Donald Trump and his campaign manager Paul Manafort at the Republican National Convention, July 21, 2016
Court transcripts indicate that the Trump-Russia investigation is focusing on a meeting between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016, and a Russian operative.
According to the transcripts, Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates conferred with Konstantin Kilimnik over dinner at private cigar room in Manhattan on August 2, 2016, just after Trump’s nomination at the Republican convention.
Kilimnik, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was a long-time employee of Manafort’s consultancy.
Prosecutors believe Manafort and Kilimnik may have exchanged key information linking Trump’s candidacy and Russia. Andrew Weissman told a federal judge in a sealed hearing last week that the meeting goes “very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s office is investigating”.
Among the topic was a proposed resolution to the conflict over Ukraine, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support of eastern Ukrainian separatists.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson also appeared to allude to Manafort’s offer to hand over internal polling data from the campaign.
A court filing by Manafort’s lawyers last month accidentally disclosed the claim that Manafort offered polling data to Kilimnik.
Both Manafort and Gates transferred the polling data to Kilimnik spring 2016, “according to a person knowledgeable about the situation”. The source said most of the data was public but some was developed by a private polling firm working for the Trump campaign.
Manafort asked Gates to tell Kilimnik to pass the data to Serhiy Lyovochikin, the former head of the adminstration of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov, a backer of Yanukovych’s People’s Party.
Kilimnik is also linked with Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, to whom Manafort reportedly owed millions of dollars from a failed business venture.
The filing also referred to the discussion of a plan for political resolution in Ukraine.
Throughout the campaign and the early days of the Trump Administration, Russia put forth initiatives in the hope of getting relief from US-led sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea.
Less than two weeks before the meeting, WikiLeaks published thousands of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. US intelligence agencies would later link Russia to the hacking of computers to obtain material that could damage Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.
Six days before the encounter, Trump said at a news conference, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] e-mails that are missing
Throughout July, Trump echoed the Kremlin line on foreign policy, questioning the US commitment to defense of NATO partners and pledging consideration of recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Significance to the Special Counsel”
Judge Jackson noted in last week’s hearing that Manafort, Gates, and Kilimnik — who had flown to the US for the encounter — left the Grand Havana Room through separate doors.
Prosecutor Weissman said,That meeting — and what happened at that meeting — is of significance to the Special Counsel.”
Spokespersons for Mueller and Manafort declined to comment, as did Kilimnik.
Manafort quit as Trump’s campaign managers within days of the Grand Havana meeting, after initial revelations of financial questions over his consultancy. He is facing a lengthy prison sentence after his conviction on 10 charges related to the work, including for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and businessmen.
Prosecutors has charged Kilimnik with working with Manafort to obstruct the investigation.
In a 2017 statement, Kilimnik said the meeting in New York had nothing to do with US politics or the Trump campaign. He claimed that he and Manafort gossiped about “bills unpaid by our clients” and the political scene in Ukraine.
But court records indicate that Manafort was planning how to use his Trump role to deal with millions of dollars of debt. E-mails show that he hoped to use Kilimnik as a liaison with Russian tycoon Deripaska, who claimed that the Trump campaign manager owed him millions over a failed business venture — possibly by providing internal campaign information.
On July 7, 2016, Manafort e-mailed Kilimnik to offer “private briefings” to Deripaska. Three weeks later, Kilimnik messaged the campaign manager that he met that day with the man who had given Manafort “the biggest black caviar jar several years ago”.
Jackson told lawyers that she will probably rule Wednesday on whether she believes Manafort lied to prosecutors.
“There is an in-person meeting at an unusual time for somebody who is the campaign chairman to be spending time and to be doing it in person,” Weissmann said.