Partisans of the theory that Donald Trump conspired with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election believe that they have found their smoking gun. On Tuesday, defense attorneys inadvertently revealed that special counsel Robert Mueller has claimed that former Trump-campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors about sharing polling data with a Russian associate. Now we’re being told that the revelation “is the closest thing we have seen to collusion,” (former FBI agent Clint Watts), “makes the no-collusion scenario even more remote,” (New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait), and, “effectively end[s] the debate about whether there was ‘collusion.’” (Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall). But like prior developments in the Mueller probe that sparked similar declarations, the latest information about Manafort is hardly proof of collusion.
According to an accidentally unredacted passage, Mueller believes that Manafort “lied about sharing polling data…related to the 2016 presidential campaign,” with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national who worked as Manafort’s fixer and translator in Ukraine. Manafort’s employment of Kilimnik has fueled speculation because Mueller has stated that Kilimnik has “ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.”
Yet Mueller’s only references that Kilmnik has Kremlin “ties” came in two court filings in 2017 and 2018, and it’s not clear what Mueller meant in either case. In April 2018, Manafort’s attorneys told a Virginia judge that they have made “multiple discovery requests” seeking any contacts between Manafort and “Russian intelligence officials,” but that the special counsel informed them that “there are no materials responsive to [those] requests.”
Kilimnik insists that he has “no relation to the Russian or any other intelligence service.” According to a lengthy profile in The Atlantic, “insinuations” that Kilimnik has worked for Russian intelligence during his years in Ukraine “were never backed by more than a smattering of circumstantial evidence.” All of this has been lost on US media outlets, who routinely portray Kilimnik as a “Russian operative” or an “alleged Russian spy.”
That same creative license that makes Kilimnik part of the Russian-intelligence apparatus is now being applied to the claim that Manafort shared polling data with Kilimnik. The New York Times initially reported that Manafort instructed Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 to forward the polling data to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian tycoon to whom Manafort owed a reported $20 million. The Times also reported that “[m]ost of the data was public,” but that didn’t stop pundits from letting their imaginations run wild.
“Deripaska is close to Putin, and he has zero use for campaign data about a US election, other than to use it for the then on-going Russian campaign to elect Donald Trump,” wrote TPM’s Josh Marshall. “There is only on reason I can think of: to help direct the covert social-media propaganda campaign that Russian intelligence was running on Trump’s behalf,” declared The Washington Post’s Max Boot.
The fervent speculation suffered a setback when it was revealed that the polling data was not intended to be passed to Deripaska or any other wealthy Russian. The New York Times corrected its story to inform us that Manafort actually wanted the polling data sent to two Ukrainian tycoons, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov. That correction came long after viral tweets and articles from liberal outlets amplified the Times’ initial false claim about Deripaska. Most egregiously, New York magazine’s Chait doubled down on the initial error by incorrectly claiming that the Times was now reporting that Manafort’s intended recipient was “different Russian oligarchs.” For his part, Akhmetov says he “never requested nor received any polling data or any other information about the 2016 US elections” from Manafort or Kilimnik.
That two Ukrainian tycoons were confused with a Russian one reflects a broader error that has transmuted Manafort’s business dealings in Ukraine into grounds for a Trump-Russia conspiracy. Because Manafort worked for Ukraine’s Russia-aligned Party of Regions, it is widely presumed that he was doing the Kremlin’s bidding. But internal documents and court testimony underscore that Manafort tried to push his client, then–Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to enter the European Union and turn away from Russia. As Manafort’s former partner and current special-counsel witness Rick Gates testified in August, Manafort crafted “the strategy for helping Ukraine enter the European Union,” in the lead-up to the 2013-2014 Euromaidan crisis. The aims, Manafort explained in several memos, were to “[encourage] EU integration with Ukraine” so that the latter does not “fall to Russia,” and “reinforce the key geopolitical messaging of how ‘Europe and the U.S. should not risk losing Ukraine to Russia.’” As his strategy got underway, Manafort stressed to colleagues—including Kilimnik—the importance of promoting the “constant actions taken by the Govt of Ukraine to comply with Western demands” and “the changes made to comply with the EU Association Agreement,” the very agreement that Russia opposed.
Rather than imagining it as part of some grand Trump-Russia conspiracy, there’s a more plausible explanation for why Manafort wanted public polling data to be forwarded to Ukrainian oligarchs. Manafort was heavily in debt when he joined Trump’s team. Being able to show former Ukrainian clients “that he was managing a winning candidate,” the Times noted, “would help [Manafort] collect money he claimed to be owed for his work on behalf of the Ukrainian parties.”
All of this highlights another inconvenient fact about Mueller’s case against Manafort: It is not about Russia, but about tax, bank, and lobbying violations stemming from his time in Ukraine. The Virginia judge who presided over Manafort’s first trial said the charges against him “manifestly don’t have anything to do with the  campaign or with Russian collusion.” The collusion probe, the DC judge in Manafort’s second trial concurred, was “wholly irrelevant” to these charges.
The same could be argued about the entirety of Mueller’s indictments to date. Not a single Trump official has been accused of colluding with the Russian government or even of committing any crimes during the 2016 campaign. As The New York Times recently noted, “no public evidence has emerged showing that [Trump’s] campaign conspired with Russia.” The latest error-ridden hoopla generated by an inadvertent disclosure from Manafort’s attorneys does nothing to change that picture. If anything, it underscores that after two years there is still no strong case for Trump-Russia collusion—and that only shoddy evidentiary standards have misled its proponents into believing otherwise.