“This is what collusion with Russia looks like": Feds say Manafort pal gave campaign info to spies

New Russia sanctions reveal a direct line between Trump’s campaign chief and Russian intelligence agencies

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published April 15, 2021 4:11PM (EDT)

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court, on June 27, 2019 in New York City.  (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court, on June 27, 2019 in New York City. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

A longtime associate of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort passed "sensitive" information to Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 campaign, the Treasury Department said Thursday.

Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked closely with Manafort on behalf of Russian-backed oligarchs in Ukraine, was hit with sanctions in the Biden administration's latest response to Russian election meddling. The Treasury Department said in a news release announcing the sanctions that Kilimnik was a known Russian "agent" and "provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy."

The Treasury Department statement marks the first time that the government directly said that Kilimnik provided the internal data he received to Russian intelligence agencies.

Kilimnik, who also sought to "promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered" in the 2016 presidential election, according to the release, was sanctioned for also engaging in "foreign interference" in the 2020 election. The FBI is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Kilimnik was previously indicted in former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation in 2018 for alleged witness tampering after prosecutors said he and Manafort "repeatedly contacted" two individuals "in an effort to secure materially false testimony" in the probe. The Mueller investigation found that Manafort shared polling data from Trump's campaign with Kilimnik, who "has ties to a Russian intelligence service." Many of the relevant parts of the report were redacted, though it did say that Rick Gates, Trump's former deputy campaign manager and a mutual associate of both Kilimnik and Manafort, believed that Kilimnik was a "spy."

A Senate Intelligence Committee report released last year also found that Manafort had on several occasions passed internal polling data and campaign strategy to Kilimnik, who it said "may have been connected" to Russian intelligence, but these sections were likewise redacted. Kilimnik was mentioned 819 times in the report, including in one section that raised the "possibility of Manafort's potential connection" to Russia's "hack and leak operation."

Kilimnik was a key figure in both investigations. The Mueller report described a meeting between Manafort, Gates and Kilimnik at a Manhattan cigar club where Manafort instructed Gates to bring printouts of campaign polling data and later handed it to Kilimnik.

"They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort's strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states," the Mueller report said. "Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting."

The report said that Gates continued to "periodically" send internal polling data to Kilimnik after the meeting at Manafort's behest. The report said Manafort expected Kilimnik to share the information with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort and a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prosecutors said in court documents that Manafort was $10 million in debt to Deripaska when he volunteered to lead the Trump campaign for free.

But the report stopped short of saying that Kilimnik was working with Russian intelligence agencies.

"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 report said.

The Senate report went further, identifying Kilimnik as a "Russian intelligence officer."  

"Manafort's presence on the campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for the Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign," the report said. "The Committee assesses that Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services, and that those services likely sought to exploit Manafort's access to gain insight [into] the Campaign."

It's unclear whether Trump himself knew that Manafort was sharing internal campaign data with Kilimnik. He told reporters in 2019 that he knew "nothing about it."

It's also unclear what Russia may have done with the polling and "strategy" information. Media reports in 2017 showed that Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that proved critical in Trump's 2016 victory, but there is no evidence that those ads were targeted using internal information from the Trump campaign nor that Russia's efforts had much of an effect on the outcome of the race.

The Senate report also said that Kilimnik may be connected to the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign. Documents stolen during that hacking operation were later published by WikiLeaks. Gates testified in 2019 that Trump adviser Roger Stone may have had an inside line to the organization and told Trump in July of 2016 that "more information would be coming" from WikiLeaks, contradicting Trump's sworn statements in the Mueller investigation. Gates said Stone had relayed this information to Manafort as well, who "thought that would be great."

Russia's role in Trump's 2016 victory has been a controversial subject for years and its effect is difficult to quantify, as with former FBI Director James Comey's last-minute announcements first reopening and then closing the investigation into Clinton's email server. Research looking at whether Russia's online efforts to suppress the Black vote and stoke Democratic divisions suggests they were not very effective. But the Treasury Department sanctions underscore the Mueller investigation and Senate probe's findings that Russia tried to help Trump win.

"This is what collusion with Russia looks like," Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees, said on Twitter. "The former President won the 2016 election with the help of Russia. That's simply a fact."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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