The ‘Collusion’ Debate Ended Last Night

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[Ed. Note: Early this afternoon, the Times published a correction. Manafort asked for his campaign data to be passed not to Oleg Deripaska but two pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs named Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, financial backers of Viktor Yanukovych. This is a major correction and a major error. But as I explain here, I don’t think it changes the big picture. Manafort was sending confidential campaign data back to pro-Russian figures in Ukraine while Russia was conducting a major effort to elect Donald Trump. I’ve left the post below as written before the Times‘ correction.]

As I signaled last night, the seemingly accidental redaction error in the Manafort legal filing combined with the news published mid-evening by The New York Times is one of the biggest revelations in more than two years of the Trump/Russia scandal. It’s bigger than the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, though the two cases can’t be fully understood without reference to each other. Just as importantly, these new revelations combined with earlier reports effectively end the debate about whether there was ‘collusion’ between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. There was. It wasn’t marginal. It was happening at the very top of the campaign. The campaign manager was secretly funneling campaign data and information to a Russian oligarch closely tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, someone who had no possible use for such information other than to use it in the Russian efforts to get Donald Trump elected President.

Let’s review the key details.

According to the Manafort court filing, the Special Counsel’s Office charged that Manafort had lied about sharing “polling data” about the 2016 campaign with his former Ukrainian deputy Konstantin Kilimnik, a man who US intelligence believes is himself tied to Russian intelligence. Given that Manafort had also told Kilimnik to offer briefings on the campaign to Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, it was a reasonable surmise that handing over the polling data was meant for Deripaska as well. Then yesterday mid-evening, The New York Times confirmed as much.

Here are the two crucial paragraphs (emphasis added).

Both Mr. Manafort and Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager, transferred the data to Mr. Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 as Mr. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, according to a person knowledgeable about the situation. Most of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign, according to the person.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who has claimed that Mr. Manafort owed him money from a failed business venture, the person said. It is unclear whether Mr. Manafort was acting at the campaign’s behest or independently, trying to gain favor with someone to whom he was deeply in debt.

It seems like there’s a good chance this information stems from Rick Gates, if not from Gates himself. However that may be, Manafort allegedly gave instructions to hand the data to Deripaska. The first paragraph suggests a bit more detail. It says both men – Manafort and Gates – “transferred data to Mr. Kilimnik.” This suggests that there were multiple transfers, that both men were transferring data and that it was presumably an on-going process of transfer. It’s possible that that sentence is just clumsily worded and it actually refers just to both men being involved in a single transfer. Manafort gives the data to Gates with instructions to give it to Kilimnik with instructions to give it to Deripaska. But that’s doubtful. What’s crystal clear is that the transfer to Kilimnik came with explicit instructions to give the information to Deripaska. And that’s enough.

Deripaska is close to Putin and he has zero use for campaign data about a US election, other than to use it for the then on-going Russian campaign to elect Donald Trump. Remember too that Manafort was in dire financial straits and Deripaska was hunting him down to collect a $19 million debt. Just last week Time tracked down the man Deripaska tasked with getting his money from Manafort. “He owed us a lot of money,” Victor Boyarkin told Time. “And he was offering ways to pay it back … I came down on him hard.”

Victor Boyarkin (Facebook)

This is all pretty clear cut. We’re not talking about vague conversations in which quid pro quos or campaign cooperation could have happened. It did happen. Manafort appears to concede passing on the campaign data. The Times appears to have reliable sourcing confirming that the data came with the explicit instructions to pass it to Deripaska.

But none of this can be fully understood without murkier but now quite significant information first reported more than a year ago. Signals intercepts from mid-2016 about Manafort allegedly working with Russian intelligence to help the Trump campaign was one of the key factors that kicked off the investigation during the election. This goes back to the very beginning. Here’s a key paragraph from an August 2017 report from CNN.

CNN has learned that investigators became more suspicious when they turned up intercepted communications that US intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, who served as campaign chairman for three months, to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, the US officials say. The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.

This is, to put it mildly, pretty damning information. But anyone familiar with intelligence work will quickly note that it can’t necessarily be taken at face value. Intelligence operatives will sometimes intentionally feed false information over channels they know are monitored. In other cases, people will boast about things that simply aren’t true. Maybe someone is friends with Manafort and wants to puff up their importance with their Russian intelligence handlers or associates. So they say that Manafort is coordinating with them when he’s not. These are real possibilities.

So while the evidence is important and looks bad, it has to be interpreted with caution. But now we appear to have clear cut evidence from the other side that Manafort was doing precisely what was claimed: passing on confidential campaign data to a high-level Russian oligarch who Manafort knew from long experience was closely tied to Putin and the Russian intelligence services. There’s really no question about whether there was collusion. We have it right here in front of us.

Some are speculating that this information could have been what Russian intelligence used to guide its campaign in the second half of 2016. We don’t know that. More importantly, we don’t need to know that. What is relevant is intent and action, not effectiveness.

According to the Times these transfers happened in the “spring” of 2016, so as late as the end of May, by normal reckoning. In early June, in the emails leading up to the Trump Tower meeting, Manafort would learn directly, if he didn’t already know it, of the Russian government’s formal efforts to help elect Donald Trump. In mid June, if he didn’t already know it, he’d have read public reports about Russian hacking into the DNC servers. After all that, we know from Manafort’s own email that in mid-July he was still pushing Kilimnik to tell Deripaska he could give him personal briefings on the state of the campaign. Again, just how much help this campaign data provided isn’t the point. What’s relevant is that Manafort was providing it on an on-going basis to a man at the center of the Kremlin power structure, information with only one use. He kept pushing his usefulness and more information after he had direct private and public evidence of the Russian campaign.

How much collusion there was, how deeply Donald Trump was knowingly a part of it, remains to be seen. The fact of collusion is established. Not through some marginal member of the operation but by the man Trump chose to run his campaign.

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