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Deciphering Russian Intentions

Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s statement during an April 2018 interview with NBC’s Richard Engel that she was an “informant” for Yuri Chaika, Russia’s State Prosecutor, raises questions about her role in a meeting with senior campaign officials in Trump Tower in Manhattan in June 2016. Her comments contradict previous public statements that she was acting only in the capacity of a private attorney.

  • At a political rally in Michigan, President Trump described Veselnitskaya’s admission as an attempt by Russian President Putin to create confusion in the United States in retaliation for the aggressive actions Trump has taken against Russia.
  • Administration critics, to the contrary, cite the admission as new evidence of direct Russian involvement with the Trump campaign.

How would a critical thinker parse this issue? One approach would be to apply The Five Habits of the Master Thinker:

  1. Reconsider Key Assumptions: The original assumption was that Veselnitskaya was functioning in a private capacity lobbying on adoption issues. Her recent statement appears to invalidate this assumption; should we now assume she was functioning as an “informant?” Is it possible that her connection with the Russian state is broader and deeper than previously assumed
  2. Consider Alternative Hypotheses: Now that we have challenged a key assumption about why Veselnitskaya met with Trump campaign officials, we should expand our possible explanations of why the meeting took place. Was Veselnitskaya aiming to:
    • Lobby for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 Russian sanctions the US enacted over human rights abuses, as various sources have claimed?
    • Establish mechanisms for providing the Trump campaign with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton—the initial reason for the meeting as conveyed to Donald Trump, Jr?
    • Facilitate Russian efforts to gain more access to, and influence individuals in, Trump’s inner circle?
    • Engage in actions yet to be disclosed?
  3. Look for Inconsistent Data: If the first hypothesis is correct, why would five Russians, some with little apparent interest in adoption issues, attend the meeting? Similarly, efforts by some close to Trump to establish independent channels to communicate with Moscow seem more consistent with the latter two hypotheses. What information has surfaced that would be inconsistent with the second and third hypotheses?
  4. Identify the Key Drivers: Key dynamics to consider include:
    • Putin’s strong desire for revenge against Hillary Clinton’s prior efforts to undercut his election campaign.
    • Long-established ties between individuals in Trump’s circle and senior Russian businessmen that may have fostered a culture of cooperation and deal making.
    • The Trump campaign staff’s lack of familiarity with US political culture and legal requirements imposed on campaigning, including prohibitions against accepting foreign funding or support.
  5. Understand the Context: In this instance, thinking “two levels above your pay grade” could propel you to move above nation state analysis and adopt the perspective of the global body politic. Veselnitskaya’s disclosure is troublesome in this regard because it suggests a foreign adversary may have been actively seeking to influence another country’s internal political process.

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