Yes, There Was Collusion. Look at the Manafort Case

A load of evidence is hiding in plain sight.

Andrew Harnik/AP

For years now, Donald Trump has been screeching “No collusion!” It’s been a hollow cry, because throughout the 2016 campaign (and afterward as president), Trump aided and abetted Vladimir Putin’s attack on a US election by echoing Moscow’s disinformation that the Kremlin had not intervened. And, of course, Trump’s three top advisers—campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr.—met in June 2016 with a Russian emissary after being told she would bring them dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a secret Russian government operation to help Trump. But the argument for direct collusion—that is, Trump or his aides privately collaborating with a Russian-related person or entity for a nefarious purpose—has become stronger with recent filings in the case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller against Manafort. Information disclosed by these documents, coupled with previous revelations, makes it seem that Manafort was indeed actively conniving with Russian forces while he was directing Trump’s presidential effort.

A review of the Manafort timeline provides a clear picture:

March 29, 2016: Manafort is brought into the Trump campaign to manage its convention operations. At this point, it is public knowledge that Manafort, a longtime lobbyist and adviser to politicians (and warlords, autocrats, and dictators) around the world, worked for years in Ukraine for the Moscow-friendly party of Viktor Yanukovych, the nation’s former president who was driven out of office in 2014 because of corruption and his pro-Russia stance. Shortly after Manafort joins the Trump effort, Yahoo News reports that he has been a business partner of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Putin, and that Deripaska has filed legal documents alleging that Manafort and his associate Rick Gates (who also has joined the Trump campaign) essentially absconded with about $19 million that Deripaska had invested in a joint venture with them. This suggests that Manafort could be in debt to a Putin-associated oligarch to the tune of millions of dollars as he helps guide an American presidential campaign.

April 11, 2016: Manafort emails Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-Russian business associate who worked closely with Manafort in Ukraine. (This message will not become public until the fall of 2017.) Kilimnik was once a Soviet military linguist. According to a December 2017 Mueller filing, Kilimnik was “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.” (He has denied any connection to Russian intelligence.) In this email, Manafort asks Kilimnik, who is in Kiev, “I assume you have shown our friends my media coverage, right?” Kilminik replies, “Absolutely. Every article.” Manafort responds, “How do we use to get whole. Has OVD operation seen?” OVD is a reference to Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska. Kilimnik tells Manafort he has been forwarding the “coverage” of Manafort as a Trump adviser to a Deripaska aide who has been sharing it “directly” with OVD. This exchange shows that Manafort is using Kilimnik—an alleged Russian intelligence associate—as a go-between with Deripaska and others as he is looking to leverage his new position with the Trump campaign to work out some arrangement or understanding with Deripaska. (A year later, the Associated Press will report that around 2005, Manafort had secretly worked with Deripaska on a multimillion-dollar consulting plan that, according to a memo penned by Manafort, would “greatly benefit the Putin Government.”)

May 19, 2016: Manafort is promoted to chairman of the Trump campaign.

Spring 2016: According to one of the recent filings in the Manafort case—an improperly redacted document submitted by Manafort’s attorneys that could be read in full—Manafort and Gates pass polling data, including some private campaign data, to Kilimnik. Kilimnik, as the New York Times reported, then shares this information with two Ukrainian oligarchs who had financed the Russia-aligned political parties that had previously paid millions to Manafort. The significance? Manafort is handing over private campaign material to an associate linked to Russian intelligence. Did it land anywhere else? This episode indicates that Manafort was willing to exploit his campaign position to bolster his connection with oligarchs linked to pro-Putin political forces.

June 9, 2016: Manafort joins Trump Jr. and Kushner in a conference room in Trump Tower to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the emissary sent from the Kremlin. Much later on, after the meeting’s existence is revealed, the Trump camp will contend that nothing useful came out of the conversation. But the email sent to Trump Jr. that led to this meeting—which was forwarded to Manafort and Kushner—explained that this rendezvous was related to a private Kremlin effort to assist Trump. That means Manafort and the others received notice of Putin’s intent to interfere in the 2016 election—and they said nothing about this publicly and did not inform any US government authorities. And by merely taking the meeting, Manafort, Trump Jr., and Kushner, purposefully or not, were sending a signal to the Kremlin that the Trump campaign had no real problem with a secret Moscow operation to boost Trump. If Putin and his aides were looking for a green light from the Trump camp to proceed with their attack on the US election, this could have been it.

July 7, 2016: Manafort emails Kilimnik and forwards questions he received from a Ukrainian reporter about his past business venture with Deripaska that led to the oligarch demanding to know what had happened to his $19 million. “Is there any movement on this issue with our friend?” Manafort asks. Kilimnik replies that a Deripaska aide says the oligarch “will be most likely looking for ways to reach out to you pretty soon.” He adds, “I am more than sure that it will be resolved and we will get back to the original relationship” with Deripaska. Manafort requests that Kilimink convey the message that “if [Deripaska] needs private briefings we can accommodate.” Here, we have Manafort looking for a way to return to good terms with Deripaska—and offering this Putin ally inside information on the Trump campaign.

July 22, 2016: Prior to the start of the Democratic presidential convention, WikiLeaks dumps over 20,000 emails swiped from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The theft was publicly reported on June 14, and cybersecurity experts pinned the caper on Russian hackers. The Clinton campaign and others—noting that Trump has long expressed positive sentiments about Putin—say the release of the stolen material is a Russian operation designed to hurt Clinton and help Trump.

July 24, 2016: Manafort goes on television to address the claim that Russians are cyberattacking the Democrats to assist Trump. On ABC News, George Stephanopoulos asks him, “Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you, or your campaign and Putin and his regime?” Manafort answers, “No, there are not.” He chuckles and continues: “That’s absurd, and, you know, there’s no basis for it.” Three days later, he tells another journalist, “We have no relationship” with Russia. Again, he insists this is “absurd.” Manafort is lying. Trump campaign aides, including himself, met with that Russian emissary six weeks earlier. Moreover, Manafort has a direct relationship with a Putin-backing oligarch. And Manafort also doesn’t reveal—and maybe he didn’t know this—that from fall 2015 through at least the start of summer 2016, Trump had been privately pursuing a Trump Tower project in Moscow that could reap Trump hundreds of millions of dollars and that Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer/lawyer, had been in contact with Putin’s office seeking help for this venture. Manafort does know that both he and the campaign have had Russian contacts. He is covering this up.

Push the pause button. At this point, with the general election about to officially begin, Trump’s campaign is being chaired by a globe-trotting, wheeling-dealing lobbyist who is A. Looking to repair and enhance his relationship with one of Putin’s favorite oligarchs; B. Regularly communicating with an alleged Russian intelligence associate and sharing internal campaign information with him; and C. Conveying, with the Trump Tower meeting, the message to Moscow that the Trump campaign would welcome secret assistance from the Kremlin. He has also publicly lied about his and the campaign’s interactions with Russia. Any of this would be troubling, but the story gets worse.

July 29, 2016: Kilimnik emails Manafort that he met with “the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar several years ago.” This seems to be a discreet reference to Deripaska. Kilimnik notes that he has “several important messages from him to you” and that this person asked Kilimnik to brief Manafort. “It has to do about the future of his country, and is quite interesting,” Kilimnik explains. He offers to come see Manafort next week to discuss this, if this person “buys me a ticket.” Manafort is game, and he replies, “Tuesday is best.”

July 31, 2016: Manafort and Kilimnik confirm plans for meeting in New York City on August 2. “I need about two hours,” Kilimnik tells him, “because it is a long caviar story to tell.”

August 2, 2016: Manafort and Kilimnik meet in the Grand Havana Club, a cigar bar in Manhattan. A year later, Kilimnik will tell the Washington Post that this and his other meetings with Manafort were merely “private visits” where the two men discussed “unpaid bills” and “current news.” That doesn’t jibe with the emails setting up a conversation about “the future of his country” and a two-hour-long “caviar story.” Filings in the Manafort case made public this month indicate that Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a Ukrainian peace plan. These conversations, according to a document submitted by Mueller, began on the day Manafort and Kilimnik rendezvoused in New York. (A document filed by Manafort’s lawyers confirms that his conversation with Kilimnik about a Ukrainian peace plan occurred while “he was engaged with work related to the presidential campaign.”) Discussing a peace plan may seem innocuous or even worthy, but Ukrainian peace proposals promoted by Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainians have been generally designed to benefit Putin’s regime and have focused on lifting the tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union on Russia after its seizure of Ukrainian territory. (The sanctions were seriously harming the Russian economy.) The recent Manafort filings do not reveal details of the plan that Kilimnik and Manafort talked about. But to boil this down: Trump’s top campaign aide is apparently discussing a proposal—which presumably involved lifting sanctions—in the context of a conversation about the “future” of the country of the man who once supplied Manafort the “biggest black caviar jar.” The obvious interpretation: Kilimnik was talking with Manafort about a peace plan somehow connected to Deripaska that was beneficial for Russia. And this was happening while Russia was trying to subvert the US election to help Trump. (By now, many media reports had cited Moscow as the perpetrator of the DNC attack.)

August 14, 2016: The New York Times reports that Manafort’s name appeared on a list of secret payments made by Yanukovych and supposedly collected $12.7 million from 2007 to 2012. He denies any wrongdoing. Four days later, the AP reports that his firm had lobbied in the United States on behalf of Yanukovych’s party without registering as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, as was required under federal law. The next day, Manafort is bounced from the Trump campaign.

*      *     *

There has been no full accounting of Manafort’s shenanigans made available to the public. The Mueller investigation has yielded assorted chunks—particularly focused on his financial crimes and his pre-Trump lobbying wrongdoing—but no overarching narrative of Manafort’s days at the top of the Trump campaign. How did Manafort respond to Kilimnik’s talk of a peace plan? Did he signal that he or the Trump campaign would play ball? The filings don’t say. In fact, the recent Mueller submission redacts all details of the meeting in New York City. But the filings do indicate that Manafort and Kilimnik continued to talk about this peace plan through 2017—and possibly into 2018—and that’s something of a sign that Manafort was receptive. (Mueller’s filing accuses Manafort of having lied to his investigators about this meeting and other interactions with Kilimnik.) The available information leads to the distinct impression that Manafort, when he was chairman of the Trump campaign, was willing to deal with—or at least hear out—a Russian oligarch on a matter important to the Putin regime at the same time the Kremlin was covertly plotting to help Trump. This certainly veers into the territory of a possible quid pro quo.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, claimed the other night, “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign.” But the Trump camp’s line had previously been “no collusion”—period. In November 2016, Trump aide Hope Hicks publicly declared, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” But with the slow leak of information about Manafort’s actions, it’s no wonder that Giuliani has tried to change that Trump tune. The president’s shouts of “no collusion” cannot be accurately applied to the man he picked to chair his campaign. Manafort was in cahoots with a fellow alleged to have ties with Russian intelligence, and through this person Manafort was apparently communicating with a Putin ally about a policy issue crucial for the Kremlin, as Putin was underhandedly assisting the Trump campaign. This all comes across as a secret orgy of back-scratching—that is, collusion. Trump at least ought to alter his mantra to “No collusion by me!” Still, there is no telling if that proclamation will end up being any more truthful.

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