"This whole story reads like some kind of novel that nobody would buy," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., marveled at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.
The committee focused on foreign agents working inside the United States, as the intelligence community maintains that Russia tried to tilt the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the White House. And the same cast of characters kept bubbling up.
When Trump's eldest son, Don Jr., released a chain of emails that led up to a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, Democrats seized on the subject line, "Russia — Clinton — private and confidential," as proof that the campaign had colluded with Russians. Then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner also attended the half-hour meeting.
When news reports revealed that Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, whom The New York Times described as "a master of the dark arts," also had attended the meeting, skeptics had added reason to scoff at Don Jr.'s claim that the meeting's topic of conversation was "adoption."
William Browder understood that "adoption" is code for working to repeal the Magnitsky Act, an American law for which Browder had lobbied that is designed to punish Russian kleptocrats. From 1996 to 2005, Browder's firm, Hermitage Capital Management, invested heavily in Russian stocks. Browder took on the oligarchs who stole from his firm with the help of a young lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. The authorities arrested and tortured the 37-year-old lawyer, who died behind bars in 2009.
The morning Browder learned of Magnitsky's death, he testified, "I made a vow to Sergei's memory, to his family and to myself that I would seek justice and create consequences for the people who murdered him."
In 2010, Browder met with Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced legislation named in Magnitsky's honor to cut off the kleptocrats' access to Western capital and banks.
The law has been so successful that Russian President Vladimir Putin has lobbied furiously to prompt Congress to repeal the law. And this is where a recurring cast of characters complicates what Trump critics see as a one-sided Russian effort to influence the 2016 election.
Before the Trump Tower meeting, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin were involved in the campaign to challenge the Magnitsky Act, as was an opposition research firm named Fusion GPS, led by former reporter Glenn Simpson.
Simpson, who rejects the contention that Fusion GPS should have registered as a foreign agent, is slated to testify before committee staff in a closed hearing. Donald Trump Jr. and Manafort also have agreed to testify in closed sessions.
During the 2016 campaign, Simpson hired former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to put together a dossier on Trump. The result was a lurid 35-page dossier that was leaked to large news organizations, which declined to publish stories on it because, as New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet neatly put it, the dossier was "totally unsubstantiated."
In January, however, Buzzfeed linked to the dossier and CNN joined the feeding frenzy with a story about Buzzfeed's action. Days before he was set to take the oath of office, Trump had to face down absurd allegations, such as that he had engaged in unsanitary sex acts under the Kremlin's watch. On Jan. 11, the president-elect held a press conference in Trump Tower where he hit Buzzfeed and CNN for dealing in "fake news."
"Does anyone really believe that story?" Trump asked rhetorically. "I'm also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me."
The dossier had done its damage, however. CNN felt justified in reporting on the dossier because federal authorities were reviewing the document.
FBI chief James Comey testified before Congress that he first met Trump on Jan. 6 during an intelligence briefing. He stayed behind to inform Trump about "salacious and unverified" material. While many news organizations looked into the dossier dirt, none had the goods to run a story that confirmed it.
Mark Corallo, who resigned after a brief stint as spokesman for Trump's private legal team, happened to have worked for Browder on the Magnitsky Act. He recalls Veselnitskaya, Akhmetshin and Simpson fighting on the other side.
Corallo does not understand how the dossier found more traction in the intelligence community than in newsrooms.
"There were clearly actors in the American government who were passing the Steele dossier up the chain as if it were legitimate intelligence," he said. "One wonders how such a piece of trash passed up the chain."
Donald Trump Jr. does not look good setting up a meeting with Veselnitskaya because he hoped to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. It seems he was disappointed the conversation turned to the subject of adoption.
In the meantime, if the Russians wanted to shake Americans' faith in the election process, what better way than to frame scenarios that suggest Trump's campaign was too cozy with the Kremlin?