met about half of Kellyann Conway's demand for "hard evidence of systemic, sustained, furtive collusion." We have hard evidence now of furtive collusion, but any evidence that collusion was systemic or sustained is purely circumstantial and speculative.
All participants in the meeting with the Russians have either declined to discuss it, or said that not much happened. Donald, Jr. said that the Russians promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton, had nothing of value to offer, and just wanted to discuss lifting the Magnitinsky Act, an early sanctions act specifically targeting Russian oligarchs. Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian lobbyist who also attended the meeting, said that Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya presented documents that she said showed illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee, but did not have sufficient evidence to support the allegations, and that nothing came of the meeting. So why suspect that the meeting was the prelude to "systematic, sustained collusion"?
Well, for one thing, after extending the benefit of the doubt to the Trump campaign on the Russians, I have been burned often enough to refuse to do so any longer. For another, things just don't smell right.
An experienced counter-intelligence investigator says that this sounds very much like a preliminary overture from Russian intelligence. An offer of this type cannot generally be made without approval from the highest levels. It would have been decidedly abnormal to offer anything of much value at so early a stage, by an intermediary who does not work directly for Russian intelligence, and on hostile soil (and, the author did not add but may be taken to imply, to such amateurs and Junior and Jared). What was important, from the Russian perspective, was that the Trump campaign did not indignantly refuse such a meeting and did not alert the authorities, but seemed open to collusion.
One highly suspicious circumstance, as many have noted, is that Junior and Goldstone arranged on June 7, 2016 for the meeting to take place on June 9. Hour later, Trump Senior announced that, "[W]e’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting." Monday was June 13, i.e., after the scheduled meeting. The timing strongly suggests that Trump knew about the meeting scheduled and expected to get something juicy from it.
Other interpretations are possible, I suppose. Maybe the threesome decided not to tell Dad about the meeting, but just that they anticipated some sort of big scoop. If so, that would strongly suggest they were deliberately compartmentalizing and making information available on a "need to know" basis, something that would suggest they knew something sinister was afoot. But then again, Junior and Jared were rank amateurs; only Manafort was likely to recognize just how explosive this was and what had to be done. Or maybe Trump did not anticipate a major scoop and was just indulging his general tendency toward hyperbole. In any event, he never did disclose any particularly scandalous information about Hillary. This would seem to corroborate the participants' account that no useful information exchanged hands at the meeting.
Also significant: The Russian hack of the DNC headquarters was not public knowledge at the time of the meeting. There is no reason to believe that the Trump team so much as suspected it. What was public knowledge was that Hillary had sent State Department e-mails on a private server that was vulnerable to hacking and that she had deleted over 30,000 of them prior to the investigation. Team Trump and a lot of other Republicans seem to have concluded that if Hillary's server was vulnerable to hacking and that she had deleted over 30,000 e-mails, then the Russians must have hacked her server and had her e-mails, which they were confident contained something terribly incriminating. We have accounts of mid-level operative Peter Smith and some low-level operative in Florida attempting to get the missing e-mails from Russia, and of Trump publicly calling on Russia to disclose them.
In fact, the initial e-mail came in on June 3, the very day after Trump had specifically raised the issue of Hillary's missing e-mails and commented that e-mails cannot be erased. It seems probably, then, that Junior and the others were expecting to receive the missing e-mails containing something highly incriminating and were bitterly disappointed when no such information was forthcoming. It seems a safe assumption that the Russians did not hack Hillary's server and were therefore not able to deliver what the Trump campaign wanted most.
But what about the then-secret Russian hack of the DNC headquarters. That became public knowledge on June 14, 2016, a mere five days after the meeting in an article that made clear that the Russians were the prime suspects. The first documents from the hack were published and forwarded to Gawker the very next day. Three days later, information on Democratic donors was posted. Wikileaks started publishing DNC documents at the time of the Democratic convention in July, carefully timed to do maximum harm.
So, we know that the Russians informed Team Trump that they were assisting the campaign and held a meeting about damaging information on Hillary. We also know that members of Team Trump were eager to get the 30,000 e-mails deleted from Hillary's server and tried unsuccessfully to obtain them from the Russians. We know that the Russians really did hack the DNC server and released the contents in a manner carefully calculated to do maximum harm to the Democrats. And we know that Trump continued to deny that the Russian hacked the DNC in the face of all evidence that they had, and in spite of his eagerness to work with them, and believe that they had Hillary's missing e-mails. We also know that Trump and his team regularly quoted Russian sources. These were publicly available and did not require any inside track, but Team Trump seemed to follow them remarkably closely and quote them almost as soon as they came out.
None of this proves that the Russians ever informed Team Trump that they had hacked the DNC server or solicited information from them about how most effectively to deploy the information. But given Team Trump's willingness to accept help, including hacked materials, from the Russians, it looks suspicious.