Imagine this news flash: the campaign manager of Joe Biden’s presidential bid throughout the 2020 race was in continuous and covert contact with a Chinese intelligence officer whom had once been her business associate. During these clandestine communications—which included secret meetings—she passed internal Biden campaign polling data to the Chinese operative, and the operative encouraged her to help advance a Chinese proposal that would allow Beijing to succeed in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea and further extend its influence there. And throughout this all, China was running an undercover operation to help Biden win.
Ka-boom! There would be headlines galore. The right-wing media would go bananas. Fox News would explode. Sean Hannity might lose the power of speech. And congressional Republicans would demand investigation upon investigation. There would be talk of impeachment.
Well, this did happen. Just not with Biden and China, but with Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 election. Yet this key piece of the Trump-Russia story never became a major scandal for the former president, who has not stopped claiming (falsely) that all talk about Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 election and the ties between his campaign and Russia is a “hoax.” Nevertheless, on Thursday, another critical and eye-popping element of this part of the Trump-Russia scandal was revealed by the US Treasury Department.
The Treasury announced it was slapping sanctions on “16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government.” One of the targets on this list was Konstantin Kilimnik, who it identified as a “Russian and Ukrainian political consultant and known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf.” The announcement stated that during the 2016 election, Kilimnik provided Russian intelligence with “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” It also declared that Kilimnik “sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The Treasury Department pointed out that in 2018 Kilimnik was indicted on obstruction of justice charges regarding his unregistered lobbying work related to Ukraine and that he has been assisting Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted corrupt president of Ukraine, who is now hiding in exile in Russia. Kilimnik, according to the department, has been conniving to return Yanukovych to power in Ukraine.
The Treasury announcement explained that Kilimnik was being sanctioned for “having engaged in foreign interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election” and for “acting for or on behalf” of Yanukovych. It noted that the FBI has offered a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to his arrest. What precisely Kilimnik did to try to influence the 2020 race was not detailed. In March, the Office of Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified report that concluded that Putin in 2020 launched a covert assault on American democracy to help Trump retain the White House, and the Treasury statement refers to that document.
What Treasury also did not spell out was that Kilimnik had been in league with Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for part of 2016. Kilimnik was a former business associate of Manafort; the pair had worked together in Ukraine, when Manafort was making millions of dollars as a consultant for the Putin-friendly Yanukovych. During the 2016 campaign, Manafort secretly interacted with Kilimnik and handed him internal polling information from the Trump campaign, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Trump-Russia scandal, which was released last year (and was endorsed by the Republicans on the committee).
The Senate report included damning revelations about the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship. While Mueller characterized Kilimnik as an “associate” of Russian intelligence, this report called Kilimnik a “Russian intelligence officer.” It noted that it had “obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the [Russian military intelligence] hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election” to aid Trump. The intelligence committee pointed out that Manafort had repeatedly shared “internal Campaign information with Kilimnik,” but that its investigators were “unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik or with whom Kilimnik further shared that information.”
The Treasury Department announcement provided a partial answer to the mystery of what Kilimnik did with the information Manafort slipped him, noting he transferred it to Russian intelligence.
So here’s the bottom-line: Manafort passed inside info from the Trump campaign to Kilimnik, and Kilimnik gave it to Russian intelligence, which at the time was mounting a covert attack on the 2016 election to thwart Hillary Clinton and boost Trump. No collusion? Manafort was scheming with a Russian operative, as the Kremlin was trying to sabotage American politics to assist Trump.
The Senate report noted that this was not just a one-way street. During the 2016 campaign and even after, Manafort discussed with Kilimnik a proposal for resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine—which Russia had invaded—that benefited Moscow. Kilimnik was trying to use Manafort, and through him Trump, to advance Putin’s interests related to Ukraine. After Trump won in 2016, Kilimnik said in an email to Manafort that the Ukraine plan only needed a “wink” from Trump to succeed. The Senate report also stated, “Manafort worked with Kilimnik starting in 2016 on narratives that sought to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S.” Trump’s top campaign man was part of an effort to cover up—or distract from—the Kremlin’s attack on the United States.
The committee stated it wasn’t certain it had fully uncovered all that was going on between Manafort and Kilimnik because the pair used encrypted communications. But the GOP-led panel did present a shocking conclusion: Manafort was a “grave counterintelligence threat.”
The top adviser to a successful presidential candidate “a grave intelligence threat.” How is that not a big deal? It deserved to be a scandal of its own, apart from the other portions of the Trump-Russia mess. Manafort was indeed prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for various corruptions related to his consulting work for Yanukovych. But in the end, Trump pardoned him. The president of the United States set free a “grave intelligence threat.” That, too, was a scandal that barely registered.
The news out of Treasury about the sanctions on Kilimnik is a sharp reminder that the Trump campaign did hobnob with Russia as it assaulted an American election—and that Trump, Manafort, and others essentially got away with it.