The Hustlers and Swindlers of the Mueller Report
There was a lull on social media among Russia watchers after the redacted Mueller report dropped, on Thursday. “Everyone is reading,” a friend of mine wrote. “It’s like a well-written detective novel.”
I disagree. A masterfully constructed novel might spin different strands in order to tie them up neatly at the end, leaving the reader with the sense that the world has come into focus: motives are clear and mechanisms of malfeasance have been exposed. The Mueller report exposes the mechanisms and the motives, to be sure, but doesn’t tie anything together in the end. Rather than the story of a single crime masterminded by a single actor or entity, this is the story of many hustles, most of them unsuccessful. You’d be hard-pressed to find collusion among these hustlers—each of them has his own game.
One of the first hustlers comes into the report on page 54. He is Jerome Corsi, whom the report identifies as an “author who holds a doctorate in political science.” He is also a conspiracy theorist, a Swift Boater, and a birther. In his interviews with investigators, Corsi claimed to have alerted the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, to the impending publication, by the Washington Post, of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which Donald Trump boasted of forcibly kissing women and grabbing women by the genitals. Corsi appears to have claimed credit for insuring that Assange released the first trove of e-mails stolen from the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, within an hour of the publication of the tape. The special counsel could not find anyone who could corroborate Corsi’s claims. It appears that Corsi might have lied (though Corsi has denied this). Corsi’s hustle is like most of the other hustles in this story: he is inflating his own importance.
Next, on page 61, comes Henry Oknyansky, a.k.a. Harry Greenberg, a Russian-born Florida businessman, and Alexei Rasin, identified as a Ukrainian involved in Florida real estate. The two met with the Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone in May, 2016, and offered to sell damaging information on Hillary Clinton, which Rasin claimed to have obtained while working for Clinton. Stone rejected the offer. Mueller found no evidence that Rasin was ever connected to Clinton, and the special counsel was unable to locate Rasin himself.
Page 67 marks the arrival of big-time hustlers: the father and son Aras and Emin Agalarov and their sometime associates Irakly Kaveladze and Robert Goldstone. Aras Agalarov is a Moscow real-estate mogul. Kaveladze is his deputy and representative in the United States. Goldstone is a British music producer who served as a go-between for Agalarov’s contacts with Trump. Agalarov wanted to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow. The Trump Organization explored the option but, by September, 2014, appears to have lost interest in the Agalarovs, only to take up negotiations the following year with two other potential partners in Moscow. In this battle of hustlers, Felix Sater, a Soviet-born New York lawyer and convicted felon, emerges. He imagines bigger and better than the rest of them. In a now famous November, 2015, e-mail to the Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Sater promised the world: a ribbon-cutting ceremony from Trump Tower Moscow that would feature Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin onstage together—and this, he claimed, would win Trump the Republican Presidential nomination. (“And possibly beats Hillary and our boy is in,” he added hopefully.) Sater proceeded to string Cohen along with promises of arranging a meeting with Putin.
Frustrated, Cohen decided to reach out to the Russian President himself, by writing to a publicly available e-mail address for Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. His first message didn’t go through because he misspelled the address, but eventually he made contact with Peskov’s assistant. Sater jumped back in, trying to take control of the communication. Claiming to be coördinating with Peskov and promising a meeting with Putin, Sater arranged for Cohen to travel to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, 2016. Cohen went so far as to get his travel arrangements and credentials, but then concluded that Sater was misrepresenting his connections and was not acting on Peskov’s behalf after all. Cohen didn’t go to Russia. At the St. Petersburg forum, Putin, in an onstage interview with Fareed Zakaria, made fun of the American media’s obsession with his imagined regard for candidate Trump. “I said that he is colorful,” Putin said. “Well, he is colorful.”
The next pair of hustlers are George Papadopoulos, who was hired as a foreign-policy adviser by the Trump campaign, which was rushing to cobble together a team, and Joseph Mifsud, who called himself a professor and worked at a London institution that called itself an academy. Mifsud and Papadopoulos meet on page 82, in March, 2016. Mifsud boasted of his connections in Russia and elsewhere; Papadopoulos, according to the report, “thought that such connections could increase his importance as a policy advisor to the Trump Campaign.” Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian woman he may have misrepresented as Putin’s niece. After the meeting, Papadopoulos sent an e-mail to the campaign in which he misrepresented Mifsud, whom he had met just days earlier, as his good friend, and lied that he had also met the Russian Ambassador to London, who, he lied some more, also acts as Russia’s deputy foreign minister. Over the next several months, Papadopoulos worked frantically to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin using contacts, including Mifsud, who couldn’t possibly have the access necessary to broker such a meeting. Higher-level campaign officials dismissed his efforts. Papadopoulos was fired from the campaign, in October, 2016, after he gave an interview to the Russian news agency Interfax in which he criticized sanctions against Russia. Somewhere along the way, Papadopoulos appears to have heard that Russia had “dirt” on or e-mails from Hillary Clinton, but the investigation found no evidence that he shared this information with anyone on the campaign.
Then there was Carter Page, the founder of a failing consultancy and investment-management firm focussed on Russia. He had been hustled by a Russian intelligence officer named Victor Podobnyy, introduced on page 96. The report quotes Podobnyy, who met Page in 2013, boasting to an associate that he is feeding Page “empty promises.” Podobnyy was identified as an intelligence agent by the U.S. government in 2015; Page was interviewed by the F.B.I. about his contacts with him before he started volunteering for the Trump campaign, in January, 2016. In a now-familiar double hustle, Page misrepresented himself to the campaign, claiming that he had high-level Russian contacts, and exaggerated his own position in the campaign to his Russian contacts. In July, 2016, he travelled to Russia without the campaign’s authorization, spoke out against sanctions, and met with high-level government officials. When his activities began generating publicity in the U.S., he was fired from the campaign. After the election, he applied for a position on the transition team; on his application, he once again exaggerated his experience, the standing of his foreign contacts, and his role in the Trump campaign. He never heard back from the transition team, but he continued to hustle the Russian side for at least another couple of months.
One of the most covered events of the campaign appears on page 110: a June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting, in New York. The hustler this time was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a small-time lawyer who was representing a Russian businessman battling American sanctions because of his role in the death of the Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Veselnitskaya claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. So convincing was her bid for attention that old acquaintances, including the Agalarovs, Kaveladze, and Goldstone, joined her effort, in the apparent hope of hustling their way back to Trump. The Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump, Jr., attended the meeting. Veselnitskaya also brought Rinat Akhmetshin, a Soviet-born American lobbyist. Veselnitskaya had nothing to offer—she apparently had no dirt whatsoever, and her contacts with high-level officials in the Russian government were exaggerated by her and by Goldstone (and, since the fact of the meeting became public, by much of the American media). Kushner was angry that he had wasted his time. Goldstone later apologized to Trump, Jr., and complained to the younger Agalarov that his reputation was “basically destroyed by this dumb meeting which your father insisted on.”
Manafort, the second-biggest hustler in this story, comes in on page 129. According to the report, he instructed his deputy, Rick Gates, to release campaign information to Manafort’s former employee Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the F.B.I. considers to have ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik had come to him with a proposed peace-brokering arrangement between Russia and Ukraine. A telling detail is that he claimed that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was then living in Russia, would secure Russian support for the proposal. Manafort, who had worked for Yanukovych, was in a position to know that he was being hustled: Yanukovych did not have the kind of access to the Kremlin that would support such a claim. But Manafort had a hustle of his own: he told Gates that the arrangement would be “good for business” and, the report says, “potentially a way to be made whole for work he previously completed in the Ukraine.” Manafort was, it seems, trying to share internal campaign information in lieu of making debt payments to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
The report explains that Mueller’s team “applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion.’ ” Mueller decided not to charge any Trump-campaign officials with conspiracy due to a failure to “establish any agreement among Campaign officials—or between such officials and Russia-linked individuals—to interfere with or obstruct a lawful function of a government agency during the campaign or transition period.” The key word here is “agreement.” Of course there was none. Every character in this story was hustling every other character. Everyone was exaggerating his importance and selling more than he had. Conspiracy assumes a common purpose, but these people didn’t have one—not even, it seems, the hustle ultimately perpetrated on the American people by the election of Donald Trump.