Why Did Manafort Share Trump Polling? Mueller Leaves Clues
(Bloomberg) -- Around the time in 2016 when Paul Manafort began sharing the Trump campaign’s internal polling data with an associate linked to Russian intelligence, each man was trying to advance an agenda.
Manafort was seeking to end a long-running business dispute with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. The associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, was peddling a peace plan that would give Moscow more influence in eastern Ukraine.
And Deripaska, who knew Manafort from the years of political consulting he had provided with Kilimnik’s help, was looking to reverse years of visa woes that had crimped his ability to move freely about the U.S.
That’s the backdrop described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference, which doesn’t conclude why Manafort, as chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign, directed the handover of polling data about the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Prosecutors were unable to determine what became of the data or if Deripaska received it. Kilimnik, in an email exchange on Thursday with Bloomberg News, said he had no ties to Russian intelligence and didn’t pass along detailed polling data.
“I never got any in-depth polling data,” Kilimnik said. “This is the main issue being misinterpreted. As someone who worked with Paul on political campaigns for over 10 years I was very much interested in the U.S. presidential race. The notion that I got detailed polling data on several key states is simply nonsense. I did not share it with anyone.”
The report paints the fullest picture yet of the motives and disguised actions by Manafort and Kilimnik, revealing that they had discussed the peace plan at least four times and that their correspondence continued into 2018.
“All that is required to start the process is a very minor ‘wink’ (or slight push)” from Trump, Kilimnik wrote in a Dec. 8, 2016, email as Trump was preparing to take office, “and a decision to authorize you to be a ‘special representative’ and manage this process.”
The 448-page Mueller report concluded that Trump’s campaign didn’t conspire with Russia to influence the election. Mueller’s office also didn’t identify evidence that Manafort’s sharing of polling data was connected to Russia’s meddling in the campaign.
Much about Manafort’s and Kilimnik’s relationship remains unknown, as Mueller blacked out sections about it. That leaves unresolved how or whether the polling data was used by the Russians, a tantalizing thread that could prompt investigations by Congress, prosecutors or counterintelligence officials.
“It’s deeply troubling that the campaign chairman was turning over polling data to an intelligence officer of an adversary who we already knew was interfering with the election,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor. “There’s just too much we don’t know about why the polling data was turned over -- whether it was to influence the Trump campaign or it was Manafort going rogue for his own profit.”
Trump, in response to written questions from Mueller, said he had no knowledge of the transfer of internal polling results.
Even more details could emerge if a federal judge in Washington decides to remove blacked-out portions of court filings about Manafort, 70, who pleaded guilty in September and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. Prosecutors said he lied repeatedly during debriefings, including about his interactions with Kilimnik. Manafort was sentenced to 7½ years in prison for tax and bank fraud, as well as conspiring to engage in illegal foreign lobbying and witness tampering.
In 2005, Manafort started offering his services as an international political consultant to Deripaska, who Mueller’s office describes as “closely aligned with Vladimir Putin,” the Russian president. Deripaska, who founded the aluminum producers En+ Group and United Co. Rusal, paid Manafort tens of millions of dollars over four years and lent him millions more, according to Mueller.
Deripaska used Manafort to “install friendly political officials in countries where Deripaska had business interests,” Mueller’s report says, citing an FBI interview with Manafort’s former right-hand man, Rick Gates. After pleading guilty to conspiracy and false statements, Gates cooperated with Mueller.
At the same time he worked for Deripaska, Manafort advised pro-Kremlin politicians in Ukraine, where he helped Viktor Yanukovych win the presidency in 2010. Manafort also grew close to several wealthy businessmen in Ukraine.
A translator linked by the FBI to Russian intelligence, Kilimnik was a key aide to Manafort because he had close access to Yanukovych and “multiple Ukrainian oligarchs,” according to Mueller. He also had a relationship with Deripaska’s deputy and facilitated many of Manafort’s communications with Deripaska, the report said.
Kilimnik had been fired from the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group with a mission to advance democracy, because “his links to Russian intelligence were too strong,” the report said. Gates also suspected that Kilimnik was a spy, according to the report.
In the Bloomberg interview, Kilimnik said: “I have never had any ties to the Russian intelligence. Or any other intelligence in the world.” He said Deripaska doesn’t know him. “He has zero reason to be aware of my existence,” Kilimnik said.
Kilimnik added that the peace plan he discussed with Manafort had nothing to do with Russian influence over eastern Ukraine.
“We were talking about Ukraine,” Kilimnik said. “There was no written plan of any kind. Paul has a much deeper understanding of Ukrainian politics than all ’Ukraine experts’ combined” and was looking for a way to bring stability to the country.
The relationship between Manafort and Deripaska soured after Deripaska invested $26 million in a failed cable-television venture backed by Manafort and Gates. The billionaire later sued the men.
After Yanukovych fled to Moscow in 2014, Manafort, Gates and Kilimnik began to work for a party known as the Opposition Bloc. But that work petered out, as well. By the time Manafort joined the Trump campaign on an unpaid basis in March 2016, he had “no meaningful income” but believed that reviving his U.S. career could help him in the future, according to the report.
Manafort said that joining the campaign would be “good for business,” Gates told Mueller. Gates also said that Kilimnik and Manafort discussed how to use the appointment to try to collect his Ukrainian political debts and persuade Deripaska to drop his litigation.
Deripaska wanted a visa to the U.S., Mueller’s report says. Gates said that “having Manafort in a position inside the campaign or administration might be helpful to Deripaska, and that Manafort’s relationship with Trump could help Deripaska in other ways,” according to Mueller.
Manafort offered Deripaska “private briefings” about the campaign, although Manafort told prosecutors they never took place. Gates told prosecutors he didn’t know what, if anything, Manafort was offering to Deripaska.
Gates told Mueller that Manafort ordered him in April or May 2016 to share polling data with Kilimnik that he could then pass along to Ukrainian oligarchs and Deripaska. At Manafort’s behest, Gates “periodically sent Kilimnik data” via an encrypted-messaging app and then deleted the communications daily. Gates told prosecutors that he believed the polling data let Manafort showcase his work and open doors to jobs after the campaign.
For his part, Manafort denied he told Gates to send internal data to Kilimnik, according to the report.
The report also spells out new details about how Kilimnik pushed a plan to enlist Manafort’s support for a “peace plan” in eastern Ukraine after the Russian invasion of Crimea. Under that plan, Yanukovych would serve as head of a newly autonomous region in Ukraine. Kilimnik pushed Manafort to secure Trump’s support if he was elected.
They discussed the peace plan for months, including at a meeting at an upscale New York cigar bar on Aug. 2, 2016, according to the report.
Kilimnik arrived in New York on a commercial flight, and around the time of the meeting, Deripaska arrived at a nearby airport on a private jet with his family. The report doesn’t indicate how Kilimnik returned home or the significance of Deripaska being nearby at the time of the meeting. Manafort told prosecutors he thought the plan was “crazy.”
Manafort and Kilimnik also discussed the plan at later meetings in Washington during Trump’s inauguration and in Madrid. If Manafort could get the process moving, Yanukovych would ensure his reception in Russia “at the very top level,” Kilimnik wrote, according to the report. The peace plan never took root.
After the election, Manafort initially sought to “monetize” his relationship with the new president as he traveled to the Middle East, Cuba, South Korea, Japan and China, collecting money “to explain what a Trump presidency would entail.”
Events unfolded badly for Manafort and Gates. They were charged in October 2017 for crimes related to their work in Ukraine, not on the Trump campaign. Kilimnik was later charged with Manafort in an attempt to tamper with witnesses.
Deripaska, for his part, was among the most prominent tycoons hit with sanctions by the Trump administration. The move followed passage of a law to retaliate against Moscow for its election interference. In April 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Deripaska and six other Russians it labeled oligarchs in response to the Kremlin’s “malign activity around the globe.”
In March, Deripaska sued the Treasury Department and Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asking a federal judge to lift the restrictions. In his complaint, the magnate said he was “the latest victim” of “political infighting and ongoing reaction to Russia’s purported interference” with the 2016 election.
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