Something tells me there are a lot of Salon readers out there who have worked on political campaigns at the national, state, or local level — people who have done everything from calling voters on election day to strategizing with the candidate. Okay, raise your hands for me! How many of you have had a translator at one of your campaign meetings? I see one or two of you . . . oh . . . you worked in Latino outreach. How about Russian translators? Anybody been to a meeting with any Russians? Nobody? Who are you all, anyway? A bunch of Democrats?
What bring us to raise this question, of course, is the recent revelation of the meeting last year at Trump Tower between no less than four Russians and Trump’s number-one son, Donald Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The Russians at the meeting were like a who’s who of Russian government and businesses connected to Trump and his companies. The meeting was set up by British “publicist” Rob Goldstone, who represented the pop-singer-wannabe son of Aras Agalarov, the billionaire Russian oligarch Putin buddy who partnered with Trump in the 2013 Moscow Miss Universe Pageant and was in line to build a Trump hotel tower there before Trump won the presidency last year.
The meeting’s star was Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer close to the Kremlin who has been involved in several issues of interest to the Russian government, including lobbying to end the sanctions imposed by the Magitsky Act and defending Denis Katsyv, who was facing trial in a $230 million Russian money laundering case.
Also present was one Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Russian counterintelligence agent accused in 2013 of hacking into computers owned by a Russian chemical company, Eurochem Volgakaliy, against a rival Russian company, International Mineral Resources. Sitting somewhere down the table from Rinat was Ike Kaveladze, a senior executive of the Crocus Group, the real estate company owned by Trump’s pal and Miss Universe partner Aras Agalarov.
The last Russian at the meeting — Russian-American, actually, since he assumed American citizenship some time ago — was Anatoli Samochornov, described as a translator for Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya. Samochornov was educated at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and holds an MBA from the University of Washington. He also worked for a nonprofit group Veselnitskaya formed called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation to lobby against the Magnitsky Act, and served as her translator in Federal Court when she represented Denis Katsyv in his money laundering trial.
That’s a lot of Russians in one Republican campaign meeting, huh? A Kremlin-connected lawyer; a former Russian counterintelligence agent; a corporate executive from a company that did business with Donald Trump; a translator who worked for the Kremlin-connected lawyer, and a man accused of laundering money for Russian oligarchs. The guy who interests me is the translator.
Translators interest me because as a journalist, I have often had to use them, and it didn’t take me long to realize that since you don’t speak the language being translated, you’re at their mercy. This is the reason there was such a hubbub about Trump’s “informal” meeting with Trump after dinner at the G-20 Summit, because the only translator present was Putin’s. The fact that Trump didn’t have his own translator meant that the only thing Trump heard was Putin’s guy’s interpretation of what the Russian leader said. This is also why translators are frequently referred to as “interpreters.” As intermediaries between two people who don’t share a language, they end up interpreting what is said between them, which is to say, they do more than translate words. They convey meaning.
I dealt with a lot of translators when I was in Iraq in the winter of 2003 with the 101st Airborne Division, in and around Mosul. During the time I spent there, I encountered exactly one translator I didn’t believe was a spy for insurgent forces opposing the United States Army. One. He was a Kurd working for the brigade commander in charge of Tal Afar and American forces arrayed along the Syrian border. Every other translator I listened to was suspect, including the one working for (then) Major General David Petraeus, the 101st division commander.
Most of the time, the clues that all was not well with the translators working for the Americans were subtle ones. You’d be standing next to a company commander, say, who was questioning a group of Iraqi citizens who had been present when an IED went off, injuring American soldiers. It’s obvious that at least a few of them know something about the IED: when it was placed; who placed it; how it was detonated. Now, you’re not going to get a whole lot of cooperation from Iraqi civilians who have to live with the insurgents among them, of course. But the questions being asked by the company commander were clearly not being conveyed verbatim by the company commander. I found an Iraqi guy in the crowd who spoke English after the questioning was over and asked him what the translator had been saying. When the company commander asked, “Did anyone see the men who placed this IED?”, the question was interpreted as “You didn’t see who placed the IED, did you?”
But it was worse than that. Way worse. I was staying with a company in a small base camp just outside the Old City in Mosul. It was obvious to me that the the translator (a different company, different translator) was unreliable. For one thing, he didn’t stay in the base camp at night, instead going home every day after his services were no longer needed. The insurgency was present all over Mosul. They all knew who was cooperating with the American Army, and thus working against the insurgency. And yet this guy went home every night and showed up again the next morning, obviously not having been killed as a collaborator with the occupying Army.
Then one day I took a stroll out behind the building we used as a barracks and found the translator speaking Arabic on a Sony Walkabout two-way radio. He wasn’t translating for the company commander, because he wasn’t there. He wasn’t speaking Arabic to an American, because none of the American soldiers on the base camp spoke Arabic. He was talking to someone outside of our base camp, another Iraqi, and who knows what he was saying. I confronted him. I asked him where he got the radio. “Amazon.com,” he said calmly. “I ordered it on the internet. It came by Fed Ex.” Two-way radios come in pairs. Who did you give the other one to? “None of your business.” I reported him to the company commander, who seemed unconcerned. He had had a previous translator he trusted even less than this guy.
So Donald Jr. and company were in this meeting at Trump Tower discussing “adoptions” or whatever this week’s story is, and the only translator present belonged to the Kremlin-connected lawyer who represented the Russian money-launderer Denis Katsyv, and who had ties to Trump’s business partner, the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov.
How many other languages do you figure the Trump campaign needed translators for? Let’s take a quick look.
March 21, 2016: Trump names Carter Page as one of his top foreign policy advisors. Carter Page worked in the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch and was an investment advisor to Russian state-owned oil and gas company Gazprom. Let’s see. Did Carter Page work in, say, Munich? Nope, Russia.
April 20, 2016: Paul Manafort is named Trump’s campaign manager. Manafort has spent years working for Russian-friendly Ukrainian politicians and has numerous connections to Moscow figures close to Putin. How about Manafort? Did he advise politicians in, say, Egypt? Were they friendly with, say, the French? Nope. Russians.
June 9, 2016: Trump Tower meeting attended by Kushner, Don Jr., and Manafort. Did they meet with the Ugandans? Nope. Russians.
July 7, 2016: Carter Page visits Moscow, gives a speech to the New Economic School. Also meets with at least two top Kremlin officials, according to the Steele “dossier.” Did dear Carter travel over to Bangkok and give a speech to a Thai business school? Nope. Russians.
July 18, 2016: Trump campaign adviser Jeff Sessions meets with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican National Convention. This is after the Trump campaign waters down the Republican platform’s support for Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Who were the Republicans meeting with at their convention? The Dutch? Norwegians? Nope. Russians.
July 27, 2016: Candidate Donald Trump at a press conference issues this urgent appeal: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Was Trump reaching out for help from Chad? Or Bangladesh? Nope. Russia.
Aug. 12, 2016: Florida Republican consultant Aaron Nevins goes on his blog and implores Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 that releasing “fresher” data on the Democrats would be more useful and tells him to “feel free to send any Florida-based information.” Was Nevins reaching out to one of those notorious hackers from, say, Argentina? Nope. Russia.
Aug. 14, 2016: New York Times reports that Trump campaign manager Manafort has been paid millions by the party of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, Putin’s good buddy to his west. Was Manafort paid by a political party friendly to, say, the British? Nope. Russians.
During August 2016: Trump buddy and former campaign advisor Roger Stone has repeated contacts with Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange regarding Russian hacked Democratic emails that Wikileaks is releasing. Is Roger Stone in contact with people connected to hackers from, say, Sierra Leone? Nope. Russia.
Aug. 19, 2019: Paul Manafort resigns from the Trump campaign under fire for his connections to elements of a foreign government friendly to, you guessed it, Russia. Also he forms a real estate shell company, Summerbreeze LLC, and almost immediately receives a $3.5 million loan from a company controlled by Alexander Rovt, a billionaire who made his fortune privatizing the fertilizer industry in . . . you’re way ahead of me: Russia.
Aug. 31, 2016: Guccifer 2.0 posts documents hacked from Nancy Pelosi’s personal computer. Guccifer 2.0 is a hacker for . . . Russia.
Sept. 8, 2016: Trump campaign adviser Jeff Sessions has a meeting in his Senate office with an ambassador from a foreign nation. Is that nation, say, Canada? Maybe, Guatemala? Nope. Russia.
Sept. 26, 2016: Carter Page takes a leave of absence from the Trump campaign due to negative stories about his connections to a foreign country. Is that country France? Nope. Russia.
Oct. 4, 2016: Trump tweets, “Clinton’s close ties to Putin deserve scrutiny.” Also on Oct. 4, Guccifer 2.0 releases documents hacked from the Clinton Foundation, including those concerning contributions from . . . Russia.
Oct. 7, 2016: The Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency issue a joint statement about the emails hacked from Democratic party computers and official emails. They hang responsibility for the hacks on a single government: Russia.
Throughout 2016, before and after the election of Donald Trump: Top campaign adviser Michael Flynn has repeated contacts personally and by phone with the ambassador from a foreign country: Russia.
After the election of Donald Trump: Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has several meetings with a foreign ambassador and with the president of a national bank from the same foreign country: Russia.
December 2016: Trump announces that he has picked Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, to be Secretary of State. Tillerson is the recipient of “The Order of Friendship Medal” from . . . Russia.
Jan. 10, 2017: Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions lies at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his contacts with foreign persons from . . . all together now . . . Russia.
Jan. 11, 2017: Blackwater founder Erik Prince meets secretly in the Seychelles Islands to set up a backchannel line of communications between Trump and, yes, Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Jan. 13, 2017: Trump press spokesman Sean Spicer begins a long series of lies about adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak by explaining that Flynn was only talking to him about Christmas greetings and an upcoming phone call between Trump and Putin after the inauguration.
Jan. 18, 2017: Jared Kushner, filling out his application for a security clearance, neglects to mention his meetings with the ambassador to a foreign nation and the president of the national bank for that nation. Was that nation Great Britain? Nope. Russia.
Jan. 26, 2017: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informs the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has lied to them about his contacts with the ambassador to . . . yep, you got it: Russia.
Feb. 8, 2017: Michael Flynn lies to the Washington Post about the subject of his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador from . . . Russia.
Feb. 13, 2017: Under pressure for lying about his contacts with a certain representative of a foreign nation, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigns after only 24 days at the White House. Was he lying about talking to somebody from, say, Pakistan? Nope. Russia.
Feb. 14, 2017: At a White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer issues a flat denial that anyone in the Trump campaign had any contacts with any Russians during the campaign.
Feb.16, 2017: In the only solo press conference he has held since taking office, Trump calls the Russia story “fake news.” Asked if anyone from his campaign had contacts with any Russians, Trump answers: “No. Nobody that I know of.”
Somebody should have asked Spicer if the country with which Trump people had been having meetings for over a year wasn’t Russia, then which one was it? In almost two years of campaigning, transition and governing, Trump and his people had significant meetings with people from exactly zero countries other than Russia. Zero.
They were neck-deep in Russkies.