The U.S. Treasury Department published a list of new sanctions on Russians this past week, and one entry in the list has some hair on fire in the flagging regiment of Russiagate faithful.
“There was Trump-Russia collusion,” crowed an opinion piece at The Hill. “And Trump pardoned the colluder.”
The op-ed opens gleefully: “It’s official: The Trump campaign colluded with Russia.”
It continues: “In an explosive development, the Biden administration confirmed that a Russian government agent with close connections to Donald Trump’s top 2016 campaign official ‘provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and [Trump] campaign strategy.’”
Says author Marik von Rennenkampff, “This revelation demolishes, once and for all, Trump’s ceaseless claims that he was the victim of the ‘greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.’” (At RedState, Brad Slager observes that the Washington Post is equally ecstatic.)
So, er, what actually happened? Treasury, in imposing sanctions on Russiagate figure Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate of Paul Manafort in Ukraine, made the following statement, without evidence: “During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy. Additionally, Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The first thing to notice, of course, is that there are much easier ways to actually collude with Russia. Passing “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy” to the Russian intelligence services through a Ukrainian-born Russian national who works with one of your campaign staffers is basically kind of stupid. If you want Putin to have it and you’re Donald Trump, just send it to Putin.
There’d really be no reason not to. It’s not a crime to pay for polling, sit around thinking up a campaign strategy, and then copy foreigners on the material. Why you’d do that is another story, but it’s not a criminal act. A political campaign is a private organization.
The “collusion” premise here is ridiculous. It’s doubly so because we have no reason to suppose – even if we assume Kilimnik passed everything he got to Russian intelligence – that the Russians got anything of value. If what they got was a blueprint for where the Trump campaign intended to focus its own “influence” efforts, they certainly didn’t respond by bolstering those efforts.
Aaron Maté, in an article for Real Clear Investigations, pointed out the conclusion from the 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference ops in 2016: “[M]ost of the ads and posts from the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm indicted by Mueller, ‘were minimally about the candidates,’ were written in broken English, mostly ran after the election, and barely reached the battleground states.”
Maté also observes that “as the Mueller team acknowledged in court, it did not possess ‘any evidence of substantive connections between the [IRA] and the Russian government.’” We need not argue that point with any vigor; indeed, let us concede it to Mueller and move on. The Internet Research Agency probably is connected with the Russian government, just as Konstantin Kilimnik probably does pass information to Russian intelligence.
But if we had specific intelligence that Kilimnik had passed information from the Trump campaign to the Russian intelligence services, you know perfectly well that would have been leaked by now.
If Mueller couldn’t find a way to shoehorn that specific allegation into either a court filing or the report that bears his name, it would have come out in another way – if the U.S. intel community had evidence. (If nothing else, Adam Schiff could have been trusted to leak it.)
Meanwhile, the assumption that Kilimnik, reportedly trained as a GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer, probably did pass information on is hard to argue against. And the beauty of a Treasury sanctions announcement is that it doesn’t have to specify exactly what we know, or how we know it. This one certainly doesn’t.
It’s a travesty that the good faith of Treasury sanctions would have to be called into question, as I would obviously be doing here. After all, that will affect the attitude of the world about all of them. But sanctioning Kilimnik is, objectively, a low priority for U.S. national security. It’s not the target you save the very special bullets for, after eschewing more important opportunities for four long years.
The value of making stray references now – to Kilimnik passing things to Russian intelligence – is as a political stick to flog the dead-horse “Trump collusion” narrative with.
Three pings on this subject will round it out.
First, we’ve known since 2019 that during the Obama administration, Kilimnik was a confidential source for the U.S. State Department, frequently visiting the U.S. embassy in Kyiv for little chats. He was also working with Manafort at the same time. (It’s worth stopping for a moment to firm up the mental picture: the U.S. State Department knew very well who Manafort and Kilimnik both were. They were political consultants working prominently in the Ukrainian scene with the highest-profile politicians.)
John Solomon, writing for The Hill in June 2019: “[H]undreds of pages of government documents — which special counsel Robert Mueller possessed since 2018 — describe Kilimnik as a ‘sensitive’ intelligence source for the U.S. State Department who informed on Ukrainian and Russian matters.”
Sure, Kilimnik was quite probably passing information to Russia. But he was also passing information to the U.S.
Solomon continues, “Why Mueller’s team omitted that part of the Kilimnik narrative from its report and related court filings is not known. But the revelation of it comes as the accuracy of Mueller’s Russia conclusions face increased scrutiny.”
Solomon is quite right. Mueller’s report mentions nowhere that Kilimnik was a source for the State Department.
But now ponder another mental picture, in which Kilimnik, getting information on the Trump campaign from Manafort, has an entrée with the Obama State Department – the State Department with the connections to Christopher Steele, Sidney Blumenthal, and Cody Shearer, all of them with the “anti-Trump dossier” sticker on their Spygate personnel files.
It certainly raises a valid question about where that information from the Trump campaign was getting to, after it passed from Manafort (and his associate Robert Gates) to Kilimnik.
The second ping relates to a cryptic footnote in Volume I of the Mueller Report. The footnote is number 895, appearing at the bottom of page 137 (or page 145, as numbered in the PDF document).
The footnote lists a series of emails set by Kilimnik in the period from 27 July 2016 to 19 August 2016. All but two of them were sent on 18 August 2016.
That was the day before Manafort was dismissed from the Trump campaign. But it’s also the day a lengthy article on Kilimnik by Kenneth P. Vogel was published at Politico. It’s easy to forget how much of this narrative was being pre-staged for us before we even reached election day in 2016.
Only the last names of the recipients are ever listed or discussed. This explanatory passage from the text relates to the footnote (it starts at the bottom of the text on p. 136): “[Manafort associate Robert] Gates’s account about polling data is consistent [redacted] … with multiple emails that Kilimnik sent to U.S. associates and press contacts between late July and mid-August of 2016. Those emails referenced ‘internal polling,’ described the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s role in it, and assessed Trump’s prospects for victory.”
In other words, these are the emails from Kilimnik that the Mueller team found to have a specific connection to the Trump campaign information passed on to him.
So it’s noteworthy that three of the individuals addressed in those emails can be confidently identified as two Americans and a Brit. A fourth is probably an American as well.
None has a Russian name, although to be sure, we wouldn’t expect Kilimnik to simply email sensitive internal Trump campaign information to Russian intelligence.
The two confidently-identified Americans are Wall Street Journal reporter James Marson and political consultant Sam Patten, who got his start in the big leagues with Susan Collins. (Patten was raked over the coals by the Mueller team, and in November 2020 suffered a sustained, but fortunately not fatal, knife attack on a Washington, D.C. street.)
The Brit is Jock Mendoza-Wilson, Director of International and Investor Relations at System Capital Management (SCM) in Ukraine. His connection with Kilimnik is likely to involve Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who is linked with both SCM and the Manafort political handling enterprise for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych. (Within the last decade, Mendoza-Wilson, as an officer of SCM, has spoken for Akhmetov on various business issues.)
The fourth name, Schultz, has been tentatively identified by analysts as that of Eric Schultz, formerly the deputy U.S. ambassador in Ukraine. He was not in that post in August 2016; he had left in 2014 to become U.S. ambassador to Zambia, which is where he was at the time of the Kilimnik email. For that reason, I wouldn’t be 100% certain that he’s the Schultz Kilimnik emailed in August 2016 with information about the Trump campaign.
But Schultz, who retired after the Zambia posting (which he left in 2017), did return to Ukraine at the head of his own consulting firm, and remains there now, according to his LinkedIn profile. The evidence of a continuing attachment to Ukraine suggests he may have been interested enough, even in Zambia, to merit an email from Kilimnik at the height of the U.S. 2016 campaign.
Three other names – Ash, Jackson, and Dirkse – have remained unidentified. Apparently when the Senate Intelligence Committee was going over the Kilimnik information, it was unable to obtain the actual emails. Its report doesn’t elaborate on who the personalities are.
As part of this ping, it’s worth noting that Manafort himself said his intention in forwarding campaign information to Kilimnik was to have it passed further to two Ukrainians: Rinat Akhmetov and a prominent politician with whom Manafort worked extensively, Serhiy Lovochkin.
That nugget, in fact, and the name “Schultz,” bring us to the final ping.
As we launch this one, take note: Mueller knew who all of Kilimnik’s correspondents from footnote 895 were. But that information has never been disclosed. The reticence is praiseworthy, but it’s also informative.
If disclosing who these folks were could tar Trump, you know as well as I do that someone would have done it by now.
But more than that, the care to not disclose it, in spite of many months of interest and speculation, suggests it may be important to someone to keep it at “minimize.”
You can’t pull the “Kilimnik” popgun and not invite such analysis.
We ought to know the identity of all of Kilimnik’s email addressees, at the time Mueller’s report clearly implies they received internal information about the Trump campaign. But we don’t, even though Mueller does.
There’s someone else who probably does as well. It’s a journalist named Graham Stack, who has written a number of articles in the Soros-backed Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) network, and who in August 2020 published an article at bne Intellinews under the headline “SCOOP: Leaked emails of Trump-linked ‘Russian spy’ Kilimnik reveal full story of Ukraine back channels to the EU.”
Stack reports having access to hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails from the period 2009 to 2016, which presumably would cover the July-August 2016 timeframe of interest to us. He doesn’t describe the nature or contents of any of the emails Mueller called out in his report. But Stack does offer something equally interesting.
He lays out how Paul Manafort set up a back-channel communications pipeline for Viktor Yanukovych to the EU, in the 2010-2014 timeframe. This is where our nugget names from Ping Two make their appearance: Serhiy Lovochkin, according to Stack, was funding the back channel, which at various times involved “former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. Leading members include former European Commission President and former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, as well as former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski” (known collectively as the Habsburg Group).
The EU personages to be reached by these distinguished statesmen (from Stack): “Sweden’s then foreign minister Carl Bildt, Poland’s then foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule.”
Frank Vogl at the Globalist (link above) cites European Parliament leader Martin Schultz (that name again, but not, I think, the Schultz we’re looking for) as affirming that Manafort and the named VIPs facilitated communications with Yanukovych. Vogl’s reporting indicates the EP knew of some compensation being made to them by Manafort’s arrangement, and that members were dubious about that.
But of particular interest, from Graham Stack’s article, is the report of another player in the back channel for Yanukovych, between 2010 and 2014. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise. The player was in the U.S., which always has a national interest in the fortunes of the EU and the status of Ukraine. The player’s name: Vice President Joe Biden.
Clear thinking would always have led us, of course, to understand that the Obama administration knew what Manafort was doing in Ukraine, and that Kilimnik could have been no surprise to Obama’s agencies. Remember, the FBI had Manafort under investigation for years before the 2016 U.S. campaign, including the period of the back-channel for Yanukovych. And Kilimnik, with his open door to the U.S. embassy, would have been vetted by the FBI as well.
If there were anything to know about Trump through the “Manafort-Ukraine” filter, we would have known it years ago. The real question is whether we’ll ever know all there is to know about what the Obama administration’s personnel were doing there.