On Tuesday we learned – thanks to a redaction error in a filing in the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference – that Paul Manafort met with a Russian-linked operative named Konstantin Kilimnik during the course of the 2016 campaign. And in that meeting, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, Manafort discussed policies related to the Russia-Ukraine relationship and shared polling data about the 2016 campaign with Kilimnik.
That. Is. Huge.
You’ll remember that President Donald Trump’s constant refrain when it comes to Manafort, who has already been convicted of a series of financial crimes related to his dealing with the Ukrainian government, is that any and all charges against him happened well before he entered Trump’s orbit.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” tweeted Trump in October 2017. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????”
Which, until we got a look at the accidentally unredacted material on Tuesday, was true! While you could argue – and many people have – that Trump should have done his due diligence on Manafort, who had spent years advising foreign governments, before hiring him to run his campaign in the spring of 2016, it was hard to dispute Trump’s main point that any and all wrongdoing by Manafort happened prior to his being involved with Trump.
Except, not now.
Manafort, according to the filings, had conversations with Kilimnik, who is suspected to be a member of the Russian intelligence organization, while he was serving as the head of Trump’s campaign. (Manafort’s official title was “campaign chairman” but functioned as campaign manager during his time with Trump.) Those conversations apparently came even as Russian officials were hacking into the email servers at the Democratic National Committee – which led to a series of damaging leaks via the website WikiLeaks later in 2016.
Not only that, but Manafort’s legal team also acknowledges that he shared polling information with Kilimnik in those conversations, a fact that seems to make clear – as if it needed to be made any more clear – that this wasn’t simply a social call between two old friends.
House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff told CNN Wednesday that the revelation raises “profound questions about why all the secrecy, why all the lies. And most seriously, why is a campaign manager of a US presidential candidate providing campaign polling data to someone linked to a foreign adversary’s intelligence agency?”
Now, it’s important to note here that nowhere in the latest Manafort-Mueller filings is there any evidence that Manafort was directed by Trump to meet with Kilimnik or that Trump was ever aware that Manafort did so. This latest filing matters, but it is far from the smoking gun against Trump that some people have been searching for.
But make no mistake: The Manafort filings on Tuesday do matter in a major way – in that they rebut two central claims that Trump makes ad nauseam:
1) All of Manafort’s criminal activity and wrongdoing came years before he was formally involved in the Trump campaign
2) There wasn’t even the whiff of collusion between anyone in his campaign and the Russians.
On that second point, it’s not clear from the filings whether or not Mueller believes that the meetings and conversations between Manafort and Kilimnik constitute collusion to aid Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton between the Russians and Manafort. But given Manafort’s role in the campaign, the timing of the meetings and the Russia hacking and the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, there’s a whole lot of reasons to suspect at least the possibility of collusion.
The broader point here – and I have to remind myself of this every day – is that we don’t know all (or even close to most) of what Mueller knows. And neither does Trump. The President’s constant lamentations about the probe’s lack of material evidence are belied seemingly on a weekly basis these days by release – accidental or purposeful – of details of the Mueller investigation we didn’t know before.
What we learned on Tuesday puts Manafort back at the very center of all of this. Which is a very big deal given not only his prominent place in the Trump campaign but the fact that he was one of three top Trump aides in that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Russians had promised dirt on Clinton.
Put simply: This latest Manafort news is a very big deal.