Written by Sharon Lafraniere, Kenneth P Vogel and Maggie Haberman
As a top official in President Donald Trump’s campaign, Paul Manafort shared political polling data with a business associate tied to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing unsealed Tuesday. The document provided the clearest evidence to date that the Trump campaign may have tried to coordinate with Russians during the 2016 presidential race.
Manafort’s lawyers made the disclosure by accident, through a formatting error in a document filed to respond to charges that he had lied to prosecutors working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, after agreeing to cooperate with their investigation into Russian interference in the election.
The document also revealed that during the campaign, Manafort and his Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, discussed a plan for peace in Ukraine. Throughout the campaign and the early days of the Trump administration, Russia and its allies were pushing various plans for Ukraine in the hope of gaining relief from U.S.-led sanctions imposed after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Prosecutors and the news media have documented a string of encounters between Russian operatives and Trump campaign associates dating from the early months of Trump’s bid for the presidency, including the now-famous meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan with a Russian lawyer promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The accidental disclosure by Manafort’s lawyers appeared to some experts to be perhaps most damning of all.
“This is the closest thing we have seen to collusion,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said of the data-sharing. “The question now is, did the president know about it?”
The document gave no indication of whether Trump was aware of the data transfer or how Kilimnik might have used the information. But from March to August 2016, when Manafort worked for the Trump campaign, Russia was engaged in a full-fledged operation using social media, stolen emails and other tactics to boost Trump, attack Clinton and play on divisive issues such as race, guns and immigration. Polling data could conceivably have helped Russia hone those messages and target audiences to help swing votes to Trump.
Both Manafort and Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager, transferred the data to Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 as 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.
Manafort asked that Kilimnik pass the data to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who has claimed that Manafort owed him money from a failed business venture, the person said. It is unclear whether Manafort was acting at the campaign’s behest or independently, trying to gain favor with someone to whom he was deeply in debt.
The surprise disclosures about Manafort were the latest in two years of steady revelations about contacts between associates of Trump and Russian officials or operatives. In another development Tuesday, the Russian lawyer who met with senior campaign officials at the Trump Tower in June 2016 was charged with obstruction of justice in an unrelated case. U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan claimed that the lawyer, Natalya Veselnitskaya, had pretended to a federal judge that she was purely a private defense lawyer when in fact she was working with the Russian government to thwart the civil prosecution of a Russian company.
Of the various Russian intermediaries to the Trump campaign, Kilimnik appears to be one of the most important to Mueller’s case. A Russian citizen and resident, he faces charges from Mueller’s team of tampering with witnesses who had information about Manafort, but Kilimnik is not expected to ever stand trial. He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment on Tuesday.
His relationship with Manafort dates back years. The two men worked together to promote a Russia-aligned politician, Viktor Yanukovych, who rose to Ukraine’s presidency, was ousted in a popular uprising and fled to Russia in 2014. The two men continued working together over the next three years as Manafort’s financial troubles grew and investigators began to probing a financial fraud scheme that eventually led to his conviction for 10 felonies.
In July 2016, after Manafort had been elevated to Trump campaign chairman, Manafort told Kilimnik he could provide campaign “briefings” to Deripaska, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.
In August 2016, apparently just before Manafort was fired from the Trump campaign, he and Kilimnik met to discuss a plan for Ukraine that seemed to further Russia’s interests. They also met several times afterward, including once in Madrid in early 2017. In an interview in Kiev in February 2017, Kilimnik suggested the plan would have involved reviving the political fortunes of Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian leader.
For Russia, trying to influence the incoming Trump administration’s policy on Ukraine was of paramount importance. The economic sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea damaged the Russian economy, and various emissaries have tried to convince administration officials to broker a resolution to a long-running guerrilla war between Russia and Ukraine.
In one previously reported case, for instance, an obscure Ukrainian lawmaker, Andrii Artemenko, worked with two associates of Trump, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen, to deliver one proposal to the White House. The plan landed on the desk of Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser, just before he was forced to resign.
In an interview Tuesday, Artemenko said investigators working for Mueller had questioned him extensively about his efforts to promote that plan. Artemenko said he knew neither Manafort nor Kilimnik and stressed that his plan was different from theirs.
Prosecutors have accused Manafort of lying not only about his interactions with Kilimnik, but about other matters including his contacts with senior administration officials in early 2017, and a payment related to a pro-Trump political action committee to cover his legal expenses. In November, after a dozen meetings with Manafort, they broke off the plea agreement with him, citing what they said was a series of deliberate lies.
In their filing, Manafort’s defense lawyers said Manafort never intentionally misled federal authorities. Instead, they cast him Manafort as a sick man, troubled by “severe” gout, as well as depression and anxiety, who made misstatements because of a faulty memory and lack of access to his own records.
They nevertheless said they would not seek a hearing to challenge the prosecutors’ allegations that he lied, a decision that brings Manafort one step closer to being sentenced for his crimes.
The decision not to seek a hearing reflected the dearth of legal choices for Manafort, 69, who has been in jail in Northern Virginia since mid-June. One prosecution resulted in his jury conviction in August for bank fraud, tax fraud and other financial crimes. A second led to his guilty plea in September on two conspiracy charges, including one stemming from a witness-tampering scheme with Kilimnik. He faces at least 10 years in prison. Kilimnik was also charged with witness tampering, though he is not expected to stand trial.
The plea agreement gives the prosecutors the power to almost unilaterally decide whether Manafort has violated it. Unless Manafort can show they acted in bad faith — a high bar — their judgment stands. The prosecutors could also decide to file new charges against Manafort for lying to them, but apparently they do not plan to do so, according to Tuesday’s filing.
“They have him so deeply in the soup here that what both sides are almost saying is that this doesn’t matter,” said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor.