Russia required collusion with a campaign to weaponize the intelligence they stole via their cyber hacking operations directed against our electoral process,” Hoffman said.
But Hall does not see the two as mutually exclusive. “If I was the Russian operations officer running the HUMINT piece of trying to get into the Trump campaign, my first goal would have been to identify people inside the campaign who were willing to talk. If, as a secondary one off, that interaction also gave the appearance of collusion somewhere down the road, and that’s damaging to the American democracy, then that’s just great. That’s something that you take as part of the operation,” he said.
And repeated failures by Kushner and Trump Jr. to reveal the meeting – whether to government investigators via security clearance forms or to the press – simply play into the Russian attempts described by Hoffman to create what the President himself has described as a ‘cloud’ over his administration.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a Cipher Brief expert and former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, wrote in the Washington Post that “the most notable achievement of this encounter lay in the campaign’s failure to report it to the appropriate U.S. authorities.”
“The fact that Donald Jr. did not call the FBI — and the fact that he went ahead with the meeting with such enthusiasm — shows a willingness to collude with a foreign government, even though there was probably no actual collusion during the meeting itself, if it played out as described,” former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell told the Cipher Brief last week.
One Part of a Much Larger Story
The Trump Jr. emails may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told The Cipher Brief that this is likely “only one anecdote in a much larger story.” This email exchange occurred in June 2016, “before the campaigns heated up, and the Russians became steadily more aggressive with their campaign to interfere in the election,” Clapper pointed out. “I can’t believe that this one exchange represents all there is, either involving the President’s son or others associated with the campaign.”
Clapper has previously described the Russian influence operation on the 2016 election as “the high-water mark of their long running efforts since the 1960s to disrupt and influence our elections.”
“We are their number one target, and where Russia is concerned, not much happens by accident,” Hoffman told The Cipher Brief. “There is usually a hand, sometimes not so hidden, which can be traced back to the Kremlin.”
Morell agrees. “Putin wants to weaken the United States. Creating political turmoil here does that — it means we are not able to focus as we should on the important economic and national security issues facing the country, to include Russia’s malign behavior in the world.”
In Hall’s view, this is just another chapter in the story of Washington and Moscow seeking to counter one another. The weakness of the Russian military and economy have simply forced Putin to develop new tactics. “The intentions and goals are the same,” he said. “You want to incapacitate your enemy. The question now is simply: how are you going to do it?”
Callie Wang is Vice President of Analysis for The Cipher Brief.