Clue hints at heart of Mueller’s Rus­sia in­quiry

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Sharon LaFraniere, Ken­neth P. Vo­gel and Scott Shane

WASHINGTON – Of the few hints to emerge from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller about ev­i­dence of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Pres­i­dent 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 that 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 that 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 so­called peace plan for Ukraine start­ing in early Au­gust 2016, while Manafort was still 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 that 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 did not elab­o­rate. The hear­ing’s pur­pose was nar­row – de­ter­min­ing whether Manafort had breached his plea agree­ment by mis­lead­ing the pros­e­cu­tors about Kil­imnik and other matters. Kil­imnik was charged last June with con­spir­ing with Manafort to ob­struct jus­tice by try­ing to shape the ac­counts of prospec­tive wit­nesses in Manafort’s case.

Yet Weiss­mann’s cryp­tic com­ments sug­gest that the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion – which Trump has sought to dis­miss as a witch hunt and which act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker has said will wrap up soon – is still pur­su­ing the cen­tral question of whether there was some kind of deal be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign.

Trump’s long­time friend Roger Stone was in­dicted last month on charges of ly­ing to Con­gress about his ef­forts to con­tact Wik­iLeaks, which re­leased tens of thou­sands of Demo­cratic emails stolen by the Rus­sians.

But the es­sen­tial question of why the Krem­lin bet so heav­ily on Trump, and whether Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia had any in­di­ca­tion that Trump would give him what he de­sired, has re­mained un­re­solved.

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.”

But Weiss­mann’s re­marks seem to sug­gest that for the spe­cial coun­sel, at least, that av­enue of in­quiry is still alive.

The sanc­tions have in­flicted sub­stan­tial pain on the Rus­sian econ­omy. As a can­di­date and a new pres­i­dent, Trump seemed skep­ti­cal that such pun­ish­ment was nec­es­sary or ef­fec­tive.

Kil­imnik, mean­while, was try­ing to use his ex­ten­sive ties to Manafort to ad­vance another plan. It en­vi­sioned the re­turn of Vik­tor Yanukovych, a pro-Rus­sia politi­cian who had risen to the pres­i­dency of Ukraine in 2010 with the help of Manafort, who was paid tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for his ef­forts.

Yanukovych was forced from of­fice by a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing in 2014 and fled to Rus­sia. Kil­imnik wanted to res­ur­rect him as a semi­au­tonomous leader in east­ern Ukraine, a di­vi­sion of the coun­try fiercely op­posed by most Ukraini­ans.

In a Fe­bru­ary 2017 in­ter­view with the Times, Kil­imnik de­scribed Manafort as a pos­si­ble ne­go­tia­tor for the deal. He said that Manafort had told him that “there is only one en­emy – the chaos.”

“If there is a se­ri­ous project that can bring peace to Ukraine, Manafort will be back,” Kil­imnik said at the time.

The first dis­cus­sion be­tween Manafort and Kil­imnik cited by the pros­e­cu­tors took place on Aug. 2, 2016, at the Grand Ha­vana Room in Man­hat­tan, and also in­cluded Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy on the Trump cam­paign and dur­ing his Ukraine work.

Weiss­mann noted that Manafort and Gates tried to avoid draw­ing at­ten­tion at that meet­ing, leav­ing sep­a­rately from Kil­imnik.

“That meet­ing and what hap­pened at that meet­ing is of sig­nif­i­cance to the spe­cial coun­sel,” Weiss­mann said at the hear­ing.

Manafort ini­tially told pros­e­cu­tors he had dis­missed Kil­imnik’s pro­posal out of hand, Weiss­mann said. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the tran­script, Manafort and Kil­imnik talked about the pro­posal again in De­cem­ber 2016; in Jan­uary 2017, when Kil­imnik was in Washington for Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion; and again in Madrid the next month.

Weiss­mann noted that those talks went for­ward de­spite the “enor­mous amount of at­ten­tion” in the United States at the time to con­tacts be­tween Rus­sians and Trump as­so­ci­ates.

Manafort’s lawyer, Richard Westling, sug­gested the dis­cus­sions were not all that mem­o­rable to Manafort be­cause he had min­i­mal in­ter­est in ad­vanc­ing Kil­imnik’s plan. Although the two men re­vis­ited the pro­posal af­ter Trump’s elec­tion, he said, “there is no real fol­low through.”

Westling said it was not the only such plan afloat – nor was it the only one pro­posed by Kil­imnik, who has de­nied hav­ing ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence. Kevin Down­ing, another lawyer for Manafort, ar­gued that sus­pi­cions about Kil­imnik’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions were “non­sense” be­cause “the sanc­tions were go­ing to con­tinue against Rus­sia” whether or not Trump was elected.

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