Did the Trump campaign collude with Russian agents trying to manipulate the course of the 2016 election? Some analysts have argued that the media has made too much of the collusion narrative; that Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Kremlin-linked Russians last year was probably innocent (if ill-advised); or that Russian operatives probably meant for the meeting to be discovered because they were not trying to recruit Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump as agents, but mainly trying to undermine the American political system.
We disagree with these arguments. We like to think of ourselves as fair-minded and knowledgeable, having between us many years of experience with the C.I.A. dealing with Russian intelligence services. It is our view not only that the Russian government was running some sort of intelligence operation involving the Trump campaign, but also that it is impossible to rule out the possibility of collusion between the two.
The original plan drawn up by the Russian intelligence services was probably multilayered. They could have begun an operation intended to disrupt the presidential campaign, as well as an effort to recruit insiders to help them over time — the two are not mutually exclusive. It is the nature of Russian covert actions (or as the Russians would call them, “active measures”) to adapt over time, providing opportunities for other actions that extend beyond the original intent.
It is entirely plausible, for example, that the original Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers was an effort simply to collect intelligence and get an idea of the plans of the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate. Once derogatory information emerged from that operation, the Russians might then have seen an opportunity for a campaign to influence or disrupt the election. When Donald Trump Jr. responded “I love it” to proffers from a Kremlin-linked intermediary to provide derogatory information obtained by Russia on Hillary Clinton, the Russians might well have thought that they had found an inside source, an ally, a potential agent of influence on the election.
The goal of the Russian spy game is to nudge a person to step over the line into an increasingly conspiratorial relationship. First, for a Russian intelligence recruitment operation to work, they would have had some sense that Donald Trump Jr. was a promising target. Next, as the Russians often do, they made a “soft” approach, setting the bait for their target via the June email sent by Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, on behalf of a Russian pop star, Emin Agalarov.
They then employed a cover story — adoptions — to make it believable to the outside world that there was nothing amiss with the proposed meetings. They bolstered this idea by using cutouts, nonofficial Russians, for the actual meeting, enabling the Trump team to claim — truthfully — that there were no Russian government employees at the meeting and that it was just former business contacts of the Trump empire who were present.
When the Trump associates failed to do the right thing by informing the F.B.I., the Russians probably understood that they could take the next step toward a more conspiratorial relationship. They knew what bait to use and had a plan to reel in the fish once it bit.
Again, the Russians have been dealing with Trump for decades, he's a known quantity to them. They knew how he worked, they know how he played, and everything in between. They simply took the person they knew and played the game from there. It was far, far more successful than they could have dreamed and the damage done to our country will ne generation as a result. They know they've scored a massive victory, and as both Sipher and Hall have pointed out, finding the evidence of collusion should be considered somewhat inevitable.
The goal wasn't to get Trump into the White House, although that was secondary and arguably the best outcome for Moscow. The goal was to damage the US political system to the point where it could no longer function and interact reliably with allies or interfere with enemies.
The last six months have proven to be the greatest success of Russian spycraft in history in that regard.