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Evidence of Trump-Russia Collusion in Senate Intelligence Report is Flimsy at Best, Fraudulent at Worst

(Aaron Mate, RealClearInvestigations) The declaration that Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager employed a Russian intelligence officer was the headline-grabbing finding of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s fifth and final Russian interference report, released Aug. 18 at the time of the Democratic National Convention.

According to the report, Paul Manafort’s 2016 interactions with his longtime associate, Ukraine-born Russian national Konstantin Kilimnik, “represent the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services,” and amounted to “a grave counterintelligence threat” to the United States.

To hear Trump-Russia conspiracy advocates tell it, Kilimnik was the elusive missing link that proved the Trump campaign’s complicity in Russian electoral interference.

“Manafort, while he was chairman of the Trump campaign, was secretly communicating with a Russian intelligence officer with whom he discussed campaign strategy and repeatedly shared internal campaign polling data,” five of the committee’s Democratic members wrote in a pointed addendum. “This is what collusion looks like.”

But the plain text of the Senate report contains no concrete evidence to support its conclusions.

Instead, with a heavy dose of caveats and innuendo, reminiscent of much of the torrent of investigative verbiage in the Russiagate affair, the report goes to great lengths to cast a pall of suspicion around Kilimnik, much of which is either unsupported or contradicted by publicly available information.

The office of Democrat Mark Warner, the highest-ranking Senator on the committee through the duration of the probe until the report’s release, did not respond to emailed questions about the panel’s work.

Kilimnik: ‘Likely’ Channel to Russia?

Konstantin Kilimnik in 2006: To hear Trump-Russia conspiracy advocates tell it, he was the elusive missing link that proved the Trump campaign’s complicity in Russian interference. But the plain text of the Senate report offers no concrete evidence./AP Photo

For the record, Kilimnik has steadfastly denied that he is a Russian intelligence officer or has ties to Russian intelligence.

Much of the Senate’s portrayal of him relies on information gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which prosecuted Manafort on financial and lobbying charges stemming from his work in Ukraine prior to the 2016 campaign.

Kilimnik, a 50-year-old political consultant, was born in Soviet Union-era Ukraine, attended a Soviet military academy, and maintains homes in both Ukraine and Russia.

Starting in 2005, Kilimnik played a central role in Manafort’s political operation in Ukraine, representing powerful oligarchs and helping guide Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency.

The Senate committee’s claim that Kilimnik is a Russian spy goes far beyond the Mueller report, which stated that the FBI believes Kilimnik has unspecified “ties to Russian intelligence.” (A similarly vague formulation was used about the reported spark for the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, whom the Mueller report described as having “connections to Russia.”)

The SSCI offers no window into how it went further than the Mueller report for its “assessment.” Multiple sections purporting to contain supporting information are redacted. The Senate report also tacitly concedes it has no hard proof that Kilimnik shared information from Manafort with anyone, let alone officials in the Russian government. Kilimnik, it speculates, “likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services,” an acknowledgment that it has not uncovered definitive proof.

A critical disclosure by the Mueller team during its investigation – but unmentioned in both the final Mueller and Senate reports – directly contradicts the Senate’s assessment. After Mueller accused Kilimnik of having unspecified Russian intelligence “ties” in 2017, Manafort’s legal team made multiple discovery requests for any communication between Manafort and “Russian intelligence officials.” In April 2018, Manafort’s attorneys revealed that the special counsel replied that “there are no materials responsive to [those] requests.” The Mueller team’s response marked a tacit admission that as of 2019, the FBI did not consider Kilimnik a Russian agent.

Peter Strzok: In recently unsealed notes, even this anti-Trump counterintelligence agent wrote: “We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”/AP Photo

In recently unsealed notes from the FBI’s collusion probe, Peter Strzok – the top FBI counterintelligence agent who opened the investigation – wrote in early 2017: “We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”

Sam Patten: Kilimnik emailed him a joking reference that the Senate report treated as no laughing matter./AP Photo

The next section reports that “in 2017, Kilimnik denied in private communications with Patten that there was Russian interference in the U.S. elections.” The evidence to support that assertion is that “Kilimnik emailed Patten a Financial Timesarticle on Russian interference in the U.S. elections,” and joked that U.S. intelligence “must be having very little sleep chasing those squirrels who they think exist.”

Beyond those emails, which prove nothing at all, the Senate report delves extensively into the activity of a Twitter account that it alleges Kilimnik used under the pseudonym “Petro Baranenko” (@PBaranenko). The account’s tweets, SSCI says, “centered on efforts to discredit the Russia investigations.” The report discloses the email address used to create the Twitter account but does not explain why it believes that Kilimnik is behind it. In a direct message exchange with RealClearInvestigations, the @PBaranenko account user denied being Kilimnik. “I am not Kilimnik and have nothing to do with him,” the user wrote. “I have no idea why whoever wrote this report made this allegation.”
The account user declined requests for an interview to corroborate that denial. Regardless, even if the account does belong to Kilimnik, the SSCI leaves unexplained how these innocuous emails and tweets amount to evidence that he is a Russian spy.

A ‘Valuable Resource’ for the U.S.

A deep and unresolved tension in the Senate report is that even as it declares that Kilimnik was a Russian intelligence officer, it documents his extensive U.S. government ties and involvement in political efforts hostile to Russian interests.

Victoria Nuland: Kilimnik served as a translator for this Obama-era Assistant Secretary of State. The Senate report does not explain the disconnect between his extensive U.S. government interactions and his supposedly being a Russian spy./CBS

Eric Schultz: The U.S. ambassador was among the American officials who exchanged inside information with Kilimnik./asterslaw.com

FBI and State documents not mentioned in the Senate report, first revealed by investigative journalist John Solomon in 2019, show that U.S. officials described Kilimnik as a “sensitive source” and exchanged inside information with him. In May 2016, the then-U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, Eric Schultz, who knew Kilimnik from a prior stint at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, shared his personal assessments of then-incoming Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and her deputy, George Kent.

The previous December, a U.S. Embassy official in Kiev, Alexander “Sasha” Kasanof, told Kilimnik about the Obama administration’s assessment of a meeting between Yuriy Boyko, an associate of Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, and Assistant Secretary of State Nuland. “I thought Boyko did quite well, in fact,” Kasanof wrote. “Don’t know that he convinced Nuland on everything (incl. [Firtash’s] intentions), but his performance was much less Soviet and better than I thought would be.”

‘The U.S. Should Not Risk Losing Ukraine to Russia’

Paul Manafort: Kilimnik was deeply involved in Manafort’s efforts to advance the U.S. government’s agenda in Ukraine — during the same period the Senate panel suggests Kilimnik was acting as an intelligence officer on Russia’s behalf./AP Photo

‘Opportunities’ for Innuendo

While it ignores these countervailing facts about Kilimnik, the Senate report devotes dozens of pages to revisiting the controversy surrounding Kilimnik’s alleged receipt of Trump campaign polling data from Manafort in 2016.

The Mueller report ultimately concluded that it “did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election,” and, moreover, “did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.”

The SSCI report offers nothing new to change the picture, beyond its own speculation. It has never been established that Kilimnik ever sent the data to anyone, and if he did, the only known alleged recipients were Ukrainians, not Russians. The report notes that it was “unable to obtain direct evidence of what Kilimnik did with the polling data and whether that data was shared further.”

Rather than viewing the polling data incident as a “grave” act of Russian intelligence infiltration, the Senate report, like the Mueller report before it, contains a much simpler – and substantiated – explanation: Manafort shared the data to bolster his business interest. The Senate report notes that Manafort associate Rick Gates testified that he thought Manafort instructed him to share the polling data with Kilimnik “as part of an effort to resolve past business disputes and obtain new work with their past Russian and Ukrainian clients by showcasing Manafort’s success,” and to display “the strength of Manafort’s position on the Campaign.”

The report also recounts that in the immediate aftermath of his hiring as Trump campaign chair, Manafort  reached out to three Ukrainian oligarchs and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in a bid to showcase his new position and float the possibility of future partnerships. Just two weeks after his hiring, Manafort wrote an email in which he “asked Kilimnik how his role with the Trump Campaign could be leveraged to collect the money owed to him by the OB [Opposition Bloc, a Ukrainian political party].” Gates, a key source for the SSCI’s examination of Manafort, also testified that Manafort had told him that “working for the Trump Campaign would be ‘good for business’ and a potential way for Manafort’s firm to be paid for work done in Ukraine for which they were owed.”

It is also unclear how, even if it somehow ended up in the Kremlin’s hands, this polling data could have been of use to an alleged Russian interference operation. As previous Senate reports have found, most of the ads and posts from the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm indicted by Mueller, “were minimally about the candidates,” were written in broken English, mostly ran after the election, and barely reached the battleground states. According to the former SSCI chair Richard Burr, Russian ad spending amounted to $1,979 in Wisconsin – all but $54 of that during the primary – $823 in Michigan, and $300 in Pennsylvania. In addition, as the Mueller team acknowledged in court, it did not possess “any evidence of substantive connections between the [IRA] and the Russian government.”

The Senate report employs more qualified language for another explosive supposition, claiming to have “obtained some information suggestingKilimnik may have beenconnected” to Russia’s alleged hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails in 2016. All the information that supposedly backs up this speculation is redacted. Meanwhile, the report acknowledges it “has no records of, and extremely limited insight into, Kilimnik’s communications.”

Because Kilimnik worked for Manafort, the Senate report concludes that Manafort’s brief stint as Trump campaign chair “created opportunitiesfor Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign.” But the report does not contain a shred of evidence that any such “opportunities” were realized.

In the absence of concrete evidence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s reliance on speculation and innuendo shows that it took ample opportunities to paint Kilimnik in a sinister light. That methodology applies to, and undermines, a number of other critical elements of the Senate committee’s investigation, discussed in the second part of this special report…Original Source

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