Did Donald Trump get vindicated by yesterday’s report about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is no direct evidence of collusion with Russia? Not quite yet, although Trump did offer up this victory tweet this morning:
Not so fast, the Washington Post appears to say this morning. According to court filings and their own analysis, special counsel Robert Mueller has begun to circle ever more closely around a meeting between Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and Konstantin Kilimnik in August 2016. Just as the presidential campaigns kicked into high gear, Trump’s campaign manager and his top deputy took the time to meet with someone who might have ties to Russian intelligence. What was so important that Manafort and Gates had to do dinner and cigars with Kilimnik?
The Aug. 2, 2016, encounter between the senior Trump campaign officials and Kilimnik, who prosecutors allege has ties to Russian intelligence, has emerged in recent days as a potential fulcrum in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
It was at that meeting that prosecutors believe Manafort and Kilimnik may have exchanged key information relevant to Russia and Trump’s presidential bid. The encounter goes “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told a federal judge in a sealed hearing last week.
One subject the men discussed was a proposed resolution to the conflict over Ukraine, an issue of great interest to the Russian government, according to a partially redacted transcript of the Feb. 4 hearing.
During the hearing, the judge also appeared to allude to another possible interaction at the Havana Room gathering: a handoff by Manafort of internal polling data from Trump’s presidential campaign to his Russian associate.
This is mainly a rehash of the story that came out five weeks ago, when Manafort’s attorneys failed to properly redact their filing in Mueller’s challenge to the plea agreement. Mueller wants to undo the agreement and bury Manafort in prison for the rest of his life for not telling the whole truth about passing along the polling data. Kilimnik and Manafort had worked closely together in the past when Manafort did business in Ukraine for the Russian-allied party in power before it got ousted.
At the time of this meeting, Manafort was in serious financial straits and owed a lot of money to his former clients. He needed to “get whole,” and selling data to Kilimnik might have been one way of making up the lost ground. That would fit a “collusion” hypothesis in this way: the internal polling and profiling data that Manafort passed to Kilimnik could have been used for voter targeting by the Russian disinformation/”fake news” social media campaigns that came later.
Needless to say, though, this construct has a lot of holes in it, with the biggest being the data itself. Russia didn’t need to purloin that from the Trump campaign, which was widely castigated for not investing in that data-gathering in the first place. One can easily find much more reliable and extensive consumer-profile data commercially; when I wrote Going Red, for instance, the data firm L2 gave me access to incredibly detailed information that was indispensable for analyzing political and financial trends. Russia had millions of dollars invested in this project, and it would have taken a relative pittance to simply buy that information from people who know how to produce it.
It seems much more likely that Manafort would have passed this along to Kilimnik (if he in fact did so) not to help Russia with its interference but to set himself up as a a valuable consultant once again. Internal campaign polling data isn’t worth much even to campaigns, especially to those that don’t invest in the process properly, and it’s even less useful to outsiders — except for validating expertise and access. Manafort needed to show value to “get whole,” and providing Kilimnik and Oleg Deripaska a peek at that data might have been a calling card.
None of this has much to do with Donald Trump anyway. The Post notes that Trump offered Russia-friendly takes on issues like Crimea at about the same time, but Trump had been making similar (foolish) statements throughout the campaign. Trump talked about pulling out of NATO in March 2016, for instance, long before this meeting took place. Four months earlier in December 2015, he kinda-sorta defended Vladimir Putin on invading Ukraine and killing journalists by saying, “I think our country does plenty of killing, also.” The best that can be said of the Post’s citing of similar comments closer to the August 2016 meeting is that it demonstrates the difference between correlation and causation, even if they don’t realize it.
Manafort is certainly in a lot of trouble, and even more so if he lied about his meeting with Kilimnik. However, it seems a big stretch to connect that back to Trump in any meaningful way, especially since it hasn’t generated any indictment of other campaign officials that would have had to be in that loop — even though Mueller still has Rick Gates as a cooperator, who would know what actually happened. This looks much more like Mueller’s closing the loop on Manafort rather than looping Trump into the case.