The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new link between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence that’s more evocative than definitive

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)

Imagine that you had a document that included sensitive information. So, before handing the document to someone, you very carefully cut out pieces of black paper and Scotch-tape them on top of the parts of the document you want to keep private. Foolproof.

You probably see the problem here. And yet someone, perhaps attorneys working for Paul Manafort, appears not to have done so. A document filed with the court on Manafort’s behalf tried to obscure important information by overlaying black boxes on the text, giving the appearance of a redacted document but offering all of the security of those little bits of black paper.

So what did we learn? Several things, as The Washington Post has reported — but one particularly evocative connection between Manafort and a man believed to have links to Russian intelligence.

The document attempts to defend Manafort from charges of having lied to investigators by arguing that he simply didn’t remember various interactions with a colleague of his named Konstantin Kilimnik — who, a filing by investigators working for Robert S. Mueller III alleged in March, “has ties to Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.” Manafort, for much of 2016, was working for President Trump’s campaign as its chairman.

Manafort and Kilimnik had worked together on issues related to Ukrainian politics for years before Manafort joined the campaign. Part of the document meant to be redacted asserts that “[i]ssues and communications related to Ukrainian political events simply were not at the forefront of Mr. Manafort’s mind during the period at issue” and, therefore, it’s not surprising that he didn’t recall raising the subject with Kilimnik.

"The same is true,” the section continues, “with regard to the Government’s allegation that Mr. Manafort lied about sharing polling data with Mr. Kilimnik related to the 2016 presidential campaign".

This is evocative.

There have been questions from the outset of the investigation into Russian interference about how Russian actors might have directly tried to coordinate campaign activity with the Trump team. We know, for example, that Russian entities targeted Americans on social media in an attempt to influence their political thinking. There were reports, including from McClatchy in July 2016, that investigators were trying to determine if there was direct campaign coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia that might have allowed Russia to better tailor its influence program.

“One source familiar with Justice’s criminal probe said investigators doubt Russian operatives controlling the so-called robotic cyber commands that fetched and distributed fake news stories could have independently ‘known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states,’” McClatchy reported at the time. But there wasn’t any real evidence that information was moving from Trump’s campaign to Russia.

Until this failed redaction emerged.

So what does it tell us? The language is vague: Manafort shared “polling data with Mr. Kilimnik related to the 2016 presidential campaign.” That doesn’t necessarily mean polling data from the Trump campaign. There was certainly a lot of polling done in 2016 but, interestingly, not much by the Trump campaign — which spent more on promotional hats than on opinion surveys. Manafort might have shared publicly available polling information with Kilimnik, which nonetheless raised questions for Mueller’s team. (It probably goes without saying, but that investigators asked Manafort about the sharing of polling and flagged his response as false indicates that they were interested in this particular exchange.)

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it was internal Trump campaign polling. The timing on this is iffy; the first polling expense logged by the campaign in 2016 came at the end of August. Earlier that month, Manafort was fired, after allegations of illicit payments from Ukraine became public. But, again, let’s assume that’s what it was.

What might Russia have learned? It's hard to say without knowing what the polling said or was focused on. Perhaps it revealed particular messages that were effective with apathetic or persuadable voters. Perhaps it revealed particular places where the campaign hoped to get a boost.

We know something now that we didn’t know in July 2017, when McClatchy first reported on Russia’s interference efforts: They don’t seem to have done much. There were a number of targeted ads and a broad range of campaign pitches, but the ad targeting was fairly scattershot, heavily focused on areas where the presidential contest wasn’t particularly close, and the messages deployed by the Russians were not particularly sophisticated.

There was a late-campaign focus on trying to suppress the black vote to some extent, a focus that Bloomberg News reported in October 2016 was also a focus of the Trump campaign itself. But, as we noted last month, the Russian effort was not particularly robust. There was nothing in the product of the Russian effort that we know of that would suggest any particular inside knowledge.

That is beside the point, of course. 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.

We know, thanks to reporting from the Atlantic, that Manafort in April 2016 emailed Kilimnik to ensure that his colleague had been sharing information about his new position with the Trump campaign to an oligarch named Oleg Deripaska. Manafort and Deripaska, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, worked together for years until they had a falling out.

In July 2016, Manafort asked Kilimnik to offer Deripaska private briefings on the campaign, according to Post reporting. Manafort seemed to believe that his position with the campaign offered an opportunity to provide something of value to Deripaska and, further, seemed to believe that offering insight into the inner workings of the campaign might be of interest to the oligarch.

It's not hard to extend this train of thought to an obvious place: Perhaps that effort included Manafort passing Kilimnik polling information with the intent that he give it to Deripaska.

Update: The Times reported on Tuesday evening that the information was a mix of public polling and polling conducted for the campaign, and that Kilimnik was asked to pass the information on to Deripaska.

Why would Deripaska care? Perhaps because he hoped that Trump’s election would result in a relaxation of the sanctions that he faced from the U.S. government. This was an effort that spanned multiple administrations and that involved Manafort for years. Perhaps Manafort hoped to rebuild their business partnership by showing that the candidate for whom he was working might soon be president.

If that was the plan, it worked out to a limited degree. Trump is president and sanctions on Deripaska will be eased. How much of that if any is due to Manafort, first fired and then indicted, is not clear.

Perhaps there was a conduit for collusion that went from Trump to Manafort to Kilimnik to Russian intelligence. Or perhaps Manafort, ever the hustler, was working a hustle.