Ryan Lizza writes: If you read Jared Kushner’s statement to congressional committees looking for evidence of a crime, there isn’t much there. But if you read it from the perspective of the Russians trying to gain a toehold—or more—inside the Trump campaign, you realize how easy he made it for them. As the evidence mounted last year that the Russian government launched an unprecedented hacking and influence campaign to affect the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor, the Trump team, including Kushner, became increasingly more solicitous to high-level Russians offering information and requesting meetings.
Kushner’s first meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, seems relatively innocuous. According to Kushner’s account, they met in April, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel, in Washington, D.C., during a reception before a speech that Trump delivered on foreign policy. Dimitri Simes, the publisher of The National Interest and the organizer of the event, introduced Kushner to Kislyak and three other ambassadors. To Kushner, the introduction was forgettable. Without specifying which ones, he noted that some of the ambassadors invited him to lunch but that he “never took them up on any of these invitations.”
For Kislyak, it was clearly an important moment. The Russian Ambassador represents a country whose intelligence services had hacked their way into the Democratic National Committee’s networks ten months earlier and hacked the e-mail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, the previous month. At Trump’s speech, Kislyak was honored with an invitation to the reception and a front-row seat. Trump’s speech itself extended an olive branch to Vladimir Putin, calling for “improved relations with Russia” and an effort to “make a deal that’s great” for “America, but also good for Russia.”
By May, Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate—the G.R.U.—“had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC,” according to the U.S. intelligence community’s unclassified report on Russian meddling. In June, the Russian government adopted “a clear preference” for Trump, according to the report. “Beginning in June, Putin’s public comments about the U.S. presidential race avoided directly praising President-elect Trump, probably because Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire in the United States. Nonetheless, Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.”
That same month, Russian associates of the Trump family reached out to offer the Trump campaign some direct assistance. On June 3rd, Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist and former tabloid journalist, e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., offering “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and noted that the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” A meeting was set for June 9th, and Trump’s oldest child forwarded the full e-mail exchange to Kushner and Paul Manafort, who at the time was the campaign chairman. The subject line was “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential.”
Yesterday, Kushner insisted, “I did not read or recall this e-mail exchange before it was shown to me by my lawyers.” Whether or not that’s true, he attended the meeting. According to Kushner’s account of the meeting, it was uneventful. He got there late, some Russians he never heard of were discussing adoption policy, and he quickly messaged his assistant to call him so he had an excuse to bail. Longtime intelligence officials have a more jaundiced view. Michael Hayden, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, told me that he was convinced the meeting was a classic “soft approach” by Russian intelligence. He cited a recent Washington Post article, by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, that argued that the meeting “is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like,” and that it may have been the “green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.”
Hayden told me, “My god, this is just such traditional tradecraft.” He said that he has talked to people in the intelligence community about Mowatt-Larssen’s theory and that “every case officer I’ve pushed on this” agreed with it. “This is how they do it.” [Continue reading…]