Here’s something we can be fairly certain Russiagate special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at: In the spring of 2016, pretty much out of the blue, Paul Manafort approached Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, offering to be the candidate’s “fixer” during the last stages of the primary and into the GOP convention that summer. Now, we know that Manafort—a political wheeler-dealer with a decades-long track record of pushing ethical boundaries, helping dictators polish their images, and consorting with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, as The Nation reported way back in 2008—at that time had an ongoing, years-long connection with a former (or, who knows, perhaps current) operative for Moscow’s military-intelligence agency, the GRU. That is, when Manafort pitched his services to Trump two years ago, he was in regular contact with that ex-GRU official, whose name is Konstantin Kilimnik.
The questions for Mueller are: How witting was Manafort? How witting was Trump? What was the role of Rick Gates, Manafort’s partner, who along with Manafort has been indicted by Mueller on multiple charges of bank fraud and money laundering and is now cooperating with the special counsel’s office? What, exactly, was the role of Kilimnik, who met repeatedly with Manafort and Gates during 2016? And, finally, is the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship the Rosetta Stone that could explain the core of potential Trump-Russia collusion?
Don’t forget, by the early part of 2016, hackers backed by the Russian state had already stolen a vast storehouse of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, though they hadn’t yet been released. By this time, too, George Papadopoulos, an earnest young Trump aide, had already been told by a Russian-linked operative that Moscow had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” And St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency, controlled by an oligarch so close to President Vladimir Putin that he’s been called “Putin’s chef,” had already begun to churn out social-media posts designed to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to US intelligence agencies, the Russian hackers were under the command of the GRU, the agency out of which Kilimnik emerged.
How can we be so sure Mueller is putting these pieces together? Because it’s in recent court documents filed by Mueller & Co. It’s been known for a while that Manafort—who may yet turn state’s evidence and cooperate with Mueller in order to avoid a lengthy prison term—may be the weakest link in the Trump-Russia collusion story. (For an earlier, fairly complete account of his role, at least as far as it was known at the time, see my Nation post last August.) Now, thanks to Mueller’s methodical work, we know a lot more.
First, in response to Manafort’s legal challenge to his indictment—which claimed that Mueller didn’t have the proper legal authority to prosecute in his role as special counsel—Mueller made public a previously unreleased and heavily redacted August 2, 2017, memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In that memo, Rosenstein specifically authorized Mueller to examine allegations that Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.” That doesn’t prove collusion, of course, and Mueller may have a lot more pieces of the puzzle to assemble before he can do that. But it does prove that both Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s office, and Mueller believe it could be a significant and fruitful line of inquiry.