In that latter group was a man named Konstantin Kilimnik.
Kilimnik, who was indicted by Mueller’s team, sat at the center of one of the more obvious places where the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump might have intersected with Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected. Kilimnik had worked with Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for years before Manafort joined the campaign effort despite (or perhaps because of) his sketchy connections to Russia. One of Manafort’s primary clients in the years before his volunteering to work for Trump without pay was a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. Their mutual colleague Rick Gates told various people that he believed Kilimnik was a “spy,” according to Mueller’s report, but that didn’t keep the three from sharing information during the campaign — while both Gates and Manafort worked directly for Trump.
On Aug. 2, 2016, with Manafort running the Trump campaign and Gates serving as his deputy, the three met at a cigar club in midtown Manhattan. Beforehand, Manafort had asked Gates to print out campaign polling data, information that Manafort apparently gave Kilimnik that evening.
Mueller’s report describes the meeting:
“They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states. Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”
At another point, the report goes into more detail about that ongoing exchange of information.
“Manafort instructed Rick Gates, his deputy on the Campaign and a longtime employee, to provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump Campaign — including internal polling data, although Manafort claims not to recall that specific instruction. Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and with Deripaska. Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.”
The “Deripaska” referred to is Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort’s whom the campaign chairman had been eager to impress with his position on the campaign. (Hours after the Aug. 2 meeting, a plane belonging to Deripaska landed in New Jersey; his team denies any link to the meeting.)
This was as close as Mueller got to demonstrating a connection between Trump’s campaign and the Russian effort to aid his candidacy, an effort that included both a bid to influence public opinion using social media and the release of data stolen from the Democratic Party and a senior staffer for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent. It left unanswered two questions: How close was Kilimnik to Russian intelligence, and what did he do with the polling information he’d received?
The Mueller report acknowledged both uncertainties, writing that “Because of questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the [special counsel’s team] could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.”
Last year, one of those questions was answered. A bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee identified Kilimnik explicitly as an agent of the Russian government: “Kilimnik,” it read, “is a Russian intelligence officer.”
At another point, the report brushes up against the second question.
“The Committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election,” it read. The GRU is the intelligence arm of the Russian military and has been identified as the group that stole the information from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman that was later released by WikiLeaks. The implication, then, is that there was not only a connection between Kilimnik and Russia broadly but specifically to the team directly involved in the interference effort.
“During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy. Additionally, Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the statement read.
“Kilimnik has also sought to assist designated former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. At Yanukovych’s direction, Kilimnik sought to institute a plan that would return Yanukovych to power in Ukraine,” it read.
Yanukovych was a member of the pro-Russian party for which Manafort had worked, the Party of Regions.
That one sentence, though, appears to finally complete the long-speculated line from Trump’s campaign to Russian intelligence. It goes like this, according to the aggregated information compiled by various parts of the government:
- Trump hires
- Manafort to run his campaign. Manafort then orders
- Gates, his deputy, to provide polling and strategy information to
- Kilimnik, their longtime colleague and, according to the Senate committee, a Russian intelligence officer. Kilimnik then shares that information with
- Russian intelligence agents.
It’s important to note that there is 1) no evidence at this point that Trump knew about the sharing of that information or 2) that Russia did much with the information it obtained. There were targeted ads from Russian actors during the campaign, but there remains no good evidence that those ads were targeted with insider information (much less well-targeted in general) nor that they had much of an effect.
What is instead revealed is that the government’s concern about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia — links that extended to other members of Trump’s team — was in this case probably warranted. Manafort’s presence in the campaign prompted head-scratching from the outset, given his ties to various international ne’er-do-wells. He had been on the radar of federal intelligence agencies for years. It’s not surprising, then, that this link should be demonstrated. It just took awhile for the line to be drawn as clearly as it was Thursday morning.
Among the reasons that Mueller’s team couldn’t draw that line clearly in the first place was that Manafort misled investigators (spurring false-statement charges) and otherwise refused to offer a detailed assessment of his time on the campaign.
Two days before Christmas last year, Trump, by then a lame duck, granted Manafort a pardon.