The Russia Connection

The New Russia Sanctions Resolve a Mystery That Mueller Left Unanswered

By Quinta Jurecic
Saturday, April 17, 2021, 9:01 AM

On April 15, the Treasury Department answered one of the biggest questions left unresolved by the Mueller investigation—and left unanswered as well by the 2020 Senate Select Intelligence Committee report about 2016 election interference.

The resolution of the mystery arrived unexpectedly, tucked inside the department’s announcement of a package of sanctions against Russia issued in response to the SolarWinds hack and the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in the 2020 election. As important as the nugget is, the Treasury Department didn’t particularly highlight it. Any reader would have to look closely and be obsessively familiar with past developments in the Mueller investigation to know what to keep an eye out for. But there it was: Under a heading labeled “Treasury Targets Known Russian Agent Konstantin Kilimnik,” the department announced that Kilimnik—whom the press release described as a “Russian and Ukrainian political consultant and known Russian Intelligence Services agent”—had, in 2016, “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” 

Both the Mueller report and the Senate investigation established that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had passed that sensitive information to Kilimnik—but only now, years later, has the Treasury Department unveiled what Kilimnik did with it. With President Trump no longer in office, the development has attracted less excitement than it might have during the era of constant outrages about Trump’s friendliness with the Russian government and the former president’s attempts to hamstring investigations into his willingness to accept foreign help. But the Kilimnik news is worth paying attention to. As the New York Times put it, the Treasury Department’s press release provides “the strongest evidence to date that Russian spies had penetrated the inner workings of the Trump campaign” in 2016. 

That should be concerning as a historical matter. But it should be even more worrying for what it says about the future of American elections.

Kilimnik was something of an eminence grise of the 2016 Russia scandal. He entered the picture through his connections with Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, for whom he had worked during Manafort’s time consulting for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine. Kilimnik, the Times reported in 2018, was linked to Russian intelligence—and another member of Trump’s 2016 campaign had told an associate that Kilimnik “was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the G.R.U.,” Russia’s military intelligence agency. But Kilimnik’s true star turn came in the Mueller report itself.

“[T]he FBI,” Mueller wrote, “assesses [Kilimnik] to have ties to Russian intelligence.” The report described how Kilimnik had shared with Manafort a “peace plan” for addressing the conflict in eastern Ukraine sparked by Russia’s invasion of Crimea—on terms very favorable to Russia—that Kilimnik hoped the Trump campaign would adopt. (It’s not clear whether Manafort shared the plan with anyone else on the campaign.) And most notably, Mueller wrote that Manafort had shared polling data generated by the Trump campaign with Kilimnik—meaning, essentially, that Trump’s campaign manager had shared internal information with someone who had been, and maybe still was, a Russian spy.

But what did Kilimnik do with the data? On this point, the Mueller report is frustratingly vague, and its explanation is marred by a redaction for grand jury material that couldn’t be made public:

The Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period. Manafort [REDACTED] did not see a downside to sharing campaign information …. Because of questions about Manafort's credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the Office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it. The Office did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia's interference in the election[.]

The closest the report gets to answering this question is a hint that Manafort may have aimed to use the data to smooth over a bumpy relationship with a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, with whom both he and Kilimnik had worked and whom the Mueller report describes as “closely aligned with Vladimir Putin.” 

The next piece of information about Kilimnik’s role arrived in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s mammoth bipartisan summer 2020 report on Russian election interference. The Senate report is far blunter than Mueller on the subject of Kilimnik’s connections to Russian intelligence, writing directly that “Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer.” And it suggests that Manafort knew, too: “Manafort … at some point harbored suspicions that Kilimnik had ties to intelligence services. Manafort was undeniably aware—often from first-hand experience—of suspicious aspects of Kilimnik’s behavior and network. Nevertheless, Manafort later asserted to [Mueller’s team] that Kilimnik was not a spy.”

The Senate report provides a little more information about what the mysterious polling data might have contained. According to two Trump campaign associates, Manafort seems to have shared data with Kilimnik on “polls that identified voter bases in blue-collar, democratic-leaning states”—including Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—“which Trump could swing,” along with data on negative public sentiment toward Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton. 

So far, so suspicious. But once again, the report admits that the Senate committee was unable to figure out why Manafort shared the data or what Kilimnik did with it. “The Committee was unable to determine Kilimnik’s actions after sharing the data,” the report states. “The Committee did, however, obtain a single piece of information that could plausibly be a reflection of Kilimnik’s actions” after receiving the material from Manafort. Unfortunately, however, the reader does not get even that single piece of information. The next paragraph in the report looks like this:

 

A later section in the report, describing the committee’s suspicions about Kilimnik’s possible involvement with the Russian military hacking operation to obtain Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee emails in the spring of 2016, is likewise redacted.

This brings the story to this week’s Treasury Department announcement, and the revelation that Kilimnik did, in fact, share the Trump campaign data with Russian intelligence.

In one sense, the news might seem relatively minor. It’s one more development in a story that has been slowly dripping out into the public for more than three years. But that development answers a crucial question—and strengthens the evidence of coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. 

Previously, government documents had shown that Kilimnik—a person linked to some degree or another to Russian intelligence—had received inside information about the Trump campaign’s strategy from Trump’s campaign manager. Perhaps, those documents suggested, Kilimnik had passed that information to Deripaska, an oligarch known to have close connections with Putin. The Treasury Department announcement updates this story in two ways: First, the U.S. government has now said exactly what it thinks Kilimnik did with that data, rather than hedging or admitting defeat. And second, the government believes that Kilimnik gave that data not just to a person who might have passed the data to the Russian government, but directly to the Russian intelligence services. 

On the Russian side, that significantly increases the possibility that the polling data reached the desk of someone who might have used it to further Russian election interference—perhaps to target ads or other efforts—rather than getting lost somewhere between Deripaska’s office and the Kremlin. On the American side, it means that Trump’s campaign manager passed internal campaign information to the Kremlin about how Trump planned to win the election, whether or not Manafort knew it was headed there directly or through a more circuitous route. That certainly sounds a lot like the “collusion,” at least on the part of Manafort and the institutional campaign, that Trump has so vociferously denied. 

So why wasn’t this included in the Mueller report? For one thing, it’s worth keeping in mind that Mueller understood his investigation as prosecutorial work—not counterintelligence. Perhaps Mueller had access to this information but chose not to include it in the report because it would somehow have been inadmissible in court—because the details would reveal sources and methods, for example.

Another, more likely possibility is that U.S. intelligence agencies obtained the information about Kilimnik after the release of Mueller’s report. But how long after? According to the New York Times, “It is unclear how long American spy agencies have held the conclusion about Kilimnik. Senior Trump administration officials, fearing Mr. Trump’s wrath, repeatedly tried to keep from the public any information that seemed to show Mr. Trump’s affinity for Russia or its president, Vladimir V. Putin.” It’s conceivable that intelligence agencies could have obtained the information before the release of the 2020 Senate report and didn’t pass it to Congress. Recall, too, that Trump pardoned Manafort in December 2020. Did his administration know just what Manafort had done when that pardon was granted? 

It’s important to keep in mind what’s still unknown, and what can never be known. It’s not clear what, if anything, anyone else in the campaign knew about Manafort’s choice to pass this material to Kilimnik. It’s not clear what, if anything, Russian intelligence did with the data. It’s not clear what, if anything, the data could have allowed Russian intelligence to do. Some commentators have suggested that Russia could have used the information to better target its efforts to persuade Americans to vote for Trump or stay home on Election Day—but for all the dramatic claims about the power of microtargeting Facebook advertisements, there’s little definitive research as to whether Facebook ads like those generated by the Russian Internet Research Agency troll farm actually have the power to change anyone’s mind at the requisite scale to swing an election. 

Notably, even though the Treasury Department’s announcement also discusses misdeeds in 2016, the sanctions against Kilimnik are in response to his “having engaged in foreign interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election”—not 2016. According to a March 2021 assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Kilimnik—described in the assessment as a “Russian influence agent” linked to Russia’s intelligence and national security service, the FSB—“took steps throughout the election cycle to damage U.S. ties to Ukraine, denigrate President Biden and his candidacy, and benefit former President Trump’s prospects for reelection.” Here, the report seems to be referencing the efforts to slime Biden’s campaign by spinning false stories about the candidate’s involvement with an alleged Ukrainian scandal—a story that Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani eagerly seized upon as a potential boost to Trump’s reelection chances, and that quickly gained traction in right-wing media. 

The reference to Kilimnik’s potential 2020 role is a useful reminder of why all this matters. As a matter of history and accountability, of course, it’s useful to have additional context about what Russia may have been up to in 2016—and what the Trump campaign was all too happy to collaborate on. Yet it can be hard to get too worked up over new revelations in a scandal that’s now more than four years old, especially when the Capitol riot has shifted the political focus toward the misinformation and election interference conducted in America, by Americans.

The Kilimnik revelations aren’t an argument for refocusing American anxiety over election interference back to the threat posed by foreign actors. But they are another reminder that after 2016 and 2020, and in a political environment in which 78 percent of Republicans still believe Biden did not legitimately win the election, the guardrails that previously constrained what political candidates would do in order to win—lie, cheat, overturn the vote outright—have been shattered. There is a danger that another Kilimnik will, in 2024, reach out to another politician’s campaign to offer foreign support. The greater danger by far, though, is that the new campaign will be all too eager to listen.