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If CNN’s report is correct, the gap in surveilling Manafort is the critical issue

Donald Trump, with campaign manager Paul Manafort and daughter Ivanka, attends the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
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On Monday night, CNN published a remarkable report: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was under surveillance by the federal government for periods starting in 2014 and running into this year.

“Some of the intelligence collected [from that surveillance] includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign,” CNN reported, noting, however, that the evidence wasn’t conclusive.

If this is true, it’s a significant revelation about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and overlap with President Trump’s team. But there are two critical caveats that bear mentioning.

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The first is that The Washington Post has been unable to corroborate this report. The second is that there’s a gap in the surveillance at the most inopportune time possible for understanding how and whether Manafort might have been in contact with Russian actors while he was steering the Trump campaign ship.

In March, we put together a timeline of Manafort’s ties to sketchy international actors. Most notably, he helped run the political efforts of Ukraine’s Party of Regions and its leader, Viktor Yanukovych — a politician allied with the Russian government. As recently as 2014, Manafort traveled to Ukraine to offer political advice to the party.

It was that year, according to CNN, that Manafort first became the subject of federal surveillance, which was centered on Manafort’s political work.

Faded sections of the purple bars indicate uncertainty about start and end points of CNN’s reported surveillance.

But, critically, the CNN report also notes that, by the time Manafort went to work for Trump’s campaign in March 2016, the surveillance had already ended “for lack of evidence.” Mind you, this does not refer to any evidence about Russian meddling and Trump campaign collusion but instead about Manafort’s work in Ukraine.

This means that the surveillance was offline while Manafort was working for Trump’s campaign. It was Manafort who alerted investigators to the meeting at Trump Tower in June of last year between himself, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and an attorney linked to the Russian government. Had Manafort been under surveillance at that time, investigators would like already have been aware of that conversation.

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The surveillance resumed last year specifically to investigate the possibility that Trump campaign agents may have colluded with the Russian government, according to CNN. “The FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, that reignited their interest in Manafort,” the news site reports. By fall, Manafort was no longer with the campaign, having been ousted in August after new details about his work for the Ukrainians emerged. It’s not clear whether the new surveillance reported by CNN would have started before he left his position.

We’ve known for some time that American intelligence agencies were investigating contacts between Russian actors and Manafort. The New York Times reported in February that in 2015, the year before the election, “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials.” That included Manafort, according to the Times’ report.

If CNN’s report is accurate, though, the gap in the purple bars above is key. While Manafort may have been observed communicating with Russian actors before he joined the Trump campaign, investigators would not necessarily know if he did so while officially acting as an agent of Trump’s. That he stayed in contact with the candidate (then president) during that second period of surveillance could be revelatory. But for investigators considering the question of collusion, the gap in the middle of 2016 that CNN reports is remarkably poorly timed.