It’s getting harder to figure out what diehard believers in the Mueller investigation and its premises think is going to come from the probe.
The publication on 14 September of the charging document for Paul Manafort’s plea agreement in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. shows that Manafort’s plea will be for multiple counts of bank and tax fraud, and arranging a lobbying campaign for Ukrainian partisan interests without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The activities in question took place between 2006 and 2015.
None of the charges has anything to do with Trump or the 2016 Trump campaign. Accordingly, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders put out a press statement on the matter reading:
This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated.
The charging document is indeed totally unrelated. Vox summarizes what appears to be the hope of Trump’s opponents: that Manafort’s promise to “cooperate fully” in exchange for the plea agreement will loosen his lips regarding things that are unrelated to what he is pleading to.
The suggestion is that Manafort will “provide important information” about the Trump Tower meeting on 9 June 2016 between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump, Jr. Vox also mentions two Russians with whom Manafort has been connected: Putin crony Oleg Deripaska and “former Russian intelligence” official Konstantin Kilimnik. The suggestion here is that Manafort will reveal links between these Russians and Trump.
Perhaps, says Vox, there are also other Russians, unknown to anyone but the Mueller team, on whose ties to Trump Manafort can enlighten us.
Lots of known Russian links – but not to Trump
The problem is that you have to simply ignore two glaring realities about the overall situation to buy the narrative that Paul Manafort holds the key to dark, secret things we don’t know yet.
One of those realities is that we have a whole lot of information already about the context in which Manafort was organizing lobbying campaigns between 2006 and early 2015 on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, who as a Ukrainian politician aligned with Russian agendas and policies.
Manafort had taken on Yanukovych as a client in 2005. But one aspect of this context is that in the 2013-2014 period, a major lobbying contractor paid by the Davis Manafort firm to actually do the representing for Yanukovych was Tony Podesta’s Podesta Group. Tony Podesta is the brother of John Podesta, the close associate of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and top official in Hillary’s 2016 campaign. Everywhere the Manafort charging document refers to the unnamed Company B that represented the interests of the “Centre” (the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine), the company in question was the Podesta Group. We have known about that connection since at least 2013 (following links).
It is very much worth noting that the Podesta Group failed to register under FARA when it was representing Yanukovych and his interests in the U.S. Podesta committed the same infraction as Manafort in that regard. But Podesta was allowed to register retroactively in April 2017, without being prosecuted.
Moreover, the Podesta Group, as a paid participant in Manafort’s lobbying campaign, was lobbying the Obama administration. At no time has Podesta or Manafort lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych. All the action in the Manafort charging document took place while Obama was in office (with a few money-laundering events apparently from the Bush years). For reference, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were the Secretaries of State.
(It also bears mentioning that lobbying in the U.S. on behalf of Ukrainian partisan politics is hardly new. Before Podesta took up the cudgels for Yanukovych, the firm Wiley Rein put in an intensive D.C. lobbying effort for rival politician Yulia Tymoshenko. This effort, spearheaded by former Democratic congressman Jim Slattery, targeted the Hillary Clinton State Department in 2011-2012, and was credited with influencing Obama administration policy positively for Tymoshenko. But more on that below.)
So, to summarize: Manafort hired Podesta to lobby the Obama administration on behalf of Russian-affiliated Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych in 2013-2014. That had nothing to do with Trump. The Manafort charges in connection with “Ukraine,” “Russians,” and “lobbying” were almost all about activities during and involving the Obama administration.
Activities in those same categories occurred during the Bush 43 and Clinton administrations too, including some from the Bush tenure that figure in the Manafort charges. But what Manafort is copping to is not something inherently nefarious because it’s about Ukrainians, Russians, and lobbying. He’s copping to not registering under FARA to do it, and to money-laundering to hide his profits from it.
Regarding Oleg Deripaska, it is quite literally laughable, the degree to which he has had overt and documented connections to Obama associates and the accusers (as opposed to Trump) in the Russiagate drama.
Christopher Steele, the nominal author of the dossier commissioned through Fusion GPS by Hillary and the DNC, was working for both Fusion GPS and Oleg Deripaska in 2016, when the dossier was being injected into U.S. government and political activities. (See Lee Smith’s early pick-up on this.)
In fact, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr knew that in 2016, when he was in contact with Steele discussing the dossier. That’s because Steele pressed Ohr repeatedly for information and favors on behalf of his client Deripaska.
Deripaska needed favors (like special, conditional visas to enter the U.S) because he’s been in bad odor with U.S. law enforcement for years due to his links with Russian organized crime. In case it needs pointing out, that means the FBI has been tracking Deripaska for a long time.
However, the Obama Justice Department had also dealt with him directly, when Deripaska cooperated with the Obama administration between 2009 and 2011 in an effort to secure the release from Iran of Robert Levinson, a CIA contractor who was seized by the Iranians (on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf) in 2007. Deripaska reportedly spent $25 million of his own money to set up Levinson’s release. But the deal was spiked at the last minute by the Hillary Clinton State Department.
The “former Russian intelligence” agent
With Konstantin Kilimnik, we cycle back to the influence sought in 2012 on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukrainian rival. Kilimnik is referred to in most reporting as a Russian operative, “formerly” (and probably continuingly) associated with Russian intelligence, who worked for Manafort’s team in Kiev. Apparently, Kilimnik was working for Manafort from just about the time Manafort first took Yanukovych as a client; i.e., in 2005 or 2006.
But a significant point about Kilimnik is that he was connected with a briefing written by another U.S. firm Manafort hired to burnish up Yanukovych’s image. The briefing was a defense of legal proceedings Yanukovych had brought against Tymoshenko – and the timeframe in question was 2011-2012, the same time the firm Wiley Rein was representing Tymoshenko in its lobbying of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.
The U.S. firm in question was the New York-based law practice Skadden Arps (links above). And the lawyer spearheading this effort was Obama’s former White House counsel Greg Craig – also a White House lawyer under Clinton and senior adviser to Ted Kennedy and Madeleine Albright.
The charging document for a largely overlooked Mueller scalp, Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, a former associate at Skadden Arps, provided the particulars on Kilimnik’s collaboration with Craig on the pro-Yanukovych briefing. Kilimnik is referred to in the document as “Person A.”
Van der Zwaan’s plea was to making false statements; there was nothing inherently illegal about his, Skadden Arps’, or Manafort’s lobbying work on behalf of Yanukovych. (If you preferred Tymoshenko politically, of course, you didn’t like it much. And none of this means that on other counts, Manafort wasn’t a sleaze-bag.)
So, to summarize: Manafort hired Skadden Arps to prepare a positive brief on Yanukovych’s legal campaign against Tymoshenko, for which Obama lawyer Greg Craig led the effort on behalf of Skadden Arps, and then lobbied the Hillary Clinton State Department and Obama administration on the matter. In 2012.
In other words, these people, besides being well known to henchmen of Obama and Hillary, as well as various other Democrats, have been under scrutiny for years
This set of connections, we are told, is what is supposed to lead to Manafort now providing a mother-lode of new information about Russians and links to Donald Trump.
This point spotlights the second of our glaring realities. U.S. authorities didn’t just suddenly find out about these activities and connections when the public did, mostly in 2017 and 2018.
They’ve known about all of it for years. On some of the broad strokes, like Manafort’s lobbying for Yanukovych, and the firms he hired in that endeavor, the media have been well aware of it too. (In addition to the 2012-2013 articles about the lobbying, see the Kiev Post link above, from September 2016, which references a Politico article that month outlining Kilimnik’s link to Manafort and Yanukovych. Note also that we know about Deripaska’s work with the Obama administration on the Levinson case because of media reporting from as early as 2013.)
A year ago, in September 2017, CNN reported that the FBI had had Manafort under investigation since 2014 over his lobbying work for Ukrainian interests, and that that investigation included FISA surveillance for at least part of the time. I’ve mentioned this a number of times before.
CNN says there was an interruption of the FISA authority in 2016. But that doesn’t matter to the comprehensiveness of the surveillance dragnet. Regardless of when new authority was obtained against Manafort in late 2016, the FBI would have been able to retrieve communications data from any period in which there was a gap. That includes Manafort’s communications with associates under the “two hop” rule. The FBI would have a very good data file on Manafort’s connections going back to at least 2010, and for some forms of communication even before that.
And keep in mind, U.S. agencies wouldn’t even need a FISA warrant to keep Deripaska or Kilimnik under broad surveillance. As foreign nationals, and – given their profiles – as foreign targets inherently covered by national security priorities in general, their communications conducted from or to foreign locations are fair game.
It’s a good bet that U.S. agencies knew perfectly well British entrepreneur Christopher Steele had a business relationship with Oleg Deripaska in 2016 – because they were tracking Deripaska.
Whether or not, on a given date in 2016, specific officials of the Justice Department had that knowledge as well as what Bruce Ohr knew is irrelevant to the key point here. Once the Mueller probe started, if not before, that information would have come to light. It was already held and available as U.S. intelligence.
Kilimnik, for his part, was a known associate of Manafort since around 2005, and long suspected of continuing ties to Russian intelligence. We can assume he was under electronic surveillance the instant Manafort was under FBI investigation, independent of whether a FISA warrant had kicked in to allow the targeting of Manafort yet. Indeed, it’s quite possible that surveillance of Kilimnik was used to justify the 2014 FISA application for Manafort.
Take a moment to reflect on all that this means U.S. agencies have known since 2014, about everything in the Manafort-Ukraine connection. It means there is no likelihood of the FBI, DOJ, or Mueller being surprised by Manafort suddenly pulling new Russian attack-rabbits out of his hat. The FBI, DOJ, and Mueller already have a comprehensive perspective on everyone Manafort and his Ukrainian and Russian associates can be proven to have communicated with.
And after 16 months of the Mueller probe, and more than two years on from the beginning of the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane,” there’s no indication Trump and the 2016 election figure in the mix anywhere.
(A hope seems to linger that a link between Russian-born Felix Sater and Trump, from the 2007-2010 timeframe, may turn up implications about the 2016 election. Besides the facts that the timing doesn’t work and Sater has no connections apparently relevant to the election-“collusion” narrative, there are also the points that Sater would make a seriously non-credible witness, and in any case is reported to have done confidential informant work on behalf of the FBI for years. As with Christopher Steele, also a confidential informant, Sater’s exertions – whatever else we are supposed to believe about them – seem to have been notably without consequence in terms of probative information regarding Trump.)
Deripaska and Kilimnik likewise aren’t going to yield up any secrets our agencies don’t already know. They can’t be made to talk, and we’ve already done the most we can against them surveillance-wise – and come up with nothing implicating Trump.
Or, if we haven’t done the most we can up to now, that’s clear evidence that none of this was ever about Russian interference in anything, including the 2016 election.