(Bloomberg Opinion) — “This is what collusion looks like.”
That is how five Democratic senators, including vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, view the fifth and final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Their argument rests on new evidence, which they say shows that Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for President Donald Trump, “was directly connected to the Russian meddling through his communications with an individual found to be a Russian intelligence officer.”
It’s a devastating claim. The report itself, however, paints a more nuanced picture, though no less horrifying.
Start with the Russian intelligence agent. He is a 50-year old man named Konstantin Kilimnik. The committee refers to him as a “Russian intelligence officer.” But Kilimnik does not have an official role in any Russian intelligence service. Instead, he “is part of a cadre of individuals ostensibly operating outside of the Russian government but who nonetheless implement Kremlin-directed influence operations.” Those initiatives are often funded by oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s March 2019 report disclosed that Manafort funneled internal campaign polling and strategy documents to Kilimnik during the campaign. The Senate’s report fills in the blanks about their relationship.
Manafort has known Kilimnik since at least 2005, when Manafort began working as a consultant to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Kilimnik, in addition to being a kind of Russian spy, was also a close aide to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Manafort had numerous business dealings with Deripaska over more than a decade, including influence operations that targeted countries in Europe, Africa and other former Soviet republics such as Georgia.
By 2016, however, Manafort and Deripaska had had a falling out. Deripaska had sued Manafort for money he lost in a joint business venture. Instead of money — perhaps in lieu of payment — Manafort sent information to Deripaska, using Kilimnik as a go-between.
The Senate committee “was unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik,” the report says. It does say that Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, “both claimed that it was part of an effort to resolve past business disputes and obtain new work with their past Russian and Ukrainian clients.”
After Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August 2016, he kept up his relationship with both Kilimnik and some Trump campaign officials, such as the presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kilimnik and Manafort schemed, for example cooking up a plan to persuade the president-elect to endorse a “peace plan” for Ukraine that would have cemented the gains won by Russia after its stealth invasion in 2014. Both men also communicated about how to counter the narrative that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election and discussed a communications strategy to pin the election interference on Ukraine.
The report does not conclude that Kilimnik was involved in the Russian intelligence operation to hack Democratic Party emails and then publicize them through Wikileaks and other Russian backed websites. Rather, it says it has “information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.” It goes on to say: “While this information suggests that a channel for coordination on the GRU hack-and-leak operation may have existed through Kilimnik, the Committee had limited insight into Kilimnik’s communications with Manafort and [redacted], all of whom used sophisticated communications security practices.”
Regardless of whether Kilimnik was involved in the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails, the larger point is that Trump’s former campaign manager was so close to a Russian spy. That’s something both parties should condemn.
At the same time, the report raises some deeper questions. According to the report, Kilimnik worked for the International Republican Institute, a congressionally funded, nominally nonpartisan organization, from 1995 to 2005. He has claimed that he ended his work for the Russian government before joining. He was fired from his post in 2005, after the institute learned that he was working with Manafort.
Nonetheless, Kilimnik was in “regular contact” with personnel serving in the political section of the U.S. embassy in Kiev until late 2016. To be sure, many U.S. diplomats were wary of him. But he was able in January 2017 to secure a visa to the U.S., where he met with Manafort.
If Kilimnik was a Russian spy for this entire period — and the report gives evidence that indeed he was — then why didn’t the FBI or CIA do more to protect the U.S. embassy, or for that matter the International Republican Institute, from Kilimnik’s schemes?
A similar problem arises with Deripaska, the long-time associate of Manafort who the report accuses of masterminding political-influence campaigns from Cyprus to Montenegro. Between 2014 and 2016, the FBI tried to recruit him as a source. The bureau was rebuffed, and he reportedly told the Kremlin about the approach.
The new report finds that Christopher Steele, the former British spy who was contracted to produce the now-discredited dossier on the Trump campaign’s ties to the Kremlin, also had contracts with Deripaska — at the same time he was compiling his dossier on Trump. “The Committee found multiple links between Steele and Deripaska, including through two of Deripaska’s lawyers, and indications that Deripaska had early knowledge of Steele’s work,” the report says. “Steele had worked for Deripaska, likely beginning at least in 2012, and continued to work for him into 2017, providing a potential direct channel for Russian influence on the dossier.”
Steele’s dossier makes a number of allegations against Manafort that the FBI was never able to confirm. And yet it never mentions one damning and true fact about him: namely, Manafort’s longstanding ties to Deripaska.
Yet the FBI used that dossier to help obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, and pressed to include its findings in the annex of the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. After it became public in January 2017, the dossier also helped to shape the public narrative about Trump in the first two years of his presidency.
Finally: It’s worth noting that, for most of the last two decades, the two men most responsible for protecting America from Russian threats are Robert Mueller and James Comey, who together directed the FBI from 2001 to 2017. It’s a pity that the FBI only got around to doing something about people such as Kilimnik and Deripaska — not to mention opportunistic Americans like Paul Manafort — until after the 2016 election.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.