Amateur Hour At Trump Tower

The New York Times story below appears to be the smoking gun in the Trumpgate scandal: the text of an email exchange last June between an obscure former British tabloid reporter and Donald Trump Jr. offering Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton during the impending US presidential election campaign.

What strikes this writer is the sheer amateurishness of the plot, not least the Russian failure to protect the secrecy of the emails flying between Russia and Trump Tower, or alternatively not using a more discrete and deniable way to make contact with team Trump, like flying the British contact to New York for a face-to-face meeting with people he seemingly knew well enough already.

If that was not feasible then the very least the Russians should have done was to ensure that both the British contact – former tabloid reporter turned music publicist, Rob Goldstone – and Donald Jr. were equipped with an email encryption programme.

The best know of these is GPG, a derivative of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). It is easy to load, at least on an Apple computer, and even easier to operate. Encrypted emails can only be opened once passwords, or keys, unique to the recipient and sender are created and in the event of the authorities demanding access say, to Donald Jr’s password, well…..passwords can so easily be forgotten or lost.

If Donald Jr and Mr Goldstone had been using GPG, today’s New York Times story would never have been written.

I have been using PGP or GPG for many years, during my time as a journalist in Belfast, where I assumed both the British and the Provos would be interested in some of my emails. Myself and the two researchers for the Boston College archive project communicated using a commercial version of PGP. I also display my GPG public key on the front page of this blog in case someone wishes to communicate using encryption.

If any of my readers would like to download GPG, here is a link.

So why didn’t the Russians employ this basic precaution? Conspiracy theorists will doubtless conclude that this was a deliberate mistake intended to create confusion and conflict in American politics once the emails were discovered – and anyway who could have imagined a Trump victory last June?

I suspect, however, that the simpler explanation is the right one, that it was a simple cock-up born of stupidity and hubris on the part of the FSB, the post-Communist successors to the KGB.

If I’m right then the big losers out of this affair, aside from la familie Trump, will be the reputation and standing of the Russian intelligence services.

Russian Dirt on Clinton? ‘I Love It’ Donald Trump Jr. Said

Donald Trump Jr. after speaking at the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland. Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The June 3, 2016, email sent to Donald Trump Jr. could hardly have been more explicit: One of his father’s former Russian business partners had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and was offering to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” read the email, written by a trusted intermediary, who added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

If the future president’s elder son was surprised or disturbed by the provenance of the promised material — or the notion that it was part of an ongoing effort by the Russian government to aid his father’s campaign — he gave no indication.

He replied within minutes: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Four days later, after a flurry of emails, the intermediary wrote back, proposing a meeting in New York on Thursday with a “Russian government attorney.”

Donald Trump Jr. agreed, adding that he would likely bring along “Paul Manafort (campaign boss)” and “my brother-in-law,” Jared Kushner, now one of the president’s closest White House advisers.

On June 9, the Russian lawyer was sitting in the younger Mr. Trump’s office on the 25th floor of Trump Tower, just one level below the office of the future president.

Over the last several days, The New York Times has disclosed the existence of the meeting, whom it involved and what it was about. The story has unfolded as The Times has been able to confirm details of the meetings.

But the email exchanges, which were reviewed by The Times, offer a detailed unspooling of how the meeting with the Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, came about — and just how eager Donald J. Trump was to accept what he was explicitly told was the Russian government’s help.

The Justice Department, as well as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is examining whether any of President Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government to disrupt last year’s election. American intelligence agencies have determined that the Russian government tried to sway the election in favor of Mr. Trump.

The precise nature of the promised damaging information about Mrs. Clinton is unclear, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was related to Russian-government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. But in recent days, accounts by some of the central organizers of the meeting, including Donald Trump Jr., have evolved or have been contradicted by the written email records.

On Monday, Donald Trump Jr. said on Twitter that it was hardly unusual to take information on an opponent. And on Tuesday morning, he tweeted, “Media & Dems are extremely invested in the Russia story. If this nonsense meeting is all they have after a yr, I understand the desperation!”

The back story to the June 9 meeting involves an eclectic cast of characters the Trump family knew from its business dealings in Moscow.

The initial email outreach came from Rob Goldstone, a British-born former tabloid reporter and entertainment publicist who first met the future president when the Trump Organization was attempting to do business in Russia.

 

In the June 3 email, Mr. Goldstone told Donald J. Trump Jr. that he was writing on behalf of a mutual friend, one of Russia’s biggest pop music stars, Emin Agalarov. Emin, who professionally uses his first name only, is the son of Aras Agalarov, a real estate tycoon sometimes called the “Donald Trump of Russia.”

The elder Agalarov boasts close ties to Mr. Putin: his company has won several large state building contracts, and Mr. Putin awarded him the “Order of Honor of the Russian Federation.”

Mr. Agalarov joined with the elder Mr. Trump to bring the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013, and the Trump and Agalarov families grew relatively close.

When Emin released a music video with a theme borrowed from the television show, The Apprentice, Mr. Trump, then the show’s star, made a cameo appearance, delivering his trademark line: “You’re fired!” The elder Mr. Agalarov had also partnered with the Trumps to build a Trump hotel in Moscow, but it has never came to fruition.

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