What if Putin's real aim in 2016 wasn't to elect Trump but to degrade confidence in our election?

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According to multiple news reports, Donald Trump Jr. testified before a congressional committee Wednesday that he could not discuss a phone conversation he had with his father in July 2016 about a meeting a month earlier between Russians and Trump presidential campaign officials.

Trump Jr. said the phone call was protected under attorney-client privilege because lawyers for him and for his father were on the call – a point Democrats quickly disputed. Democrats and some in the media said the younger Trump must be hiding something.

I don’t have any non-public information about the June meeting held at Trump Tower. But I learned some things during my 30-year government career in the national security sector – including with the CIA – where part of my work was to observe Russian intelligence operations.

Based on my experience and training, I have a hunch that the June 2016 meeting may have been set up by the Russians as a trap to embarrass the Trump campaign and cast doubt on the integrity of America’s election system.

In other words, it’s possible that instead of meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and Trump presidential campaign Chairman Paul Manafort to help Donald Trump become president, the Russians may have actually been trying to hurt the man who wound up being elected president.

Remember that in June 2016 just about everyone expected Hillary Clinton to be elected president. The Russians likely thought they could not swing the election to Donald Trump even if they wanted to. So it appears at this point that their operation was designed to degrade the public’s trust in America’s presidential election, rather than to establish a clandestine conduit for collusion with the Trump campaign.

Sound complicated? Confusing? It is. But in the world of espionage, things don’t always appear to be what they seem. Lying and making things look like something they are not by creating false versions of reality are the tools of the trained intelligence operative. And one person very familiar with these tools is none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the course of my career, I learned that Putin relies to an extraordinary degree on a wide array of espionage operations to serve Russia’s national security interests.

This is understandable, because Putin spent his formative years in the KGB (the Soviet Union’s main intelligence agency) and served as director of its successor agency, the FSB.

Russia, and the Soviet Union before that, both have records of publicly known espionage activities against the United States. In June 2010, for example, the U.S. arrested 11 Russian spies who had developed fake biographies and sought to steal our secrets without the usual embassy diplomatic cover.

So when a spymaster is head of a nation, it’s not far-fetched to expect him to use some of the tricks of the trade in his role as leader of the government.

So let’s start putting together some clues.

In a recent interview with Britain’s Sunday Times Magazine, publicist Rob Goldstone revealed a crucial detail about how he set up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top Trump presidential campaign officials and Russians.

Goldstone said his client, Russian pop star and real estate mogul Emin Agaralov – the son of Kremlin-connected oligarch Aras Agaralov – asked him to help set up a meeting with Trump campaign officials.

No conclusive proof has yet emerged that it was the Kremlin that arranged the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. But Goldstone’s admission puts us one step closer to proving the theory that Aras Agaralov was directed by Putin to deploy his son Emin to contact Goldstone, who in turn contacted Donald Trump Jr. via email.

Putin would have seen the value in choosing Agaralov, who had helped host Donald Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, as a seemingly trusted conduit.

Goldstone admitted he embellished in his email about the derogatory information Russians could provide to the Trump campaign on Hillary Clinton.

And it seems that Putin believed he would most effectively soil our democratic process by leaving a trail of bread crumbs from Trump Tower to the Kremlin. In other words, if my theory holds up, Putin wanted news of the Trump Tower meeting to become public.

It doesn’t matter whether the meeting resulted in any substantive discussion. What matters is the email from Goldstone that triggered the meeting, coupled with the high-profile venue choice of Trump Tower. All this points to an expectation – if not an outright plan – by the Russians that the meeting would be discovered.

Putin achieved his goal when Emin Agaralov met with Kushner and Manafort in Trump Tower. Also attending the meeting were Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Moscow lawyer who has done work on behalf of the FSB; and Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who served in the Soviet military.

Goldstone admitted he was being overly naïve and unaware he was being used as a cut-out to help the Russians – or as Soviet Communists used to call those who supported their cause unwittingly, a “useful idiot.”

Goldstone has said he is ready to tell his story to the U.S. Senate and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And he can serve a highly valuable purpose even if he was unaware of the role he played in enabling the Kremlin’s strategy.

Goldstone should explain all of the details about his contact with Emin Agaralov, to shed some additional light on this discoverable Kremlin influence operation.

Is the above scenario the way things unfolded? I don’t now. But it is certainly a possibility and should be examined carefully, rather than assuming that the Trump campaign – and perhaps President Trump himself – colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 presidential election.