The Heart of the Special Counsel’s Investigation

Last November, Robert Mueller announced that Paul Manafort had breached his plea agreement by lying to investigators. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson is now in the process of taking evidence on those charges to determine a sentence for the crimes Manafort has admitted to committing. The partially redacted transcript of Monday’s closed court hearing on that has been released, with Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann noting that what was discussed “goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating”

As you might recall, Mueller’s initial report about Manafort’s lies focused heavily on his interactions with Russian agent Konstantin Kilimnick, who had worked with the president’s former champaign chair since 2005 in support of Putin’s ally, Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych.

From previous court filings we know that Manafort met with Kilimnick on August 2, 2016, and that part of their discussion involved a so-called “peace plan” for Ukraine. Those discussions are what Weissmann said go to the heart of what Mueller is investigating.

Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told a federal judge Monday that a meeting Manafort and Kilimnik had in August 2016 was “of significance to the special counsel.”…

At the meeting, Ukrainian policy — and, it appears according to previous filings, a peace plan that would have benefited Russia — came up. Manafort in interviews with the special counsel said the discussion with Kilimnik about the topic ended then.

But, prosecutors say, Manafort met with Kilimnik several times throughout 2017 and even into 2018, and discussed Ukrainian policy again and again.

“This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” Weissmann said at the hearing. “There is an in-person meeting at an unusual time for somebody who is the campaign chairman to be spending time, and to be doing it in person.”

The mere fact that Trump’s ex-campaign manager met with a Russian agent in-person during the heart of the campaign would be significant. But why would Manafort and his team be so interested in the Ukranian peace plan?

If you remember, President Obama rallied our allies to impose significant sanctions on Russia following their incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Additional Russian sanctions were imposed after it became clear that Moscow had attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. Michael Flynn was convicted of lying to the FBI about his discussions with the Russian ambassador concerning possible relief from those sanctions after Trump’s inauguration. Finally, it is clear that at least one of the topics discussed at the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 was the Maginsky Act, which had imposed sanctions on Russians who were involved in the death of Sergei Maginsky.

It is worth noting that many of the contacts the Trump campaign had with Russians during the course of the campaign and transition involved discussions about sanctions the U.S. had imposed. To the extent there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, it appears that sanction relief was Putin’s quid in exchange for the campaign’s pro.

We also know that, while the discussions between Manafort and Kilimnick about Ukraine extended from early August 2016 well into Trump’s presidency, this happened shortly after he assumed office:

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort…

But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.

Felix Sater has denied that this is the same so-called “peace plan” discussed by Manafort and Kilimnick, but I agree with Josh Marshall.

I’ve always thought the content of these ‘plans’ isn’t really the point. So whether it was the same one as the Cohen-Sater one isn’t really the point. They almost all involved some recognition of Russian gains on the ground in Ukraine and the removal of sanctions.

In the end, what we learned from the Mueller team this week is that the heart of their investigation is the potential quid pro quo Putin wanted for his help in getting Trump elected.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.