I have been discussing the dubious claims of criminal liability over the meeting of Donald Trump Jr. with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. As I have mentioned, there is a legitimate reason to investigate this latest undisclosed meeting, though the overheated rhetoric on possible (if not imminent) criminal charges is bizarre. This morning on CNN, Sen. Richard Blumenthal raised possible charges of espionage and treason. Putting aside the facially weak foundation for such charges, I must again note that the underlying narrative around this meeting remains rather speculative and unbelievable. I have worked on the legal side of national security investigations for decades in both espionage and terrorism cases. As I said when this meeting first surfaced, none of this makes sense as an actual Russian intelligence operation as opposed to a rather transparent “bait-and-switch.” If this is a Russian spy mystery, it hardly makes for a sequel of Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
Once again, I consider the meeting to be a serious mistake and that the proper response would have been to contact the FBI about such an email and offer. Moreover, it is highly disturbing not to have had this meeting disclosed earlier. This posting is simply about the suggestion that this was, as stated in the email, a Russian government operation.
Let me try to sum up this theory.
The Russians decide to reveal their super secret clandestine effort to secure the presidency for Donald Trump. So they put together a high-ranking, high-visibility meeting at Trump Tower without knowing who would be at the meeting. They also allow a creepy publicist to send an email discussing the grand conspiracy. They then do a Charlie Brown football moment and do not actually disclose the promised incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton. Does that track with any cognizable Russian intelligence operation? What possible advantage is there in revealing their operation, promising intel, and then not actually sharing anything of value? The Russians are not perfect but they are not morons. If this was Russian operation, we truly have over-estimated our opposition.
Russians do not usually set up meetings at places like Trump Tower with an unknown number of persons to discuss secret operations. Setting up such a meeting would give others leverage against the Russians by disclosing their operation. Russians are not known to hand over leveraging information, particularly for nothing in return. Spies are by their nature control nuts.
In the end, we are also left with the curious fact that nothing was turned over. Even if you doubt the word of those in the meeting, there is the fact that nothing was actually revealed against Clinton. In the end, there may be more evidence to change my skepticism and the Russians could be shown to the utter clowns suggested in coverage. However, the most obvious explanation is often the right one. It is Occam’s razor that the simplest explanation is usually the right choice between theories.
There is another possibility for Occam’s razor: the Trump team fell for the world’s dumbest bait-and-switch. This lawyer has long fought to lift the adoption ban. That is not the type of thing that would secure a meeting, let alone high-ranking meeting, at Trump Tower.
Of course, the email is damaging and plays well to this theory of a grand Russian conspiracy with Donald Trump Jr. at the center. He did after all eagerly go to a meeting with the understanding that he was going to meet a Russian government lawyer who would pass information damaging from Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian effort to influence the election. He is worthy of criticism for such a decision and it certainly fuels the conspiracy theories. However, as Easterhase told Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “Things aren’t always what they seem.”