The FBI was so distressed by President Donald Trump’s behavior in the second week of May 2017, when he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, that it opened criminal and counterintelligence investigations to determine if the president was acting on behalf of Russia against the United States or had fallen under its sway, the New York Times reported on Friday night. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III soon assumed control of and merged the FBI investigations into his own, and no evidence has surfaced publicly to show that Trump had become a willing Russian dupe. But even so, the Times account pulses like a John le Carré thriller as the FBI works to determine if the country has fallen to the Russians in a silent coup.
FBI antennae began twitching in summer 2016 during the campaign, the Times reports, when Trump urged the Russians to find and release Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Trump seemed never to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Republican Party platform went soft on the Russians over the Ukraine invasion. Later, as the Steele dossier gained circulation inside higher Washington circles, directly claiming that Trump had been compromised, worries inside the bureau became palpable. But it was the firing of Comey, buttressed by the interview Trump gave to NBC News’ Lester Holt in which he said he sacked the director because of the Russia investigation, that prompted the FBI to act.
The Times’ FBI scoop overshadowed—but not by much—news from midweek that was as redolent of the musk of collusion as anything we’ve encountered since the Russia scandal commenced. Thanks to a redaction error made in a legal filing by convicted felon Paul Manafort’s lawyers, we learned that special counsel Mueller believes that former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort lied about passing, in spring 2016, political polling data to two Russia-aligned Ukrainian oligarchs he had previously worked for. Using his right-hand man— suspected Russian intelligence asset Konstantin Kilimnik as his go-between—the Manafort pass-through splinters Donald Trump’s protestations that his campaign was free of connections to the Russians.
Trump denies knowing about the sharing of polling data. “No. I didn’t know anything about it. Nothing about it,” Trump said this week.
Why did Manafort offer the oligarchs polling data, the New York Times asked. To impress them with his campaign chops? To do them a political favor by lending a window on the Trump campaign? Or, the newspaper alternately muses, was he trying to impress the oligarchs as a way to stall the predations of Russian billionaire Oleg V. Deripaska, an important Putin ally, to whom he is said to owe millions?
Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, who met with Mueller in early 2018, also worked for Manafort on Ukrainian elections, narrowing the circle of participants. He says he didn’t know the data was shared, but, according to Bloomberg News, Fabrizio can be found on email chains with Manafort and Kilimnik. After the election, Fabrizio explained to Frontline how powerful his data was in identifying “Trump targets” who were ready to change direction in the upcoming election.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., did not inhibit himself from speculating that the polling data was put to direct use. “Did the Russians end up using this information in their efforts that took place later in the fall where they tried using the Internet Research Agency and other bots and other automated tools on social media to suppress, for example, the African-American vote?” Warner said.
Manafort’s partner in crime, confessed felon Rick Gates, told an associate that “Person A” (now widely known to be Kilimnik) “was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the GRU” (the Russian military intelligence agency) according to a March 2018 Mueller filing. The filing later states that Kilimnik still had his Russian intelligence ties in 2016. This might not make Kilimnik the smoking gun in the Russia caper, but surely he qualifies as a hot bullet. That a top associate to the campaign director of an American presidential campaign was directly connected to Russian spies—perhaps even working in their service—sounds like a paranoiac’s fantasy. But there it is.
If Gates knew Kilimnik was spooked up with the Russians, it stands to reason that Manafort did, too. Manafort and Gates had to have known also that the data they shared would have been re-shared with darker audiences, presumably those residing in Moscow. The delivery of the polling data to Russia-friendly powers is consistent with other efforts by Russia to become more intimate with the Trump team. At least 16 Trump associates—Manafort, Gates, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, J.D. Gordon, Roger Stone, Michael Caputo, Erik Prince, Avi Berkowitz, Michael Cohen, Ivanka Trump and Felix Sater—met face-to-face with Russians during the 2016 campaign or transition, texted or spoke telephonically with them or exchanged emails. The Russians were smarting from the economic sanctions levied on them for the Crimea invasion and famously pressed incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn for relief the month before the Trump inauguration. (Flynn later pleaded guilty of lying to investigators about his conversations.) Russian agent Maria Butina, too, asked Trump about sanctions in a 2015 town hall.
But back to Kilimnik, who was indicted by Mueller in June 2018 for tampering with witnesses in a case about Manafort’s foreign lobbying. The latest court filing also indicates that Manafort and the Soviet-born Kilimnik were working on a Russia-friendly “peace plan” in August 2016, just as Manafort got canned from the Trump campaign after his business with the Russia-aligned moguls in Ukraine was publicized. The duo met again, including in Madrid in early 2017.
Kilimnik’s fingerprints pop up practically everywhere in the Russia saga. He allegedly helped Manafort illegally conceal income he earned while consulting in Ukraine. He also figures in the case of Washington lobbyist, W. Samuel Patten, who pleaded guilty last summer for lying to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He also made illegal straw purchases of inaugural tickets for an unnamed Ukrainian oligarch. (Foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to inaugurations.) Patten also “worked with Mr. Kilimnik and Russia-aligned Ukrainians looking to build ties to the Trump administration,” reported the New York Times. Called “Manafort’s Manafort“ by some, Kilimnik was the political consultant’s point man in dealings with Deripaska, meeting with the mogul and then communicating to Manafort about the sessions via email, including one message where Manafort offers to give Deripaska “private briefings“ on the campaign.
When Franklin Foer contacted Kilimnik last June for the Atlantic via email, “Manafort’s man in Kiev,” as he has been described, was cagey about where he was living. (Mueller has hinted Russia, Foer writes.) “I don’t want to play a role in this zoo,” Kilimnik said. The Foer feature plots Kilimnik’s ascent from Manafort’s gofer and fixer to a position of influence in the Ukraine government the pair helped elect. In 2016, Kilimnik turned his focus to the United States, and as Politico reported in March 2017, he claims to have helped spike a tough-on-Russia plank in the Republican Party platform. Manafort defended Kilimnik against Politico’s questions about his links to Russian intelligence, calling them “smears.”
Where isn’t it raining Ukrainians? A dozen rich Ukrainians who made a splash at Trump’s inaugural have drawn the Mueller probe’s attention, the New York Times reported this week. Like Manafort and Kilimnik, some of them came bearing “peace plans” for Ukraine that just so happen to call for the lifting of Russian sanctions. One of the inauguration partiers, Serhiy Lyovochkin, was one of the two oligarchs who got 2016 polling data from Kilimnik. Lyovochkin, the Times continues, also seems to match the description of the oligarch who got Patten to buy him illegal tickets.
Manafort maintains he didn’t lie about the polling data pass-through, he just didn’t remember making the contact. Should we laugh at his moxie or sympathize with him? It’s conceivable, I guess, that he made so many contacts as Trump’s campaign director that it has slipped his mind. Alas for Manafort, Mueller is there to help us recall what Trump would rather we all forget.