This column has been updated.
We interrupt the breathless coverage of President Trump’s deceptive and unconvincing Oval Office address on the border wall to bring you some genuinely big news: The collusion case against the president’s campaign, already strong, is getting even stronger.
Attorneys for Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, inadvertently included a big reveal in a court filing on Tuesday through their clumsy failure to properly redact key portions. They admitted that during the 2016 campaign Manafort and his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, discussed a peace plan for Ukraine and that Manafort also shared with him political polling data.
Peace plan? Where have we heard that before? Oh, that’s right: Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former Mafia-linked, Russian American business associate Felix Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko conspired after the 2016 election to present a peace plan to incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was himself suspiciously friendly to the Russians. The plan would have legitimated Russian annexation of Crimea and lifted sanctions on Russia. In other words, it would have been the payoff that Russian President Vladimir Putin was seeking from his well-documented intervention on behalf of candidate Trump — and it could easily have come to fruition if the Russian election interference had not become a scandal. So now we know that there was yet another senior figure in Trump World who was plotting to sell out Ukraine to the Russians.
But the even more significant part of the Tuesday revelations concerns the polling data that Manafort allegedly shared with Kilimnik. Why would an individual with ties to Russian intelligence need polling data on the U.S. election? There is only on reason I can think of: to help direct the covert social-media propaganda campaign that Russian intelligence was running on Trump’s behalf. The Russians reached 126 million people via Facebook alone and millions more on other social-media platforms. Combined with Russia’s theft and strategically timed release of Democratic Party emails, this most likely swung an exceedingly close election — decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states — to Trump.
One of the central mysteries about the Russian campaign is how the Kremlin could have been so skillful in targeting American voters, focusing especially on African Americans, Bernie Sanders supporters and other groups who might otherwise have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton. When political campaigns run advertising, they typically rely on detailed voter data to guide their efforts. Did the Kremlin do its own polling? It didn’t have to, if Manafort was providing the Russians with poll numbers.
According to the New York Times, “Most of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign,” and Manafort asked Kilimnik to pass the data to two pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine for whom Manafort had previously worked. The Trump campaign chairman had also worked for the Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska. The Post has previously reported that Manafort, who was running the Trump campaign for no pay, offered Deripaska, whom he owed as much as $17 million, “private briefings” on the 2016 campaign in order to “get whole.” We don’t know whether Manafort was technically a Russian agent, but this is classic espionage tradecraft: Compromise a person of influence, put him at your mercy, and then force him to do your bidding.
Actually, there is evidence to indicate that the data-sharing might have gone both ways. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has revealed that the Russians stole not only emails but also data analytics from the Democratic Party. A few weeks after this theft in September 2016, the Trump campaign shifted its “data-driven” strategy to focus on the very states where it would win the election. Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Or maybe not.
There is a name for cooperation between an American political campaign and a foreign government. It’s commonly called collusion. Or, if you prefer the legal term, conspiracy.
The revelation about Manafort sharing data with Kilimnik is the most significant evidence of collusion/conspiracy since Michael Cohen’s Nov. 29 guilty plea on charges of lying to Congress to conceal the Trump Organization’s active pursuit during the 2016 campaign, with help from Putin aides, of a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That, in turn, was the most damning evidence to emerge since the New York Times revealed that there had been a meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, between the campaign high command and a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. (Veselnitskaya’s deep links to the Kremlin have just been confirmed in a new court filing.)
These are only the headline revelations, of course. There is a lot more there there. I surveyed the state of the evidence six months ago in this column. The Moscow Project of the Center for American Progress reports that “we have learned of 97 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives, including at least 28 meetings,” and that the Trump campaign tried to cover up all of them.
If this is what it appears to be, it is the biggest scandal in American history — an assault on the very foundations of our democracy in which the president’s own campaign is deeply complicit. There is no longer any question whether collusion occurred. The only questions that remain are: What did the president know? And when did he know it?