The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
[Updated 7/19/17 with footnote ** at end]
The now justly-famous "Russia—Clinton—private and confidential" email thread began on June 3, 2016, with Rob Goldstone writing to Donald Trump Jr. that
"the Crown prosecutor of Russia … offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump. . ."
Trump Jr., as everyone knows, responded a mere 17 minutes later:
"if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?"
So who's this "Crown prosecutor," who's offering up the information, anyway? As it happens, Russia doesn't have a "Crown prosecutor," because it is no longer a monarchy. Presumably, Goldstone—who is British—was using a somewhat imprecise Anglicism, based on usage in Britain (where all prosecutors working for national government are known as "Crown prosecutors," the basic equivalent of our "federal prosecutor").
Most analysts seem to think Goldstone was referring to Yuri Chaika, who holds the title of "Prosecutor-General of the Russian Federation"—Russia's chief prosecutor, akin to our attorney general—though it's hard to be sure. It could just mean "some Russian prosecutor," I suppose, though the use of the definite article—"the Crown prosecutor"—certainly suggests he's referring to the top guy. Chaika is known to have close contact with both the Agalarovs (to whom, according to Goldstone, the Crown prosecutor made the offer) and Vladimir Putin. (And if you want to know what kind of a guy Chaika is and the sort of politics he likes to engage in, Julia Ioffe's piece in the Atlantic is a good place to begin; he is, let's just say, not the kind of guy you want to fool around with).
It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most interesting or important question that arises from the Goldstone email and all of the subsequent events—although it would, of course, be nice to know for certain to whom Goldstone was referring, and I'm sure he'll be asked that question, under oath, in due course.
More interesting, to me, than the question "to whom was Goldstone actually referring?" is the question "Why didn't Trump Jr. even ask him to whom he was referring?"
"Rob: I love it. But one question: who is this guy—the 'Crown prosecutor'—you say has all this great stuff for us?"
It's odd—don't you think? Wouldn't that have been the natural thing to do? Precisely because "the Crown prosecutor" doesn't have any ordinary accepted meaning in connection with the Russian legal system, you'd think Trump would want to know—no? If you got an email from an associate with whom you had some contact in the past, and it said something like "The Philadelphia district prosecutor has some information for you that could be really important" in connection with some matter in which you're engaged, wouldn't you ask "Who? Do you mean the Philly DA? The federal prosecutor in Philly? The attorney general?"
It just seems a little odd that Trump Jr. didn't ask. It couldn't be—could it?—that Trump Jr. and Goldstone had communicated prior to this email about "the Crown prosecutor" and that therefore no explanation was necessary?
And while we're on the subject of questions Trump Jr. didn't ask, there's also this one: "Russian government support for my father? The Russian government supports my father? What's up with that?"
I guess it was just political inexperience, or naivete, not to show the slightest surprise upon hearing that a foreign government—and a foreign government with which our own government has a very complex, and often very hostile, relationship, to put it mildly—was "supporting" one candidate over another in our presidential election.
And surely it was just a coincidence that on the evening of June 3—a few hours after Trump Jr. and Goldstone have their initial exchange—Trump Sr. publicly announced [transcript here] that he would be delivering "a major speech on probably Monday of next week" on how "Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into her private hedge fund—the Russians, the Saudis, the Chinese—all gave money to Bill and Hillary and got favorable treatment in return." It can't possibly be that Trump Jr. had mentioned something to him about "the Crown prosecutor" and the information he was trading?
Trump Sr.'s June 3 comments came on the night that he won the final round of Republican primaries. His speech makes for depressing reading. "The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves. They've made hundreds of millions of dollars selling access, selling favors, selling government contracts, and I mean hundreds of millions of dollars." In light of the manner in which Trump and his family have behaved in connection with their own financial interests, this borders on self-parody.
One of the many things I may never understand about our current political climate is this: On the one hand, I do understand (and to a large extent share) the outrage that many people felt about the Clintons' exercise of the "politics of personal enrichment." (Although, to be fair, Trump's ridiculous claim that the Clintons made "hundreds of millions of dollars" selling access and favors is just that, a ridiculous (and completely unsubstantiated) claim; we have their tax returns, remember?) I get the outrage, though, about the obscene speaking fees, and the foundation "contributions," and the rest. But what I cannot understand is how many of the people who were the most outraged by the Clintons' financial shenanigans just shrug off Trump's far more blatant efforts to use the presidency to promote his personal brand and enrich himself and his family. "We voted for him because he's a successful businessman—and you can't expect him to drop all his business activities just because he's the president" doesn't quite work, to my mind. It smacks too much of a double standard—it's okay for the millionaires to keep doing the things they did to become millionaires when they're in public office, but not okay for those who want to become millionaires to do those things?
I understand that this is all rather idle speculation at this point. I happen to believe that (a) this meeting was not the only contact that Jared Kushner et al. had with Russian government operatives, that (b) there was some degree of cooperation between them established at those meetings, and (c) Trump Sr. knew (a) and (b). But I certainly can understand readers who don't believe any of that; I don't regard any of it as proven as of now by the facts that have been made public. Only that it is plausible, in the sense that it is consistent with known facts, and that for any number of reasons I happen to believe it is, factually, true.
The good news is that we'll find out. Lying on television is easy;** lying to an experienced and talented federal prosecutor when you're under oath is not so easy. From what I understand, Robert S. Mueller III is himself, and has surrounded himself with, very experienced and talented prosecutors. I've seen enough really good prosecutors in action to know that they can be a very effective way—often, the most effective way, by far—to get at underlying facts and to uncover what did and did not happen, and it doesn't much matter whether those of us looking in from the outside think this is a "nothing burger" or evidence of some deeper criminal conspiracy. I reserve the right to say "I told you so" if [when] the facts swing my way, and you are certainly free to chastise me if they don't.
** Surely things haven't gotten so polarized in this country that we can't all share a good laugh over all of the Trump campaign operatives—Trump Jr., Mike Pence, Paul Manafort, KellyAnne Conway, Reince Preibus, Jeff Sessions …—who repeated—over and over and over—bald-faced lies about there having been "no contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians."