For Mueller, It’s More Than A Cigar Room

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, departs Federal District Court, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, departs Federal District Court, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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February 8, 2019 5:32 pm
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It’s Rudy Giuliani’s favorite New York City hangout spot: the Grand Havana Room on Fifth Avenue.

The members-only club (located in a building owned by the Kushner family) played host to an August 2, 2016 meeting between then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian military intelligence staffer.

The meeting occurred two weeks before Manafort resigned as campaign chairman amid reports that his name appeared on an alleged bribe ledger in Ukraine, where he had worked for years.

But an unsealed transcript from Monday’s hearing in the Manafort case reveals new, intriguing details about the meeting.

“This goes, I think, very much to the heart of the what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating,” special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told Judge Amy Berman Jackson at the hearing. “And in 2016 there is an in-person meeting with someone who the Government has certainly proffered to this Court in the past, is understood by the FBI, assessed to be — have a relationship with Russian intelligence, that there is REDACTED.”

Weissmann appears to be referring to Kilimnik above.

Even though the juiciest parts of the transcript were redacted, Weissmann’s repeated mentions of the August cigar room meeting – and how Manafort may have lied about it – suggest something significant.

Specifically, Weissmann’s remarks suggest that prosecutors believe Manafort lied about refusing something that Kilimnik offered at the meeting, and then also lied about the August meeting being the last time that it was discussed.

“The defendant was pretty definitive that he did not continue to discuss it with Kilimnik after the initial August discussion,” Weissmann said. “But, there is evidence of meetings and conversations later, and he ultimately did confirm them in later sessions, and in the grand jury.”

Elsewhere in the transcript, Weissmann relayed what he appears to believe Manafort’s thinking was about what occurred at the smoky summit.

“And because of that, he was not going to countenance it,” Weissmann said, repeating his view of Manafort’s statement. “The idea was that the REDACTED itself, which was a backdoor REDACTED was a nonstarter for Mr. Manafort, according to him.”

Richard Westling, Manafort’s defense attorney, conceded in the hearing that “there continued to be discussions” about the unknown topic.

“And so it’s presented in August as REDACTED and it sort of resurfaces that way again in REDACTED and there is no real follow through,” he said. “But, clearly, that was not the only REDACTED, and it’s not the only one that Mr. Kilimnik was involved in.”

Kilimnik has commented on the meeting, telling the Washington Post in 2017 that he and Manafort discussed “unpaid bills” and “current news.”

At the time, speculation was building around ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The meeting also came one week after Wikileaks released a dump of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee.

Prosecutors said in their indictment of Roger Stone that a senior Trump campaign official had directed him to contact WikiLeaks over potential future releases. Stone later claimed it was Gates. If true, that would have been days before Gates attended the meeting with Kilimnik.

The hearing transcript also reveals that Manafort and Gates “took the precaution … of leaving separately” from the New York meeting.

Gates appears to have told prosecutors extensive details about the meeting from the transcript, but the content of those details are unclear.

The judge asked Weissmann what Kilimnik’s “role was in creating” a document apparently related to the meeting, although any further description of the document is redacted from the transcript.

Comparing the transcript to a filing from last month that Manafort’s attorneys failed to redact suggests that, broadly, the former Trump campaign manager and Kilimnik were discussing a potential “peace plan” to resolve the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

“During a proffer meeting held with the Special Counsel on September 11, 2018, 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,” Manafort’s defense attorneys wrote in the earlier filing.

So while it’s not clear what document Kilimnik had a “role in creating” in connection with the meeting, it would appear that a potential “peace plan” was in the ether at the time.

The judge had convened the hearing to discuss whether – and how – Manafort allegedly lied to prosecutors, supposedly breaking his plea agreement.

Weissmann pointed out that it was “an unusual time for somebody who is the campaign chairman” to be having an “in-person meeting” with Kilimnik. Over the previous month, Manafort and Kilimnik had communicated via email, in part reportedly to convey an offer to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska for private briefings on the campaign.

“That meeting and what happened at that meeting is of significance to the special counsel,” Weissmann added. 

He mysteriously went on to say that “in looking at the issue of what REDACTED, all are the focus of – and are raised by the issue of the August 2nd meeting.”

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