The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clue in Mueller filing suggests Manafort kept working on topic of interest to Russia after indictment

Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves federal court after a hearing in Washington in May 2018. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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In a tiny font at the top of the 82nd page of a lengthy document filed in court this week by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is a key clue to his ongoing interest in Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman.

The four words of unredacted text suggest that in February 2018 — four months after Manafort was first charged with crimes related to his work as a political consultant in Ukraine — he still appears to have been working on a peace initiative for Ukraine, a topic of intense interest to Russia.

And it suggests he was doing so in concert with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian employee of his consulting firm who is alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence.

The revelation, potentially inadvertent, comes as Manafort and Mueller’s legal team have been battling in court over whether Manafort lied to prosecutors after he pleaded guilty in September to conspiring against the United States with his Ukraine work and agreed to cooperate with the probe.

Revelations about Manafort’s 2016 interactions with Russian associate show special counsel’s intense focus on Russia contacts

Muellers’ team on Tuesday filed a 32-page declaration — along with dozens of heavily redacted exhibits — intended to provide evidence of Manafort’s lies to a judge.

Nearly half of the filing is devoted to Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik, including a section related to their communications in 2018, a sign of Mueller’s ongoing interest in what Manafort discussed with his younger Russian employee.

According to court documents, the FBI has assessed that Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence as recently as 2016. In a 2017 statement to The Washington Post, Kilimnik denied any connection to intelligence services.

Manafort’s attorneys first revealed prosecutors’ interest in Manafort’s work in a Ukraine peace plan in a filing last week. They had intended to file the information under seal but it became public because of a formatting error. That filing showed that investigators had asked Manafort about “one or more” conversations he had with Kilimnik about a Ukraine peace plan, as well as polling data Manafort passed to Kilimnik while working for Trump.

Based on their description in the filing, Manafort appeared to have discussed both topics with Kilimnik in 2016 while he was serving as Trump’s campaign chairman.

But a tiny detail in the heavily redacted declaration filed by prosecutors Monday indicates that Manafort was working on a possible Ukrainian plan as late as 2018.

In February last year, Manafort emailed to two unnamed people a Microsoft Word document, according to the filing.

The document related to a topic that prosecutors wrote that Manafort “had not mentioned . . . during any of his twelve interviews” with investigators this fall after he agreed to cooperate.

To demonstrate that Manafort was personally involved in the writing of the document, prosecutors explained that metadata associated with the document showed that it had been altered by Manafort. To prove the point, they attached a picture of the metadata as an exhibit.

They redacted a number of details on that exhibit, but at the top of the page, in text that was perhaps inadvertently left visible, was the title of the Word document Manafort had been working on: “New initiative for Peace.”

Spokesmen for Mueller and Manafort declined to comment.

The situation in Ukraine is an issue of prime importance to Russia, which invaded Crimea in 2014, leading to the imposition of burdensome U.S. sanctions. The Kremlin has been eager to find a solution for the region that would result in international recognition of Russia’s claims on Crimea and the lifting of sanctions.

Any indication that Manafort gave during the campaign that a future Trump administration might back such a plan would have provided powerful incentive for Russia to support Trump’s campaign.

There could also have been personal financial benefits for Manafort, who court documents show had made more than $60 million working in Ukraine. The flow of money dried up when his chief Ukrainian client, President Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Moscow following public protests in 2014. Documents show Manafort was deeply in debt by 2016, when he went to work for Trump for free.

Manafort’s attorneys have argued that he did not lie to prosecutors about his discussions with Kilimnik about the peace plan and other topics, but merely had a fuzzy memory about conversations that took place in 2016, while he was busy working as Trump’s campaign chairman.

“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,” they wrote.

The new details indicate that Manafort continued to pursue a possible deal, even as it was clear that his every move was being closely scrutinized by Mueller’s team.

The FBI had conducted a predawn raid of his Virginia condo in July 2017. By October, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted him on charges that including failing to register as a foreign lobbyist while working in Ukraine.

In February 2018, as Manafort exchanged emails about the “initiative for peace” document, there were extensive news reports that Rick Gates, his longtime deputy in Ukraine who had also been charged in October, was preparing to plead guilty and provide information about Manafort’s work to Mueller.

Indeed, one day after Manafort emailed the “initiative for peace” document, he and Gates were charged a second time by Mueller’s team — this time in Virginia, where they were accused of engaging in tax and bank fraud related to their handling of their Ukraine profits. The following day, Gates pleaded guilty.

The new documents show that Mueller is also exploring whether Manafort had ongoing contact with the White House — suggesting Manafort may have believed he retained pull with the Trump administration, even as he wrestled with unfolding legal problems.

He also remained in contact with Kilimnik, the filing shows.

A Russian army veteran and talented linguist, Kilimnik had gone to work for Manafort in Kiev in 2005 and had emerged over the years as a key Manafort aide. He served as Manafort’s liaison to top Ukrainian and Russian politicians and business leaders, including Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who is close to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and was a Manafort business associate.

Experts on the region say that Russia saw an opening with Trump’s election, prompting a variety of players to circulate peace proposals for Ukraine as he took office that were generally acceptable to the Kremlin.

In February 2017, Kilimnik told Radio Europe/Radio Liberty that he was working on one proposal that would pave the way for Yanukovych’s return to power. He said in the interview that Manafort was not involved.