On June 19, 2017, the Washington Post broke the story that Paul Manafort, while serving as the chairman of the Trump campaign, had a secret August 2, 2016 meeting with suspected GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer Konstantin Kilimnik in a Manhattan cigar bar called the Grand Havana Room. I still don’t know how the Post got wind of the meeting, but it’s hardly breaking news that it took place. You might not realize this if you look at today’s article on the meeting in the Post.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, called the details about what occurred at the Grand Havana Room gathering “the most interesting and potentially significant development we have seen in a long time.”
It’s definitely not the meeting itself that is a significant development. Some of the details that have come out in recent weeks, however, tend to confirm that something seriously nefarious was taking place.
We now know that the deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates also attended the meeting. We know that they all left the club separately in order to evade detection. We know that one of the main topics of discussion was a so-called Ukrainian peace plan that would have presumably allowed Russia to keep possession of the Crimea and get sanctions relief in the bargain. And we know that Manafort and Gates shared detailed polling data with Kilimnik.
These new pieces of information can be integrated with what was public knowledge back in 2017 and with other information that we’ve learned in the interim.
In the Post’s original reporting, they already knew that Kilimnik had been open about his prior work in the Russian military. They knew that he had learned Swedish and English in a language school often used for recruitment by the GRU. Now, we now that Rick Gates has given evidence that Kilimnik acknowledged to him that he had worked for the GRU. We also now have court documents from the Office of Special Counsel stating that the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Kilimnik remained linked to Russian intelligence throughout 2016.
We also have emails and other communications between Manafort and Kilimnik from the spring and summer of 2016 showing that Manafort was seeking to use his positions, first as the delegate manager for the Republican convention and then as the campaign chairman, to “get whole” with a Russian oligarch named Oleg Derispaska. Manafort owed him a great deal of money, perhaps in the neighborhood of 20 million dollars. Through Kilimnik, he offered Deripaska private briefings on the status of the campaign and thinking of Trump’s inner circle. We’ve also learned that the meeting in the Grand Havana Room was initiated at Deripaska’s request.
That information forms the prism through which we should judge the news that Kilimnik arrived at the meeting with a proposed peace deal for Ukraine. That we now know that Manafort had offered Deripaska private briefings on the campaign makes it easier to understand why he handed Kilimnik detailed polling data. And the fact that they all left the meeting separately to avoid being seen on the street together indicates that they knew what they were doing was wrong.
The August 2nd meeting is in some ways just one data point in a much bigger picture. For example, there was a (seemingly) separate effort to work with the Trump campaign and incoming administration on an Ukraine peace deal that involved Michael Cohen, Felix Sater, and Michael Flynn. I touched on that deal in prior pieces, including: Trump’s Soho Project, the Mob, and Russian Intelligence and How Did Alex Oronov Die and Why Does It Matter?.
I’ve always wondered why Donald Trump did not attempt to explain Manafort’s relationship with Oleg Derispaska and meetings with Kiliminik away as something knew nothing about. After all, just two weeks after the August 2nd meeting, Trump fired Manafort specifically because he had too many ties to pro-Russia actors in Ukraine. He could have acknowledged that Manafort was a bad actor and explained that he removed him once that became clear to him. My assumption is that this would not really have helped in the end, either because the plot was actually bigger and broader than just Manafort or because he couldn’t afford to alienate Manafort for other unrelated reasons.
As it stands, Manafort was clearly involved in a plot to work with Kremlin. The plot included receiving plans for sanctions relief and it included giving the Russians internal polling data. These activities can’t be separated from Trump campaign because the chairman and deputy chairman were the main drivers. It’s hard to see how, at this late date, they can be separated from Trump. He’s had almost two years to silo himself off from Manafort and yet he’s been more interested in keeping him quiet.