This is Part 1 of two articles (Part 2 here). Above, the Senate intelligence panel's Democratic vice chair, Mark Warner, left, and its since departed GOP chairman, Richard Burr.
By Aaron Maté, RealClearInvestigations
September 21, 2020
The declaration that Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager employed a Russian intelligence officer was the headline-grabbing finding of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's fifth and final Russian interference report, released Aug. 18 at the time of the Democratic National Convention.
According to the report, Paul Manafort's 2016 interactions with his longtime associate, Ukraine-born Russian national Konstantin Kilimnik, "represent the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services," and amounted to "a grave counterintelligence threat" to the United States.
To hear Trump-Russia conspiracy advocates tell it, Kilimnik was the elusive missing link that proved the Trump campaign's complicity in Russian electoral interference. "Manafort, while he was chairman of the Trump campaign, was secretly communicating with a Russian intelligence officer with whom he discussed campaign strategy and repeatedly shared internal campaign polling data," five of the committee's Democratic members wrote in a pointed addendum. "This is what collusion looks like."
But the plain text of the Senate report contains no concrete evidence to support its conclusions. Instead, with a heavy dose of caveats and innuendo, reminiscent of much of the torrent of investigative verbiage in the Russiagate affair, the report goes to great lengths to cast a pall of suspicion around Kilimnik, much of which is either unsupported or contradicted by publicly available information.
The office of Democrat Mark Warner, the highest-ranking Senator on the committee through the duration of the probe until the report's release, did not respond to emailed questions about the panel’s work.
Kilimnik: ‘Likely’ Channel to Russia?
For the record, Kilimnik has steadfastly denied that he is a Russian intelligence officer or has ties to Russian intelligence. Much of the Senate's portrayal of him relies on information gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which prosecuted Manafort on financial and lobbying charges stemming from his work in Ukraine prior to the 2016 campaign. Kilimnik, a 50-year-old political consultant, was born in Soviet Union-era Ukraine, attended a Soviet military academy, and maintains homes in both Ukraine and Russia. Starting in 2005, Kilimnik played a central role in Manafort's political operation in Ukraine, representing powerful oligarchs and helping guide Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency.
The Senate committee's claim that Kilimnik is a Russian spy goes far beyond the Mueller report, which stated that the FBI believes Kilimnik has unspecified "ties to Russian intelligence." (A similarly vague formulation was used about the reported spark for the FBI's Trump-Russia probe, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, whom the Mueller report described as having "connections to Russia.") The SSCI offers no window into how it went further than the Mueller report for its "assessment." Multiple sections purporting to contain supporting information are redacted. The Senate report also tacitly concedes it has no hard proof that Kilimnik shared information from Manafort with anyone, let alone officials in the Russian government. Kilimnik, it speculates, "likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services," an acknowledgment that it has not uncovered definitive proof.
Senate 'Collusion' Report, Part 2: All the Unturned Stones Aaron Maté, RCI
A critical disclosure by the Mueller team during its investigation – but unmentioned in both the final Mueller and Senate reports – directly contradicts the Senate’s assessment. After Mueller accused Kilimnik of having unspecified Russian intelligence "ties" in 2017, Manafort's legal team made multiple discovery requests for any communication between Manafort and "Russian intelligence officials." In April 2018, Manafort’s attorneys revealed that the special counsel replied that "there are no materials responsive to [those] requests." The Mueller team's response marked a tacit admission that as of 2019, the FBI did not consider Kilimnik a Russian agent.
In recently unsealed notes from the FBI's collusion probe, Peter Strzok – the top FBI counterintelligence agent who opened the investigation – wrote in early 2017: "We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials."
Asked by RealClearInvestigations if the FBI's assessment of Kilimnik has changed, a Department of Justice spokesman said that “the Mueller report speaks for itself,” suggesting that it has not adopted the Senate committee’s determination.
The unredacted sections of the Senate report that attempt to show that Kilimnik is a Russian spy rely on an assortment of emails, discussions, and even Twitter posts. The first visible (but still partially redacted) passage attempts to make an issue out of Kilimnik's discussions with his business partner, Sam Patten, about the nature of Russian intelligence work. Kilimnik, the report notes, trained in languages at a Soviet military school that he "himself admitted to colleagues was used by both the GRU and KGB." The SSCI then accuses Kilimnik of misleading Patten – in emails and perhaps some conversations – about "the type of career these intelligence officers followed compared to his own," and in claiming "that his former classmates were not involved in intelligence matters."
The next section reports that "in 2017, Kilimnik denied in private communications with Patten that there was Russian interference in the U.S. elections." The evidence to support that assertion is that "Kilimnik emailed Patten a Financial Times article on Russian interference in the U.S. elections," and joked that U.S. intelligence "must be having very little sleep chasing those squirrels who they think exist."
Beyond those emails, which prove nothing at all, the Senate report delves extensively into the activity of a Twitter account that it alleges Kilimnik used under the pseudonym "Petro Baranenko" (@PBaranenko). The account's tweets, SSCI says, "centered on efforts to discredit the Russia investigations." The report discloses the email address used to create the Twitter account but does not explain why it believes that Kilimnik is behind it. In a direct message exchange with RealClearInvestigations, the @PBaranenko account user denied being Kilimnik. "I am not Kilimnik and have nothing to do with him," the user wrote. "I have no idea why whoever wrote this report made this allegation."
The account user declined requests for an interview to corroborate that denial. Regardless, even if the account does belong to Kilimnik, the SSCI leaves unexplained how these innocuous emails and tweets amount to evidence that he is a Russian spy.
A ‘Valuable Resource’ for the U.S.
A deep and unresolved tension in the Senate report is that even as it declares that Kilimnik was a Russian intelligence officer, it documents his extensive U.S. government ties and involvement in political efforts hostile to Russian interests.
From 1995 to 2005, Kilimnik held a senior role at the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-government organization that pursues American foreign policy objectives abroad. After leaving the IRI to work for Manafort’s lobbying firm in Ukraine, Kilimnik, the report notes, became a "valuable resource" for officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, with whom he was "in regular contact."
Kilimnik was tapped to "arrange meetings between Department of State officials and senior Ukrainian politicians." He served as "the primary point of contact" for multiple U.S.-Ukrainian talks. This included arranging a call between President Yanukovych and Vice President Joe Biden in November 2013. Kilimnik had "close proximity to" two key officials running U.S. policy in Ukraine, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Kilimnik, according to the Senate panel, attended multiple meetings with both officials and even served as a translator for at least one session with Nuland.
Kilimnik's contacts with U.S. officials extended beyond Kiev to Washington, D.C. During a trip to the U.S. in May 2016, the report notes, he met with a number of State Department officials, including Jonathan Finer, the chief of staff to then-Secretary of State John Kerry.
While the Senate report casts Kilimnik's proximity to the Trump campaign during the few months of Manafort's tenure in 2016 as a "grave counterintelligence threat" from Russia, it does not raise any alarm about Kilimnik's longer and deeper involvement with the highest reaches of the Obama U.S. State Department. The SSCI justifies this lack of concern by claiming that "most" State Department officials "were appropriately skeptical" of him. These officials, the report adds, were "occasionally dismissive of his reporting, and sometimes noted the need for caution when dealing with Kilimnik."
The report also ignores evidence that U.S. personnel shared intelligence with Kilimnik.
FBI and State documents not mentioned in the Senate report, first revealed by investigative journalist John Solomon in 2019, show that U.S. officials described Kilimnik as a "sensitive source" and exchanged inside information with him. In May 2016, the then-U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, Eric Schultz, who knew Kilimnik from a prior stint at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, shared his personal assessments of then-incoming Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and her deputy, George Kent.
The previous December, a U.S. Embassy official in Kiev, Alexander “Sasha” Kasanof, told Kilimnik about the Obama administration's assessment of a meeting between Yuriy Boyko, an associate of Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, and Assistant Secretary of State Nuland. "I thought Boyko did quite well, in fact," Kasanof wrote. "Don't know that he convinced Nuland on everything (incl. [Firtash's] intentions), but his performance was much less Soviet and better than I thought would be."
‘The U.S. Should Not Risk Losing Ukraine to Russia’
In contrast to the emails or tweets that it claims show Kilimnik's promotion of "pro-Russia narratives," the Senate report ignores the voluminous documentation, released by the Mueller team, detailing Kilimnik's involvement in a project directly counter to Russian interests. In the years before Yanukovych's ouster in February 2014, Manafort led a lobbying campaign for a Ukrainian-European Union economic agreement explicitly aimed at pushing Ukraine away from Russia and into the Western orbit.
Manafort's goal, he explained in several memos to Kilimnik and other colleagues, was to "[encourage] EU integration with Ukraine" so that Kiev does not "fall to Russia." Manafort sought to promote "constant actions taken by the Govt of Ukraine to comply with Western demands" and "the changes made to comply with the EU Association Agreement – which Russia staunchly opposed.
If Kilimnik were a Russian intelligence officer, his key role in an influence campaign to move Ukraine away from Russia would have been the perfect opportunity to engage in sabotage. But there is no evidence of this. Instead, Kilimnik played an integral role in Manafort's lobbying efforts across Europe. In short, during the same period that the SSCI posits that Kilimnik was acting as an intelligence officer on Russia's behalf, he was deeply involved in Manafort's efforts to advance the U.S. government's agenda in Ukraine.
‘Opportunities’ for Innuendo
While it ignores these countervailing facts about Kilimnik, the Senate report devotes dozens of pages to revisiting the controversy surrounding Kilimnik's alleged receipt of Trump campaign polling data from Manafort in 2016.
The Mueller report ultimately concluded that it "did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election," and, moreover, "did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts."
The SSCI report offers nothing new to change the picture, beyond its own speculation. It has never been established that Kilimnik ever sent the data to anyone, and if he did, the only known alleged recipients were Ukrainians, not Russians. The report notes that it was "unable to obtain direct evidence of what Kilimnik did with the polling data and whether that data was shared further."
Rather than viewing the polling data incident as a "grave" act of Russian intelligence infiltration, the Senate report, like the Mueller report before it, contains a much simpler – and substantiated – explanation: Manafort shared the data to bolster his business interest. The Senate report notes that Manafort associate Rick Gates testified that he thought Manafort instructed him to share the polling data with Kilimnik "as part of an effort to resolve past business disputes and obtain new work with their past Russian and Ukrainian clients by showcasing Manafort's success," and to display "the strength of Manafort's position on the Campaign."
The report also recounts that in the immediate aftermath of his hiring as Trump campaign chair, Manafort reached out to three Ukrainian oligarchs and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in a bid to showcase his new position and float the possibility of future partnerships. Just two weeks after his hiring, Manafort wrote an email in which he "asked Kilimnik how his role with the Trump Campaign could be leveraged to collect the money owed to him by the OB [Opposition Bloc, a Ukrainian political party]." Gates, a key source for the SSCI's examination of Manafort, also testified that Manafort had told him that "working for the Trump Campaign would be 'good for business' and a potential way for Manafort's firm to be paid for work done in Ukraine for which they were owed."
It is also unclear how, even if it somehow ended up in the Kremlin's hands, this polling data could have been of use to an alleged Russian interference operation. As previous Senate reports have found, most 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. According to the former SSCI chair Richard Burr, Russian ad spending amounted to $1,979 in Wisconsin – all but $54 of that during the primary – $823 in Michigan, and $300 in Pennsylvania. In addition, as the Mueller team acknowledged in court, it did not possess "any evidence of substantive connections between the [IRA] and the Russian government."
The Senate report employs more qualified language for another explosive supposition, claiming to have "obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected" to Russia's alleged hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails in 2016. All the information that supposedly backs up this speculation is redacted. Meanwhile, the report acknowledges it "has no records of, and extremely limited insight into, Kilimnik's communications."
Because Kilimnik worked for Manafort, the Senate report concludes that Manafort's brief stint as Trump campaign chair "created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign." But the report does not contain a shred of evidence that any such "opportunities" were realized.
In the absence of concrete evidence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's reliance on speculation and innuendo shows that it took ample opportunities to paint Kilimnik in a sinister light. That methodology applies to, and undermines, a number of other critical elements of the Senate committee's investigation, discussed in the second part of this special report.