The past 72 hours have been a whirlwind of revelations about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. posted an email chain from last June in which he agreed to a meeting with a “Russian government lawyer” named Natalia Veselnitskaya who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Then on Friday morning, NBC News reported that Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer was also attended by a dual US-Russian citizen named Rinat Akhmetshin, a longtime Washington lobbyist believed to be a former Soviet military intelligence officer (though he denies the latter).
So what the hell is going on? If the Russians were indeed working with the Trump campaign to influence the election, why do it so brazenly? Why send a former Soviet intelligence officer into a meeting at Trump Tower?
I reached out by phone to Glenn Carle, a 23-year veteran of the CIA and former deputy officer on the National Intelligence Council. I asked him to walk me through the week’s revelations and to explain Russia’s actions from the perspective of an intelligence officer.
He told me that the meeting with Trump Jr., while unusually brazen, fits a broader pattern of Russian intelligence attempting to engage with the Trump family over the years. “This is how it’s done,” he said.
Carle explains why in our lightly edited conversation below.
Walk me through what you think we’ve learned in the last 48 to 72 hours.
Since the Trump Jr. meeting became public knowledge, the standard assessment is that this is the smoking gun. Now, I suppose that's true, because now we have documents about direct meetings concerning the Russian government's interactions with members of Trump's entourage.
For me, this may be a smoking gun for a prosecutor, but I think there have been not just smoking guns but explosions going off all over the place for years [that] show exactly what this latest meeting showed: collusion between the Russians and Trump. So this meeting didn't really show us anything we didn't already know.
Well, what, exactly, did it show us?
It's a clear report of how the Russians are seeking to communicate with, manipulate, funnel, and extract information from the Trump entourage and campaign.
You say of the Trump Jr. meeting, “This is how it’s done.” What do you mean by that? I assume you mean this is how the Russian government works behind the scenes to compromise a source or push its agenda.
If you're an intelligence agency or officer, you never walk up to somebody that you want to recruit or influence and tell them directly that you want to recruit or influence them. You act upon them indirectly, whether they’re witting or unwitting or complicit — and all of those things are slightly different. But in any case, you always have a cover story — always. And you always act in a way that can be masked.
So in this case, the meeting is allegedly to discuss the Magnitsky Act. One, that is a specific objective that the Russians are seeking to effect both overtly and covertly, and through influence operations by shaping perceptions, by buying people off, by providing information that leads toward their objectives, and by developing sources.
So back to Trump Jr. What do you do here if you're the Russians? Well, you send someone who is a private lawyer into what might theoretically be a legitimate, aboveboard meeting, and you inject an intelligence officer or intelligence objectives into that meeting. That appears to be what happened in this case.
It’s a perfectly plausible cover for a meeting that is ostensibly about one thing but in reality about something entirely different.
But here's the thing I don't get: We just learned today that there was another person present in the meeting, a former Soviet counterintelligence officer. That seems to blow the cover off the meeting. If you're Russia, why be so audacious, so naked in your ambitions?
Well, you might want to send a counterintelligence officer into a meeting like this with a cover story, understanding the risks of exposure involved, because you need someone there who can ensure the objectives are met.
Secondly, however juicy a target Trump and his crowd may be (and it's shocking how attractive a target Trump is from an intelligence perspective), he is nevertheless extremely uncontrollable. He's just not reliable in any way. And an intelligence officer wants more than anything else to control his or her assets. The incompetence and unpredictability of Trump is overwhelming, and so the Russians would likely want as many handlers in the room as possible.
Why is Trump Jr. a target here? What makes him a valuable asset?
That's a good question. To me, this is part of a broad but clear pattern with multiple bits of information about a multilayered series of approaches by Russian intelligence to the Trump entourage that consist of human meetings, financial associations, information placements, and various technical operations. And all of this is going on simultaneously. So it's not as though the Russians have a single source who is Donald Trump Jr.
We have this entire multilayered campaign with all sorts of data points and pressure points. If you're a Russian intelligence officer, you're thinking, "How can we get to this guy without compromising ourselves or without being too careful and sacrificing effectiveness for security?” which is always the balancing act in the intelligence world.
The Russians have been super aggressive and, in a lot of ways, arrogantly open about their multiple layers of contacts. Now, this is just me editorializing, but I think the Russians decided they could engineer a meeting with Trump Jr. and the campaign director relatively quickly because he's not a controlled asset who will service a dead drop or something more covert like that. But they had all these relationships with people in and around the campaign, and so it makes sense that they would set something like this up.
From their perspective, it was clearly worth the risks.
I assume the Russians would not feel so confident about these measures if they didn’t have considerable leverage over the Trump family. Is that fair?
Absolutely. Of course they have leverage. We know that the Trump family has taken on numerous debts from Russian creditors and banks and who knows what other sorts of leverage they might have over Trump. Hell, we have Trump Jr. on record in 2008 saying that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." It’s quite obvious that there are deep financial ties lurking beneath all of this.
When you pile up all the evidence, even before this week’s revelations about Trump Jr., it seems impossible to deny that something is afoot here.
To me, it's clear that Russian intelligence has been involved with Donald Trump for years. I also believe it's clear, though it's harder to establish, that Donald Trump actively sought that involvement and has consented to it at some point.
It also seems certain that Trump is uncontrollable and would not ever consider himself a spy, but many spies don't consider themselves spies and often don't even know that they're spies. And intelligence services couldn’t care less about that.
What matters to them is exploiting people, and that is what is happening here.