For those paying close attention to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, there are a few dates that immediately jump out as significant.
There’s Oct. 7, 2016, the day on which The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape shortly before WikiLeaks began releasing material stolen from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and shortly after the government released an unusual statement warning about Russian interference efforts.
There’s early June, a period when Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination and his son, Donald Trump Jr., apparently worked with a Russian developer to finalize a meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney meant to share dirt on Clinton.
And now, coming out of the shadows, we can add the period from late July to early August 2016.
On Tuesday, The Post detailed an Aug. 2 meeting between Paul Manafort -- then Trump’s campaign chairman -- and a former business partner of his named Konstantin Kilimnik. This meeting gets “very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating,” said a lawyer working for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III quoted in a court document released last week.
We’ll get into why that meeting is so interesting to Mueller’s team in a second. But let’s first situate it in a broader period that had a significant effect on the election, both publicly and behind closed doors.
July 21. The Republican convention in Cleveland ends with Trump formally accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency. The delegate-counting process was managed by Manafort in the months leading up to the convention. He was aided by his longtime business partner Rick Gates, who served as deputy campaign chairman during this period.
July 22. Over the course of the day, WikiLeaks begins releasing files stolen from the network of the Democratic National Committee. The group deflects questions about the source of the documents, but The Post had reported the prior month that the DNC’s network had been compromised by hackers believed to be working for Russian intelligence.
Last year, Mueller obtained an indictment against a number of alleged intelligence officers for the hack. The indictment detailed how they allegedly gained access to the DNC network and how WikiLeaks requested and was sent the cache of material.
The effect of the release is immediate, disrupting Democratic politics and widening the gulf between supporters of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In a separate interview with the New York Times, Trump is asked if NATO members can count on the United States coming to their aid if attacked by Russia.
“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us?" Trump replied. "If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
“I would love to have a good relationship where Russia and I, instead of, and us, and the U.S., instead of fighting each other we got along,” he added later. “It would be wonderful if we had good relationships with Russia so that we don’t have to go through all of the drama.”
July 23. Trump goads Sanders over the WikiLeaks release.
July 24. Manafort is interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
“Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?” Stephanopoulos asks.
“No, there are not,” Manafort replies. “It’s absurd and there’s no basis to it.”
DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) announces that she’ll leave her position with the party in the wake of the WikiLeaks releases.
July 25. The Democratic convention begins in Philadelphia. Protesters gather outside, many of them focused on challenging Clinton’s nomination.
In a speech, Trump suggests that “China, Russia, [or] one of our many, many friends” hacked the DNC network and released what was stolen.
He adds that “I guarantee we’ll find the 33,000 emails” Clinton deleted from her private email server. Those emails were deleted after a review from Clinton’s attorneys determined that they were not related to her work at the State Department.
A CNN poll shows Trump gaining the lead in polling thanks to his convention bounce.
July 26. The WikiLeaks releases raise new questions about Trump’s gentle treatment of Russia. Trump tweets a denials of any political or economic connection to the country.
An effort to develop a skyscraper in Moscow had been quietly tabled the prior month.
July 27. Trump holds a news conference, his last of the election. He’s again asked about ties to Russia.
“It’s just a total deflection, this whole thing with Russia,” he said, later adding, “By the way, they hacked -- they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see.”
He described an interview with Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook in which Mook suggested that the emails were released to help Trump.
“Yes, it could be Trump, yes, yes. So it is so far-fetched. It’s so ridiculous,” Trump said. “Honestly I wish I had that power. I’d love to have that power but Russia has no respect for our country. And that’s why -- if it is Russia, nobody even knows this, it’s probably China, or it could be somebody sitting in his bed. But it shows how weak we are, it shows how disrespected we are.”
“It’s probably not Russia," he says later. "Nobody knows if it’s Russia.”
Trump was also asked about ties to Russia and why he won’t release his tax returns to show that there’s no link.
“I’ll release them," he promises -- once they’re out of audit. "But zero, I mean I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia, yes?”
Most infamously, Trump calls on Russia to dig up Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," he said. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
Mueller’s indictment against the alleged Russian hackers indicates that July 27 was the first day that the hackers attempted to breach Clinton’s private email server.
Luckily for Manafort, Trump’s news conference largely buries his own appearance on television.
"So to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs?” he is asked during an appearance on CBS.
“That’s what he said,” Manafort stammers. “I — I don’t — That’s what I said — That’s obviously what our position is.”
July 28. The Democratic convention concludes with Clinton receiving her party’s nomination.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night, though, comes when a man named Khizr Khan tells a story about his son Humayan, killed in Iraq while protecting the soldiers under his command.
“If it was up to Donald Trump, [Humayun] never would have been in America,” Khan says. “Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.”
“You have sacrificed nothing," Khan says in conclusion, "and no one.”
July 29. Over the course of the campaign, Manafort and Kilimnik were in contact several times. Early during his tenure with the campaign, Manafort asked Kilimnik to confirm that his former business partners in Europe were aware of his new position, including the oligarch Oleg Deripaska. At another point in early July, Manafort offered to provide Deripaska with a private briefing on the campaign.
On July 29, Kilimnik emails Manafort.
“I met today with the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar several years ago,” he writes, apparently referring to an exchange of money. “We spent about 5 hours talking about his story, and I have several important messages from him to you. He asked me to go and brief you on our conversation. ... It has to do about the future of his country, and is quite interesting.”
Manafort agrees that they should meet the following Tuesday.
During a speech in Colorado, Trump again complains that the U.S. protects NATO members against Russia without the members paying their fair share.
July 30. Trump is interviewed by Stephanopoulos for ABC’s Sunday political show. The network publishes Trump’s answers to a question about Khan on Saturday.
Trump asks if “Hillary’s scriptwriters” wrote Khan’s speech and insists that he, too, has sacrificed.
He then disparages Khan’s wife, who stood onstage with her husband.
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” Trump said. “She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
A Post-ABC News poll released shortly after this fight found that 56 percent of respondents strongly disapproved of Trump’s handling of the issue.
July 31. Following the release of the files stolen from the DNC, a representative of Australia’s government contacts American authorities with an interesting story. Over drinks at a bar in London in May 2016, an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer is told by a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos that he’d learned that the Russian government had incriminating emails on Hillary Clinton. (Papadopoulos had learned this from a Russia-linked professor based in the U.K.)
That revelation led to the launch of a counterintelligence investigation on July 31 looking at whether elements of Trump’s campaign were working to aid Russia in influencing the election. This was the start of the Russia investigation.
In an interview with ABC News, Trump is asked about a controversial aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship: The latter’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
“I’m gonna take a look at it,” Trump says. “But you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.”
Aug. 1. A new CNN poll shows how Trump’s fortunes have flipped after the convention and the Khan controversy: He now trails by 9 points.
Trump holds a rally in Columbus, Ohio.
“It would be really nice if we got along with Russia and others that we don’t get along with right now," he tells the crowd. "And wouldn’t it be nice if we teamed up with Russia and others, including surrounding states and maybe NATO and we knocked the hell out of ISIS and got rid of these people?”
He also insists (as he did to Stephanopoulos) that Russia wouldn’t dare try to invade Ukraine while he’s president, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea on “Obama’s watch.”
Aug. 2. Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates join Kilimnik for dinner at the Grand Havana Room, a few blocks south of Trump Tower. There, the three apparently discuss a proposed peace agreement ending the Russian incursion into Ukraine, according to The Post’s reporting.
More interestingly, the redacted court document released last week suggests that Manafort and Gates may have also shared internal Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik. This handoff was first revealed when attorneys for Manafort failed to properly redact information from a separate court filing but it wasn’t known with certainty when the exchange allegedly happened.
The primary directive for Mueller’s investigation is to uncover possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s interference effort. While Manafort sharing polling data with a man believed to be linked to Russian intelligence isn’t a smoking gun, it does explain why Mueller’s team would see this meeting as being “very much [at] the heart” of the Mueller probe.
Gates and Manafort deliberately left the dinner separately from Kilimnik in order to avoid being seen together, according to the court document released last week.
Aug. 3. According to The Post’s reporting, a private jet belonging to the oligarch Oleg Deripaska lands at Newark Airport -- a short drive from Manhattan -- a few hours after the dinner meeting. A spokesperson for Deripaska denied to The Post that the flight was related to Kilimnik.
Later that day, another unusual meeting took place. At Trump Tower, Donald Trump Jr. meets with a representative for an Israeli firm that specializes in trying to influence people using social media. (The meeting was arranged by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, the brother of now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.)
Those present deny reaching an agreement with the campaign to deploy the firm’s tactics. But the New Yorker reported this week that, following the election, the firm’s owner Joel Zamal told a man named George Nader, who’d worked with Blackwater, that his company had “help[ed] get Trump elected." (The two first met, the New Yorker reported, at a June economic summit in St. Petersburg -- the same summit to which Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen had been invited as part of the effort to build that Trump skyscraper in Moscow.)
The timeline above encompasses only two weeks of events during the 2016 election during which:
- WikiLeaks began dumping material allegedly stolen by hackers linked to Russian intelligence,
- New attention was focused on Trump’s links to Russia,
- Trump repeatedly spoke in terms favorable to Russia,
- Trump’s poll numbers rose and then plunged,
- The FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and, of course,
- The candidate’s campaign chairman and deputy campaign chairman met with a man linked to Russian intelligence in order to possibly hand over polling data.
Add this period to your list of critical periods in the Russia investigation.