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A Paul Manafort court filing just accidentally connected some big dots between the Trump campaign and Russia

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)
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The first news in a while in Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel probe came by accident Tuesday — and it’s potentially big. Thanks to some shoddy redactions in a court filing by Paul Manafort’s legal team, we learned precisely what Mueller believes Manafort lied about to have his cooperation agreement voided. And two things stand out.

The first is that Manafort is believed to have lied about sharing 2016 campaign polling data with a Russian business associate from his days in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik. The second is that he and Kilimnik met in Madrid in early 2017 — a fact he shared only after investigators noted that the two had been in the city on the same day.

Here’s the key section (with the bolded part supposed to have been redacted):

It is accurate that after the Special Counsel shared evidence regarding Mr. Manafort’s meetings and communications with Konstantin Kilimnik with him, Mr. Manafort recalled that he had – or may have had – some additional meetings or communications with Mr. Kilimnik that he had not initially remembered. The Government concludes from this that Mr. Manafort’s initial responses to inquiries about his meetings and interactions with Mr. Kilimnik were lies to the OSC attorneys and investigators. (See, e.g., Doc. 460 at 5 (After being shown documents, Mr. Manafort “conceded” that he discussed or may have discussed a Ukraine peace plan with Mr. Kilimnik on more than one occasion); id. at 6 (After being told that Mr. Kilimnik had traveled to Madrid on the same day that Mr. Manafort was in Madrid, Mr. Manafort “acknowledged” that he and Mr. Kilimnik met while they were both in Madrid)).
In fact, during a proffer meeting held with the Special Counsel on September 11, 2018, Mr. Manafort explained to the Government attorneys and investigators that he would have given the Ukrainian peace plan more thought, had the issue not been raised during the period he was engaged with work related to the presidential campaign. Issues and communications related to Ukrainian political events simply were not at the forefront of Mr. Manafort’s mind during the period at issue and it is not surprising at all that Mr. Manafort was unable to recall specific details prior to having his recollection refreshed. The same is true with regard to the Government’s allegation that Mr. Manafort lied about sharing polling data with Mr. Kilimnik related to the 2016 presidential campaign. (See Doc. 460 at 6).

Why is this significant? Because it draws a potential line between the Trump campaign and the Russian government for which there were previously only some suggestive dots.

Back in March, Mueller’s team conspicuously included this line in a filing for the sentencing hearing of London attorney Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators:

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents assisting the Special Counsel’s Office assess that Person A has ties to Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.

“Person A” was clearly Kilimnik, and it seemed a pregnant inclusion to say that he not only had ties to Russian intelligence, but to add that he “had such ties in 2016.” It had been reported that Kilimnik served in the Russian military and attended a Russian military foreign language university that often produces intelligence agents. But whether those ties were ongoing was another question, and Kilimnik had denied this.

Previous Mueller filings also said Kilimnik had such ties — but not specifically in 2016. One filing described Kilimnik as “a longtime Russian colleague … who is currently based in Russia and assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.”

It may seem like splitting hairs. But it now looks like Mueller’s team may have made a point to establish both Kilimnik’s current ties to Russian intelligence and that they existed specifically in 2016 for a reason. The question from there was whether Kilimnik’s ties would rear their heads again.

And now they have. We now have polling data allegedly being shared by a Trump campaign higher-up directly with someone with alleged, contemporaneous ties to Russian intelligence. (A valid question from there: Was it internal data? The filing just refers to “sharing polling data with Mr. Kilimnik related to the 2016 presidential campaign,” but that could technically be publicly available data.) We also have a meeting that took place with this person tied to Russian intelligence that Manafort allegedly hid.

Whether any information was passed along to Russian intelligence or any coordination took place involving the Russian government, we don’t know. (My colleague, Philip Bump, has applied some very valid skepticism.) But the potential is clearly there for Kilimnik to have served as a conduit. And the arrows pointing in that direction are no longer quite so speculative. It also bears asking, yet again, why someone like Manafort felt the need to allegedly lie about this stuff — especially at the expense of his cooperation agreement and further legal jeopardy he was well familiar with.

Kilimnik’s name has always been one of the lesser-understood but potentially most important in this whole matter — especially given his known Russia ties. He’s the one Manafort was writing to when he apparently asked about leveraging his position on the Trump campaign to chase down debts he was allegedly owed. “How do we use [this] to get whole?” he wrote to Kilimnik. He also spoke with Kilimnik about setting up briefings with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But neither of these things so clearly involves potential exchange of campaign information that could have included the Russian government. There is no evidence, for instance, that any briefing ever took place. And while using a position on a campaign to enrich yourself might be poor form and even legally problematic, it’s not collusion.

Does that mean we have collusion or a similar crime? Who knows? But a potential road map involving Manafort and Kilimnik has been laid out — albeit unintentionally.

This post has been updated with the Manafort team’s clarification that that the Madrid meeting took place in early 2017 -- not 2016.