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Opinion One more Russian contact: Here’s why it matters

Trump's supporters say 'collusion' can't be prosecuted. They're wrong. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

The Post reports, “Paul Manafort shared 2016 presidential campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing.” We learned about the confab between Donald Trump’s then-campaign chief Manafort and a Russian intelligence-connected oligarch because Manafort’s attorney apparently does not know how to black out a document. (“The information is in a filing that appears to inadvertently include details not intended to be made public and indicates a pathway by which the Russians could have had access to Trump campaign data.”)

Even more intriguing, the filing by Manafort’s attorneys indicates that Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a Ukrainian peace plan, the first explicit reference to a discussion of Ukraine policy between the Trump campaign and a Russian-linked figure in the special counsel investigation:

You will recall that while Manafort was in charge of the Trump campaign in summer 2016 the Republican National Committee platform was changed to remove support for weapons for Ukraine, a dramatic about-face for Republicans and a position that would please Russia and its Ukrainian puppets.

The revelation is noteworthy on many levels, beyond further evidence of the abject incompetence of the lawyers serving the Trump circle.

“Manafort ‘conceded’ that he discussed or may have discussed a Ukraine peace plan with Mr. Kilimnik on more than one occasion,” his attorneys quote the special counsel as saying, and “’acknowledged’ that he and Mr. Kilimnik met while they were both in Madrid,” without giving a date.

This is not the first piece of evidence of collusion between the Trump camp and Russian figures, to be sure. The Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., and Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton has been known for some time. But here we see Manafort giving something of value (insider polling data) to a Russian. What is not clear is how much Donald Trump knew.

Before he joined the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort made a name for himself in the D.C. lobbying world, but his past caught up with him. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Jon Gerberg, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

As my colleague Philip Bump put it, “It’s worth asking why Manafort might have passed polling to Kilimnik. If he wanted Kilimnik to share that information with Russia to influence the campaign, it’s hard to see that as anything less than an effort to collude with Russia.” What we cannot say at this stage is how valuable the polling data was and what if anything Kilimnik and/or Russian intelligence did with it.

“The most innocent possible explanation here is that Trump hired an international criminal who was trying to give campaign information to a Russian oligarch in exchange for debt relief, and using a Russian intelligence asset as his go between,” says former Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller. “But it’s hard to see what good polling data would be to a Russian oligarch, so it raises the question of whether Manafort’s actual goal was to get the information to the Russian government itself.” Whether this was all about Manafort and his finances or whether this was part of a larger quid quo pro between Trump and the Russians isn’t yet clear.

“There are important issues of proof, particularly involving intent and of course, you can’t assume Manafort briefed others on his activities in the absence of proof,” cautions former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “But, the fact that Mueller believed lies about these matters were so material that they constituted breach of his plea agreement, makes it logical to expect that this is leading into proof of cooperation between at least the campaign manager and the Russian government.”

It is also noteworthy that we have, at the very least, yet another previously undisclosed contact between the Trump campaign and Russians. We’ve come a long way since Trump claimed neither he nor anyone on the campaign had contacts with Russians. Before the latest revelation, the Moscow Project had discovered “97 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives, including at least 28 meetings. And we know that at least 28 high-ranking campaign officials and Trump advisers were aware of contacts with Russia-linked operatives during the campaign and transition.” Furthermore, “None of these contacts were ever reported to the proper authorities. Instead, the Trump team tried to cover up every single one of them.”

It’s hard to describe how bizarre this many contacts between a campaign and a hostile foreign government — one trying to influence the campaign to that side’s favor — truly is. Keep in mind that no major party presidential campaign of which we are aware ever had a single contact with the Russians.

Finally, the latest discovery should remind us that we know a fraction of what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III knows. Claims that there is no evidence of collusion or that the investigation is wrapping up are based on nothing but speculation or, in many cases, wishful thinking. The only thing we can say definitively is that there is plenty we don’t yet know.

Read more:

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Video: Here’s what you need to know about Mueller’s grand juries

Randall D. Eliason: The hush-money payments are a sideshow. Mueller just added key pieces to the Russia puzzle.

The Post’s View: William Barr believes in Justice Department independence. He might have to fight for it.