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The Senate’s ‘grave’ Russia report: What we learned, and what it means

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is escorted into court for his arraignment in June. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released its fifth and final report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and the notably bipartisan report raises plenty of new questions about that effort’s links to the Trump campaign.

The report, like its predecessors, does not allege a conspiracy or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But it does detail significant new information and raises questions about potentially vital information that has been withheld both by Trump allies and the administration — and renders the full picture of what happened obscured to this day.

Below are some of the most important things we learned.

1. Trump’s and Barr’s hoax narrative suffers a blow

Attorney General William P. Barr has picked up on President’s Trump’s allegation that the Russia probe was a “witch hunt” and has tasked U.S. Attorney John Durham with investigating its origins. When Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz reported that the investigation was properly predicated, Barr and Durham issued highly unusual statements disputing that.

The new report, though, makes that argument significantly more difficult.

Not only does it point to additional bases for the investigation, but it’s the product of a bipartisan committee in the GOP-led Senate.

Chief among the revelations is the role of Konstantin Kilimnik. The report describes the ally of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a “Russian intelligence officer” — going beyond special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s more anodyne contention that Kilimnik had “ties to Russian intelligence.”

And the report says the regular and increasing contact between Manafort and this alleged Russian officer during the campaign, as detailed by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, constituted a “grave” threat.

“The Committee found that Manafort's presence on the Campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign,” the report says. “Taken as a whole, Manafort's high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik and associates of [Putin-linked Russian oligarch] Oleg Deripaska, represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

The committee also cleared former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos of knowingly conspiring with Russians, but it said his contacts raised a very valid concern on that front as well.

“The Committee further found that Papadopoulos’s efforts introduced him to several individuals that raise counterintelligence concerns, due to their associations with individuals from hostile foreign governments as well as actions these individuals undertook,” the report says. It added that while Papadopoulos wasn’t a “willing cooptee,” he “nonetheless presented a prime intelligence target and potential vector for malign Russian influence.”

“Grave counterintelligence threat.” “Prime intelligence target … for malign Russian influence.” Roger Stone’s claims to working with WikiLeaks. It’s one thing for Mueller and even this report to have found no proof of a conspiracy, but this report makes clear there were very big reasons to suspect there might be. And just because an investigation doesn’t prove a crime doesn’t mean it was illegitimate.

2. Manafort’s coverup

To that point, the report even leaves open the possibility that there was some kind of coordination that we simply don’t know about.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, like Mueller and the House intelligence committee before it, does not allege collusion or a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. But it does suggest certain very important aspects of potential coordination have been covered up and that we still don’t have the full picture.

For one, it says the Trump administration was not forthcoming with its requests, often offering very broad assertions of executive privilege with which it disagreed.

Perhaps more interestingly, though, it notes that what it labels the “single most direct tie” between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence — Manafort and Kilimnik — remains obscured because Manafort lied so much.

The report noted that Manafort sacrificed his plea deal with Mueller by lying repeatedly and that his lies mostly pertained to one thing: his contacts with Kilimnik, whom the report describes as being “at the center of the Committee’s investigation."

“Manafort's obfuscation of the truth surrounding Kilimnik was particularly damaging to the Committee's investigation because it effectively foreclosed direct insight into a series of interactions and communications which represent the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services,” the report states. “Manafort’s true motive in deciding to face more severe criminal penalties rather than provide complete answers about his interactions with Kilimnik is unknown, but the result is that many interactions between Manafort and Kilimnik remain hidden.”

The committee says Kilimnik might even have been involved in Russia disseminating hacked emails, citing “fragmentary” evidence. It also says two pieces of information “raise the possibility of Manafort’s potential connection to” the hack and leaks. (Details of the evidence in both cases are redacted.)

So it’s saying basically that it has reason to believe there might have been some kind of connection between the two, but that Manafort covered up the whole thing and we may never know the full truth.

Secondly — and conspicuously — it raises the idea that Manafort’s lies on this count are inexplicable because he effectively resigned himself to more jail time. Raising that unknown motive isn’t necessary, but it would seem to have been included for a reason.

Trump has floated a pardon for Manafort, whom he’s said has been treated unfairly. This report would seem to make that less politically viable.

3. Questions about the thoroughness of previous reports

Another reason that the focus on Kilimnik is notable is that he hasn’t been so central to previous reports — and was utterly ignored in the House GOP’s report.

The House intelligence committee’s report didn’t even mention Kilimnik once, as Politico’s Kyle Cheney noted. The report was issued in 2018, when Republicans still controlled the Chamber and the committee was riven with partisanship.

Mueller’s report also doesn’t dwell as much upon this connection, detailing Kilimnik’s alleged ties to Russian intelligence and meetings he had with Manafort during the campaign. It also noted that Manafort shared internal Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik but doesn’t lean into the idea that he could have been the kind of conduit that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report implies.

The assertions about Kilimnik’s centrality to all this certainly raise questions about how much emphasis was placed on him by these other investigations. It’s difficult to get the full picture of such a foreign-led effort no matter how much time is spent investigating. But at the very least, this bipartisan report from the GOP-led Senate suggests the GOP-led House intelligence committee wasn’t terribly curious about something of huge importance.