Even before Donald Trump Jr released emails confirming rumours of a meeting with Russian representatives offering dirt on HiIlary Clinton, the Russian media was downplaying the story. On 10 July, the day before the emails were released, national tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) described Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya as a “female lawyer from Khimki” – the vaguely sexist implication being that she was far from a national heavyweight. The KP report was telling in that it sarcastically declared that the US had “found” (in inverted commas) evidence of “collusion with the Russians” – suggesting the “anonymous sources” quoted in the New York Times were illegitimate.
Of course, they were very quickly proved wrong via Trump Jr’s Twitter account. But the Russian media responded by either ignoring, or downplaying, the emails’ significance.
For a country that venerated Donald Trump after his election, to the point that there were even protests against the “cult of Trump” outside news agency headquarters in Moscow in February, the response (or lack thereof) is conspicuous. On Wednesday, the channel LifeNews focused on attacks on Russians in Abkhazia, milk in New Zealand and Turkey, the release of real estate tycoon Sergei Polonsky, and the well-timed (ahem) totally sensational (ahem) news that Vladimir Putin had a stranger wearing a red dress accompanying him in his car.
Meanwhile presidential spokesman Dmitriy Peskov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have sought to distance the Russian state from the key actors in the Trumpian drama.
“It definitely looks like a long-running soap opera,” Peskov said on Wednesday, the day after the emails were released, according to Russian state news agency TASS. Lavrov also stated at a news conference in Brussels the same day that he had heard about it from the news. “How could there be a problem or a threat for someone, if any person communicates with a lawyer?” he added.
Veselnitskaya has aided this strategy. On Tuesday she told NBCNews: “I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton,” and said she did not represent the Russian government, only herself.
Yet Veselnitskaya has a track record of fighting Russian political battles abroad, for example working to repeal the Magnitsky Act, a set of sanctions targeted at specific indivudals passed by Congress in 2012. The act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, who said he uncovered a $230m (£150m) high-level tax fraud. He was later accused of colluding in the crime and put in prison, where he died.
Veselnitskaya also helped to organise the screening of an anti-Magnitsky film in Brussels and has a reputation of being deeply patriotic and a “trusted insider”. As Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague wrote in The Atlantic on Wednesday: “What has emerged is an ‘adhocracy’, in which people find themselves tapped for roles as and when needed.” On a day-to-day basis, Veselnitskaya may have only represented herself. But it might not be unreasonable for an American to believe she was representing something bigger. Former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, speculated that Veselnitskaya likely co-ordinated with the Russian government.
As well as Veselnitskaya, attention has focused on the billionaire owner of Crocus Group, Aras Agalarov, whose development company worked with the Trumps to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. He was mentioned in Trump Jr’s final email as the potential supplier of incriminating information about Clinton. But Wednesday morning Agalarov told Russian radio station BFM that Trump Jr’s letters were “inventions,” adding that he neither knew Donald Trump Jr or Rob Goldstone. Photographic evidence later emerged suggesting the contrary.
And here they are sitting at the same table in Las Vegas in 2013. pic.twitter.com/tvdRD5VLwK
— Euan MacDonald (@Euan_MacDonald) July 12, 2017
Even if Agalarov has not spent much time communicating directly with Trump, his son, the Russian pop star Emin certainly has. He created an Instagram post Wednesday morning asking “what’s in the news” with a winking emoji. Over the years, he has sought to promote his relationship with Donald Trump, having him guest in a music video in 2013, frequently publicly speaking of their candid relationship. Agalarov told Forbes in March that “we thought that building a Trump Tower next to an Agalarov tower – having the two big names – could be a really cool project to execute”.
The cast of characters is in some ways almost farcical. Yet, in the end, it may not matter to the US public what the Russians were or were not doing. Trump Jr believed he was cooperating with people who had access to “high level and sensitive” information about Hillary Clinton and her campaign, and that it was coming from someone who seemed to represent part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.
Donald Trump Jr’s entire email chain containing that infromation was forwarded to campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Even if Veselnitskaya was not working on the direct orders of the Kremlin, she was clearly indicating allegiances and connections that should have triggered warning bells for all three. As former White House ethics lawyer Richard W. Painter pointed out: “When a Russian agent calls to offer dirt on a political opponent, a loyal American will call the FBI.” That Trump Jr and co were still eager to forge connections with this cast of Russians bearing gifts may be easy to gloss over in the Russian press, but in the United States, it is a very big story indeed.