It is increasingly apparent that the Trump campaign’s obsession with “missing” emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private server led to their Kremlin collusion efforts and any potential criminal conspiracy uncovered by the Office of Special Counsel.
As with so much else in this sordid saga, a clear pattern of conduct emerges from a simple timeline of events. George Papadopoulos took his position with the Trump campaign in early March 2016. Papadopoulos bragged about “thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton” to an Australian diplomat in May of 2016, eventually resulting in a cross-Pacific conversation that triggered the FBI counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign.
Seeking to raise his status within the organization, the ambitious Papadopoulos approached Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor in London claiming close Kremlin ties, hoping to arrange a Trump meeting with Putin. According to information released by Robert Mueller’s special counsel along with their charges against Papadopoulos, “Professor Mifsud” introduced Papadopoulos to someone incorrectly described as “Vladimir Putin’s niece” on March 24. She was in fact Olga Polonskaya, “a young woman from St. Petersburg.”
Although Ms. Polonskaya told The Times in a text message that her English skills are poor, her emails to Mr. Papadopoulos were largely fluent. “We are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Ms. Polonskaya wrote in one message.
In the months that followed, Papadopoulos persisted in trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin, apparently ignoring Jeff Sessions, who argued against it. Papadopoulos sought out another Russian academic named Ivan Timofeev. “The two men corresponded for months about how to connect the Russian government and the campaign,” The Times reports.
Records suggest that Mr. Timofeev, who has been described by Mr. Mueller’s team as an intermediary for the Russian Foreign Ministry, discussed the matter with the ministry’s former leader, Igor S. Ivanov, who is widely viewed in the United States as one of Russia’s elder statesmen.
During this time, Papadopoulos would have been telling Trump and Sessions that Russia had “thousands of Clinton emails.” He had learned about them “on or about April 26, 2016,” according to the special counsel, when “defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for breakfast at a London hotel.”
During this meeting, the Professor told Defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.”
It is important to note here that while Russian intelligence services had penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s email systems in September 2015, and broken into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account just days before Papadopoulos met with “Professor” Mifsud, no one in the Trump campaign knew about either hacking event.
So when Papadopoulos told them that “the Russians had emails of Clinton,” indeed just “thousands of emails,” they likely assumed the purloined communications were the infamous “missing” emails from Clinton’s server — and that misunderstanding may explain several things that happened in the next few months.
For example, Donald Trump, Jr. agreed to meet with Kremlin representatives at Trump Tower in June because they would have “official documents and information that would incriminate” Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. replied. But what was he expecting to receive?
That meeting has all the hallmarks of a Russian influence operation — a classic example of exploitation directed from Moscow. Just by putting Trumps in the same room with spies and money launderers and anti-Magnitsky lawyers, Putin compromised a future American president’s family and fostered American political turmoil. Yet the most important thing to note here is that Trump Jr. would have been advised that Russia supposedly held “thousands” of “Clinton emails.”
So when Donald Trump, Jr. expressed his disappointment that the meeting had been about “adoptions” — code for a discussion of the Magnitsky Act — perhaps he was tacitly admitting that he had expected to see those “missing” Clinton emails.
Of course, his Russian visitors gave him no cause to believe that the Kremlin did not have those emails, after all. In fact, later that very same day, his candidate father mentioned them on Twitter, perhaps in expectation that Russia would come through with them soon.
Hmm…Trump’s very 1ST tweet about HRC’s “missing 33,000 emails” appears to be from 6/9/16, after Manafort, Kushner, Don Jr met the Russian pic.twitter.com/sJcSRaSXZv
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) July 10, 2017
As explained in the special counsel’s announcement of Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, he continued trying to arrange further “off the record” meetings from the middle of June until the middle of August. While these efforts did not pan out, they also overlap the period in which news of the DNC hack broke and WikiLeaks began publishing the stolen materials. While they were still not the “missing” Clinton emails, the campaign clearly still held out hope those would emerge.
Indeed, on July 29, one week after Julian Assange began dumping the DNC emails, Trump encouraged the Kremlin to do just that in a campaign speech. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” He tweeted about them later that same day.
If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2016
The campaign seems to have realized at some point that Russia might not produce the “missing” Clinton emails, after all, but efforts to obtain them did not stop. During September, Republican donor Peter W. Smith tried to recruit people to help him approach Russian hackers and verify any materials they might have. Crucially, Smith — like the Trumps — was convinced that the “missing” emails not only existed in Russian hands, but also “concerned official matters Mrs. Clinton wanted to conceal,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Clinton. Emails. Thousands. These were the only words that mattered in translation.
As he recruited help, Smith dropped the names of people close to Trump: Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Sam Clovis were all prominent figures in Trumpworld at the time. Indeed, Clovis was Papadopoulis’s direct supervisor, had praised him for doing a “good job” by approaching Mifsud in London, and knew he was still trying to set up a Trump-Putin meeting.
At least one conservative outlet says that Smith’s approach caused a responsive effort in Moscow. “Investigators have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary,” Shane Harris reported at the Wall Street Journal, citing sources in the intelligence community.
To be clear, the so-called “missing” emails were unrelated to Hillary Clinton’s work as Secretary of State and were deleted accordingly. Nor has any evidence ever emerged that anyone compromised her private email server. The only people convinced otherwise were Donald Trump, his family, his campaign, and his friends, who collectively fell all over themselves chasing down Hillary Clinton’s nonexistent, supposedly-damning emails all the way to Moscow.
Thanks to James Comey, “her emails” led to Clinton’s defeat. But it would be deeply ironic, and even a little bit of cosmic justice, if “her emails” also led to the downfall of the Trump administration by way of indictments and impeachment. We seem to be heading in that direction.