Hearing offers clue to ‘heart’ of Mueller probe
WASHINGTON — Of the few hints to emerge from special counsel Robert Mueller about evidence of possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, one of the most tantalizing surfaced almost in passing in a Washington courtroom last week.
Comments by one of Mueller’s lead prosecutors, disclosed in a transcript of a closed-door hearing, suggest the special counsel continues to pursue at least one theory: that starting while Russia was taking steps to bolster Trump’s candidacy, people in his orbit were discussing deals to end a dispute over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and possibly give Moscow relief from economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
The theory was offered almost as an aside by the prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, during a discussion of contacts between Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and a longtime Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom investigators have linked to Russian intelligence.
A closer look at the transcript, released late Thursday, shows the prosecutors have been keenly focused on discussions the two men had about a plan to end the conflict that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Persuading the United States to ease or end the U.S.-led sanctions imposed to punish Moscow for its aggression has been a primary goal of Russian foreign policy.
According to the transcript, which was heavily redacted, Manafort and Kilimnik repeatedly communicated about a so-called peace plan for Ukraine starting in early August 2016, while Manafort was running Trump’s campaign, and continuing into 2018, months after Manafort had been charged by the special counsel’s office with a litany of crimes related to his work in the country.
The prosecutors claim Manafort misled them about those talks and other interactions with Kilimnik.
Pressed by the judge at Monday’s hearing to say why Manafort’s alleged lies mattered, Weissmann gave a broad hint about the thrust of the investigation.
“This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here,” Weissmann said. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
Weissmann’s comments suggest the special counsel’s investigation is pursuing the central question of whether there was some kind of deal between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS News on Thursday that, based on the evidence they have seen, the committee’s investigators “don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee chairman expressed concern Sunday that Mueller has not adequately scrutinized Trump’s finances and said House investigators plan to probe Trump’s relationship with a bank implicated in Russian money laundering.
In particular, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said the House panel plans to investigate Trump’s two-decade relationship with Deutsche Bank, a German institution that has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties in recent years after admitting its role in a $10 billion money laundering scheme that allowed Russian clients to move vast sums overseas.