Report details Manafort’s ties during 2016 Trump campaign to a Russian agent
By Sharon Lafraniere and Julian E. Barnes
Russian intelligence services pursued myriad avenues to influence the Trump campaign in 2016, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but none was more important than the relationship between campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a man who had been his friend and co-worker for years: a Russian intelligence officer named Konstantin Kilimnik.
Their link was “the single most direct tie between senior Trump campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services,” according to the fifth and final volume of the committee’s report on its bipartisan three-year investigation issued Tuesday.
While the interactions between the two men remain largely hidden, investigators found enough facts to declare that Manafort created “a grave counterintelligence threat” by sharing inside information about the presidential race with Kilimnik and the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs whom he served.
The report portrayed Manafort as deeply compromised by years of business dealings with those oligarchs. Collectively, they had paid him tens of millions of dollars, lent him millions more and may also have owed him millions.
These complex financial entanglements apparently figured in Manafort’s decision to give Kilimnik inside campaign information, including confidential polling data and details of Trump’s campaign strategy. The report builds on other evidence suggesting that Manafort hoped that Kilimnik would open up lucrative business deals with the oligarchs in return or that they would consider the value of the information as its own form of payment.
The committee had little explanation for the connection between the two men, citing Manafort’s lies to federal authorities, coupled with the care the two men took to protect their communications, as roadblocks to learning more.
“What did the Russians do with all this information, how did they use it, did they use it?” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, asked in an interview Tuesday. “Those are serious counterintelligence questions we may never get the full answer on.”
The report said Kilimnik was Manafort’s link to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has acted “as a proxy for the Russian state and intelligence services” since at least 2004, when Manafort apparently met him, the report said.
Deripaska, who has worked to install pro-Kremlin governments around the globe, initially hired Manafort as a political consultant, the report said. A group of pro-Russia oligarchs in Ukraine later became the financiers of Manafort’s operations to help Viktor Yanukovych, a politician aligned with Russia, become Ukraine’s president.
Despite questions about who was behind Kilimnik — both financially and politically — Manafort increasingly depended on him. But by 2014, the Ukraine work had dried up.
Yanukovych had been forced out as president after a popular uprising and fled to Russia. Manafort claimed the Ukrainian oligarchs had stiffed him out of millions for his work for Yanukovych. And Deripaska was trying to collect from Manafort for a failed private equity deal in Eastern Europe.
Now broke, Manafort volunteered to work for the Trump campaign, which hired him in March 2016. In a memo, Manafort offered to brief Deripaska on “this development with Trump.”
Manafort also speedily passed along the news of his new job to Kilimnik, who traveled to the United States specifically to meet him in May and again in August 2016. According to the report, Manafort was forthcoming: He briefed Kilimnik on Trump’s path to victory and his strategy to win in battleground states.
After he rose to campaign chairman, Manafort also instructed his deputy, Rick Gates, to periodically share confidential Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, including surveys showing what voters most disliked about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent. Gates “understood that Kilimnik would share the information with Deripaska,” the report said.
The transfer of internal campaign data to a known Russian agent is “about as clear a coordination or cooperation between two entities as could be established,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent on the Intelligence Committee who votes with Democrats.
The committee said it found evidence — redacted for national security reasons — that Kilimnik may have been involved in the covert effort by the Russian government to hack into the computer networks of Democratic organizations and funnel damaging emails to the rogue website WikiLeaks, which released them just before the election.
The report also cited but did not reveal information it said potentially links Manafort to that operation, which was by far Russia’s most significant effort to disrupt the American election.
Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign in August 2016 amid a growing scandal over his work in Ukraine. He later told the FBI that he had briefed Trump on his Ukraine work before the campaign hired him, but “did not go into detail because Trump was not interested.”
After he was convicted of orchestrating a financial fraud scheme, Manafort agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in the election.
The prosecutors were especially eager to question him about Kilimnik, who was also indicted on charges of obstruction of justice but could not be extradited. Kilimnik has denied any ties to Russian intelligence services.
Prosecutors ultimately decided that Manafort was lying to them and pulled out of a plea agreement with him. He is now serving his 7 1/2-year prison sentence at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After he was indicted, Manafort purchased a pay-as-you-go phone, the report said. One primary purpose was to talk to Kilimnik.