Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You’ve probably never heard of the 1942 film Miss V from Moscow, and there’s no particular reason why you should have. It was a 66-minute cheapie, made at the PRC studio, whose initials officially stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation” but whose movies, with a few inspired exceptions, were generally so bad Hollywood wags started calling them “Pretty Rotten Crap.” Miss V from Moscow is a World War II story that deals with a Russian agent (Lola Lane) who because of her striking resemblance to a well-known woman Nazi the French Resistance has just killed, is sent to Paris to impersonate the Nazi, infiltrate the German occupation command and get secret information the Allies can use. If you’re curious about this so-bad-it’s-good camp classic, you can download or stream it at https://archive.org/details/MissVFromMoscow.
But I couldn’t help thinking of this lousy little movie when it turned out that over a year ago, Donald Trump, Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, then managing Donald Trump, Sr.’s Presidential campaign, had a meeting at Trump Tower in New York City with a real Miss V from Moscow. Her name was Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the meeting took place on June 9, 2016, exactly 13 months to the day before the New York Times first published an account of it. Originally Trump, Jr. said the meeting was held merely to discuss ways to facilitate American couples’ adoptions of Russian babies. Then things started to get weird, as they often do with stories about Trump and his family.
It turned out that the meeting had been brokered by a wealthy Russian real-estate developer (which already gives him an important commonality with Donald Trump!) named Aras Agalarov. The Trumps knew Aras and his son, Emin Agalarov, who was trying for a career as an international pop singer and, like Madonna and Prince, elected to go by only his first name. Emin had, in fact, got Trump, Sr. to appear in one of his videos, opening it with a parody of his role on the “reality” TV series The Apprentice. The meeting was actually set up by Rob Goldstone, a native of Great Britain who was working as Emin’s publicist, and he told Trump, Jr. that the “Crown Prosecutor” of Russia (an odd turn of phrase because that’s what the British call their equivalent of the U.S. Attorney General but the Russians, who haven’t had a monarch since 1917, call theirs the “State Prosecutor”) was sending them a representative who would give the Trump campaign damaging information about his likely general-election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On July 11, Trump, Jr., aware that the New York Times was about to publish them anyway, revealed the e-mails that had set up his meeting with Miss V from Moscow in a series of feeds on his dad’s favorite communications medium, Twitter. The e-mails started with one from Rob Goldstone, who boasted that the Russian state prosecutor had met with Aras Agalarov and “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.” Goldstone added that this would be “obviously very high-level and sensitive information, but [it] is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Later Goldstone sent Trump, Jr. another e-mail referring to Miss V from Moscow as a “Russian government attorney” and offering to schedule a meeting between them. Trump’s response made it clear he thought the meeting would be with someone from the Russian government and its purpose would be to give him, his dad and his dad’s campaign damaging information about Hillary Clinton. What’s more, he could barely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect. “If it’s what you say, I love it,” Trump, Jr. wrote, adding that his only wish was that the information would come to them later in the campaign, when its release would be even more devastating to Clinton and her prospects.
Alas, if Trump, Jr. was hoping for a treasure trove of damning information about Hillary Clinton, he was sorely disappointed. It turned out that Miss V from Moscow is a Russian government lobbyist, and since 2012 has been assigned to get the U.S. to repeal the Magnitsky Act. In 2009 a Russian attorney named Sergei Magnitsky was hired by an American investor to find out why the Russian government had suddenly turned against him and wanted to seize his businesses and throw him out of Russia. Magnitsky investigated and uncovered a massive tax fraud involving Russian officials, including people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then the Russians arrested him, and while in custody over the next year he was beaten, tortured and ultimately killed.
The U.S. Congress responded with a law whose full name was the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2012 and passed the U.S. Senate and was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in December. According to the Wikipedia page on the Magnitsky Act, “The main intention of the law was to punish Russian officials who were thought to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky by prohibiting their entrance to the United States and their use of its banking system.” In April 2013 the Obama administration published a list of 18 specific Russian officials suspected of being involved in Magnitsky’s torture and murder, and therefore covered by the Act.
Vladimir Putin’s government went ballistic over the Magnitsky Act. Not only did he hire American lobbyist Kenneth Duberstein to persuade the U.S. Congress to repeal it, he also pushed a law through his own legislature, the Duma, forbidding U.S. couples from adopting Russian children as long as the Magnitsky Act was in effect. He’s since added bills to prevent U.S. citizens from working with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Russia to challenge Russia’s human rights record, and to prevent any foreigner from appearing on Russian television “if they discredited the state,” but the adoption issue is apparently the lure with which Putin and his government hope to “hook” the Americans into getting rid of that pesky Magnitsky Act.
The logical conclusion from what we know about the June 9 meeting is that Miss V from Moscow, a private attorney hired by the Russian government to work on getting the U.S. to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, and a whole bunch of other Russians whose identities only dribbled out later over the next two weeks after the New York Times first broke the story that the meeting had happened, met with Trump, Jr., Kushner and Manafort at the Trump Tower. Trump, Jr. came to the meeting expecting dirt on Hillary Clinton; instead he got a presentation from Miss V and, presumably, the other Russians in the room — including Russian lobbyist and former military officer Rinat Akhmetshin and Irakly “Ike” Kavaladze, senior vice president at Aras Agalarov’s investment company and accused money launderer of more than $1.4 billion for various Russian individuals and corporations — pleading with him to get a commitment from his dad to get rid of the Magnitsky Act so, among other things, American couples could adopt Russian kids again.
Since July 22: Ancient History
It’s a measure of how fast things move in TrumpAmerica that the above seems like ancient history even though I wrote it on July 22, when it seemed like the controversy over Donald Trump, Jr.’s (and Jared Kushner’s, and Paul Manafort’s) meeting with Miss V from Moscow (and so many other Russians that CNN’s estimate of the total number of people swelled to eight, and one TV host joked that if there were any Russians who were in New York City on June 9, 2016 who hadn’t been at the Trump Tower meeting, he’d like to know about it) was going to dominate the news for a while. Since then, as I pointed out in my last post about President Trump, he’s been able, like the master media juggler he is, to keep so many balls in the air it seemed like the meeting with Miss V from Moscow —which a lot of Trump adversaries were hoping would provide the first hard evidence of collision between Trump’s associates and Russia to rig the 2016 election in Trump’s favor — would be forgotten.
There was the Republican health care bill in the U.S. Senate, the “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act (which I’m trying to avoid referring to by the pejorative term “Obamacare”), which failed. There was the next Republican health care bill in the Senate, the “repeal and don’t replace” — or, at least, “repeal and give us two more years to come up with a replacement even though we haven’t done that in the seven years we’ve been screaming about ‘Obamacare’” — which failed. There was the third Republican Senate health care bill, the so-called “skinny repeal,” which even the people proposing it acknowledged was bad public policy, which also failed.
There was Trump’s sudden series of tweets announcing that he was going to ban Transgender people from serving in the U.S. military — which he said he had issued after seeking the advice of “my Generals” (capitalization his, not mine). One general in particular — James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense — said he’d been blindsided by the announcement and hadn’t received an executive order, a Presidential directive or any of the other documents by which Presidents tell the military they want something done. There were the series of quasi-fascistic rallies Trump held, commandeering a Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and a law enforcement officers’ meeting in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York to push his political agenda and, at the Long Island event, actually advocate and call on officers to commit police brutality.
There was the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t hiring and firing of Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci as White House communications director. Stephen Colbert has even made Scaramucci’s 10-day tenure a unit of measuring time; when Trump went to his Bedminster, New Jersey golf course for 17 days of what Trump billed as “a working vacation,” Colbert joked, “That’s 1.7 Scaramuccis.” There was the hiring of General John Kelly, most recently Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, as the new White House Chief of Staff, and Kelly’s driving out Scaramucci the way Scaramucci drove out the previous White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, and the previous White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer — leading some commentators to make the sorts of “circular firing squad” jokes about the Trump White House that are usually made about Leftists.
And there’s Trump’s implacable pushing of an anti-worker, anti-immigrant, anti-environment agenda through all the apparent (and, I would argue, largely illusory) chaos surrounding his administration. Greg Kaufmann recently reported on The Nation’s Web site, https://www.thenation.com/article/dont-let-the-white-houses-dysfunction-distract-you-from-the-bad-things-trump-is-doing/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%2008/08/2017&utm_term=daily, on four little-discussed issues on which Trump abruptly reversed Obama administration decisions protecting the environment (a ban on neurotoxic pesticides and a delay on regulations to strengthen safety regulations on chemical factories), teenage women (the abrupt defunding of studies on how to keep them from getting pregnant) and immigrants (a threat to end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that protected underage children brought into the U.S. by their parents from being deported).
“Trump is losing many of his high-profile fights,” Kaufmann acknowledged in his Nation article. “But in dozens of less-noticed ways, his administration is advancing its extreme agenda that exacerbates political and economic inequality. As much of the media remains fixated on the Russia story and the Great Trump Dysfunction, journalists and advocates will need to work harder than ever to make sure the damaging daily actions of this administration aren’t ignored.” And the actions Kaufmann cited aren’t the only ones. There’s Trump’s appointment of his so-called “Elections Integrity Panel” to put into effect the Republican Party’s blueprint for staying in power indefinitely by keeping people who wouldn’t vote for it from being able to vote at all — and the chilling demand its vice-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, made to all secretaries of state to provide them the names, addresses, partial Social Security numbers, military and criminal records, and voting histories of every registered voter in America — and the masses of people in Colorado, one of the states going along with these demands, who are telling state officials to take them off the voter rolls, making the Hobson’s choice the Trump administration is demanding to protect their personal privacy over their political rights.
There are also the chilling actions Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (whose name is a living family memorial to the wrong side in the Civil War, the one whose so-called “heroes” fought to keep African-Americans enslaved forever) is taking to get himself back in the good graces of Trump, who soured on Sessions when he recused himself from running the Trump-Russia investigation and thereby failed to protect Trump from being investigated at all. There’s Sessions’ revival of the failed “War on Drugs” from the 1980’s, which led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans and other people of color; his continued attacks on immigrants’ rights; his revival of the use of private prisons by the federal government after Obama and his Department of Justice put an end to that disgusting practice; and most recently his all-out war on leakers, whom he regards as spies punishable under the draconian provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act. So far he hasn’t threatened to prosecute the journalists and news organizations that publish stories based on leaks, but he hasn’t definitively said he won’t, either.
And, most ominously, there’s Trump’s obvious desire to get the U.S. into a state of total war. He doesn’t really seem to care which of the two most obvious adversaries, North Korea or Iran, the war is against. On August 6 Doyle McManus published a column in the Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mcmanus-iran-deal-20170806-story.html, noting that Trump is determined to fulfill his campaign promise to tear up the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program. After noting that Trump has until October to tell Congress whether, in his judgment, the Iranians are in compliance with the deal, McManus quoted a Wall Street Journal interview in which Trump said, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago. [Next time] I do not expect that they will be compliant.”
It sounds like the famous scene in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup in which Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), dictator of Fredonia, is about to conclude a peace deal with Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of his country’s historic rival, Sylvania. Only Firefly gets so worked up at the possibility that Trentino will embarrass him by refusing to shake his hand in front of the Fredonian people that when Trentino finally shows up, without giving him the chance to do anything, Firefly says, “So you won’t shake my hand, eh?” Then he slaps Trentino across the face and says, “This means war!”
More recently, in a war of nerves with North Korea that probably has the rest of the world quaking with fear over the prospect of two nuclear-armed countries with crazy leaders fighting a war with each other, North Korea threatened to retaliate against the U.S. over sanctions against it approved unanimously by the United Nations Security Council — including North Korea’s two main allies, China and Russia — with attacks on the U.S. According to the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/world/asia/north-korea-un-sanctions-nuclear-missile-united-nations.html), Trump told reporters visiting him at Bedminster, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He [North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury, and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
I think President Trump is well aware of what happened to the most recent previous Republican President, George W. Bush, when the U.S. found itself at war. On September 10, 2001, Bush’s Presidency looked almost as “beleaguered” as Trump’s does now. True, he’d been able to get two major pieces of legislation through Congress, a tax cut and the “No Child Left Behind” education law — which is two more than Trump has been able to do — but otherwise his agenda was stalled. He’d even lost his partisan majority in the Senate when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords became an independent and caucused with the Democrats. The consensus among Washington’s pundits was that Bush, Jr. would be a one-term president like his dad. Then 19 terrorist goons affiliated with al-Qaeda flew airplanes into the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
All of a sudden, with the U.S. under attack, the nation rallied around Bush, his poll numbers soared into the stratosphere, Congress did whatever he wanted it to — including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the passage of the blatantly repressive USA PATRIOT Act, and authorization for what turned out to be a pointless and counterproductive war against Iraq, which didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and had had nothing to do with 9/11 — and he cruised to an easy re-election in 2004. Trump knows that recent history. He also knows that the best way to quell dissent in a restive domestic population is to do what the dying Henry IV tells his son and heir, Prince Hal, in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2: “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”
A big war — the bigger, and the costlier in terms of human treasure as well as human lives, the better — would solve virtually all of Trump’s political problems. In the trauma following a North Korean nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland — even a failed one — Trump could, like Bush, seek new and extensive legislation against dissenters and media and move the U.S. ever closer to a police state. He could do what I suspect he’s always wanted to do — get Congress to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, essentially becoming a dictator without having to put up with any of this nonsense about separation of powers, freedom of speech and press, or civil rights. He could rip up what’s left of the welfare state by saying the money is needed to fund the war.
And a recent remark in an interview on ABC’s This Week (53 seconds in at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQta0QC36IQ) by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway suggests this is precisely what the increasingly restive voters in Trump’s base are waiting for. Asked why Trump’s popularity is starting to go down even among the white, less educated voters who powered him to victory, Conway said, “They are telling him, ‘Just enact your program. Don’t worry about a Congress that isn’t supporting legislation to get big-ticket items done, and don’t worry about all the distractions and diversions and discouragement that others who are still trying to throw logs in your path are throwing your way. Focus on the agenda.’ And he’s doing that.” In other words, damn the Congress, damn the media, damn the Constitution — just enact your program: full speed ahead towards a TrumpAmerica dictatorship!
Miss V’s Comeback
So it was surprising, to say the least, when in the middle of all this maelstrom of news events created by the ever-industrious elves (though, given the malevolence of most of the actions they’re taking, “orcs” might be a more appropriate name) in the Trump White House, Miss V from Moscow and her starring role at the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and an apparent cast of Russian thousands made a comeback. It happened at the end of July, when hints started to emerge that that first false statement about the June 9, 2016 meeting, in which Donald Trump, Jr. said all he and Miss V from Moscow had been discussing was facilitating the adoption of Russian children by American couples, had been reviewed and influenced by … Donald Trump, Sr.
On July 31 the Washington Post broke a story (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-dictated-sons-misleading-statement-on-meeting-with-russian-lawyer/2017/07/31/04c94f96-73ae-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html?utm_term=.fe8123b5eb8e) that claimed Trump, Sr. didn’t just review and influence his son’s statement: he actually wrote it. The story came out right after the G-20 summit, at which Trump, Sr. had met his apparent idol and role model, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time. “On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril,” wrote the Post’s gang of four reporters on the story: Ashley Parker, Carol D. Leonnig, Philip Rucker and Tom Hamburger.
“The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story,” the Post’s article said. “They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged. But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed. Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had ‘primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’ when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was ‘not a campaign issue at the time.’ The claims were later shown to be misleading.”
Within a few days of Trump, Sr.’s ghostwritten statement in Trump, Jr.’s name, Trump, Jr. had released a thread of e-mails basically telling the story of how the meeting occurred (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/from-russia-with-love/533235/). In the call for the meeting, the person who set it up, British music publicist Rob Goldstone, actually told Trump, Jr. that the person he was going to me, Natalia “Miss V from Moscow” Veselnitskaya, had “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.”
“If it’s what you say, I love it!” Trump, Jr. e-mailed back, though he added that anti-Hillary information would be even more useful closer to the election, in September or October, than in June. There’s no evidence so far that Miss V from Moscow or any of the other multitudinous Russians present actually did offer Trump, Jr., Trump, Sr.’s son-in-law or Trump, Sr.’s then-campaign manager any actual damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
There’s also some truth in Trump, Sr.’s statement that his campaign already had all the derogatory anti-Clinton information they could use and didn’t need any more from the Russians. After all, as Right-wing hatchet man turned Hillary Clinton super-PAC director David Brock noted in his book Blinded by the Right, in 1993 Right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife had underwritten something called “The Arkansas Project,” which involved sending operatives to Arkansas with scads of Scaife’s money they were willing to give to anyone who had derogatory information on Bill and Hillary Clinton.
A lot of people showed up to claim their share of Scaife’s anti-Clinton funds. Most of them didn’t actually know any derogatory information about Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that wasn’t a problem. They just made stuff up, and much of what they made up has become part of the Hillary Clinton Black Legend to this day and got dredged up when she ran for President in her own right in 2008 and again in 2016. To America’s radical Right, the Arkansas Project is the gift that keeps on giving; no doubt the lies it bribed people to tell about the Clinton family will get dug up and plastered once again, this time over Chelsea Clinton if she ever dares to run for office.
Getting back to the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Miss V from Moscow and the other Russian officials there apparently royally disappointed Donald Trump’s son and son-in-law because all they wanted to talk about was adoption. Remember that to Miss V from Moscow, Vladimir Putin’s designated lobbyist to get the U.S. Congress to repeal the Magnitsky Act, “adoption” is code for “giving immunity to Russian law enforcement officials who torture and murder political dissidents and inconvenient investigators.”
So it was even more astonishing that when Trump finally acknowledged that he’d had a second, semi-private meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit in addition to the public one everyone knew about (and Trump, with his apparent allergy towards being honest about anything, said had lasted only 15 minutes even though the people who witnessed it said it went on for an hour), he said that all he and Putin had talked about for that 15-minute hour was, you guessed it, “adoption.”
Actually, it’s not all that clear that President Trump would disapprove of the way Russian police beat, tortured and ultimately killed dissident Sergei Magnitsky. Not only did Trump openly encourage people at his campaign rallies to beat up hecklers and protesters, and offer to fund their legal defense if they were arrested, he promised as a candidate to keep Guantánamo open and subject terror suspects to waterboarding and “worse.”
What’s more, his recent remarks to American law-enforcement officials on how they should treat the people they arrest (who, according to one of those pesky old-fashioned American principles called the “presumption of innocence,” are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty) — “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, O.K.?” — all too strongly hints that Trump and Magnitsky’s torturers and murderers are brothers under the skin.
Meanwhile, even under the glare of a potential confrontation between Trump and Kim Jong Un — two crazy leaders of nuclear-armed states with hair-trigger tempers and bad hairdos — and the possibility of a Trumpmageddon, that pesky Russia investigation won’t go again. On August 9 the Washington Post published two articles about a raid just before dawn on July 26 at the home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign manager and former political consultant for a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Ukraine. One story, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/fbi-conducted-predawn-raid-of-former-trump-campaign-chairman-manaforts-home/2017/08/09/5879fa9c-7c45-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?utm_term=.e98e32ea4ca7, was a straightforward news piece about the raid.
The other, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/08/09/fbi-paul-manafort/?utm_term=.7eb243b575fc, is an “analysis” by Post writer Amber Phillips. One of the four reasons she cites for why federal investigators would be so interested in Manafort is, “He was in that meeting,” referring to June 9, 2016 at Trump Tower. “When Donald Trump, Jr. was told the Russian government was trying to help his father win, and oh by the way, do you want to meet with a Russian lawyer who has dirt on Hillary Clinton, Trump, Jr. didn’t go alone. He brought along Manafort and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. It appears Manafort took detailed notes of that meeting, and those notes could be key evidence if there are any collusion-related charges.”
Phillips quotes Jeffrey Jacobovitz, a white-collar attorney who represented officials in Bill Clinton’s administration, as saying that meeting between Manafort, Trump, Jr., Kushner, Miss V from Moscow and various other Russians is “as close as you can get to a smoking gun” documenting the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian officials to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Trump become President. It could be, assuming anyone is still around to write the history of World War III after Trump and Kim Jong Un trigger it in their Battle of the Egos, that the whole Trump-Russia investigation will be little more than a footnote to the story of how Trump normalized nuclear war and ended human life on earth even more quickly than his head-in-the-sand rejection of the overwhelming evidence that humans are changing the earth’s climate.
But until that happens, the modern-day Miss V from Moscow story is an awful lot of fun to watch, especially given the glimmer of hope it provides that spoiled rich kid turned international bully Donald Trump may finally get his well-deserved and much-overdue comeuppance. It’s certainly more entertaining than that old PRC movie whose title I appropriated for this piece and as my nickname for Natalia Veselnitskaya!