Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee concludes Trump's campaign chair worked closely with Russia during 2016 election

 Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked closely with a Russian intelligence officer who may have been involved in the hack and release of Democratic emails during the election, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in a bipartisan report released Tuesday.

It’s the furthest U.S. officials have gone in describing Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort business associate, as an agent of the Russian government, reported Politico. The disclosure was part of the committee’s fifth and final installment of its investigation of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In particular, the committee’s investigation found that Manafort “represented a grave counterintelligence threat” due to his relationship with Kilimnik and other Russians connected to the country’s intelligence services — a bombshell conclusion that underscores how Russia developed a direct pipeline to the upper echelons of a U.S. presidential campaign.

“Kilimnik quickly became an integral part of Manafort’s operations in Ukraine and Russia,” the report states, adding that the pair “formed a close and lasting relationship that would endure to the 2016 U.S. elections and beyond.”

Tuesday’s report, the product of a three-year bipartisan probe by the committee, focuses on counterintelligence aspects of the U.S. government’s Russia investigation, including allegations that Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russian operatives. It outlines in exhaustive detail the extent of Trump campaign officials’ contacts with Russians, though it stops short of alleging a direct coordination effort.

The committee, which conducted the only bipartisan investigation on Capitol Hill centering on Russia’s 2016 meddling, also raised the possibility that Manafort was personally connected to the “hack-and-leak operations” that targeted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The committee states that “some evidence suggests Kilimnik may be connected” to the effort, which was helmed by Russia’s GRU, its main military-intelligence directorate. WikiLeaks eventually released the documents obtained in the GRU cyberattack, which included Democratic National Committee emails.

The committee cautioned that Manafort’s personal involvement with the operation is “largely unknown” because investigators were unable to learn the full extent of many of the conversations between Manafort and Kilimnik, which included several in-person meetings, about which “no objective record of their content exists.”

“Kilimnik was in sustained contact with Manafort before, during, and after the GRU cyber and influence operations, but the committee did not obtain reliable, direct evidence that Kilimnik and Manafort discussed the GRU hack-and-leak operation,” the report states.

Kilimnik’s role as a Russian intelligence officer is one of several findings in the 966-page report showing that Trump campaign contacts with Russian intelligence-connected operatives were more extensive than previously known. The report also showed that at least two participants in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Manafort, senior adviser Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. were more deeply tied to Russian intelligence than other reports have indicated.

 “The committee assesses that at least two participants in the June 9, 2016 meeting, [Natalia] Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, have significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services,” the panel concluded. “The connections the committee uncovered, particularly regarding Veselnitskaya, were far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known.”

Kilimnik is described as not only aiding the Russian interference effort but working with Manafort and allies in Ukraine to help cover up evidence of Russia’s involvement — and spread false allegations that it was Ukrainians who interfered instead.

Manafort was convicted of a raft of financial crimes in August 2018 and pleaded guilty to additional crimes in August 2019, briefly pledging to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's team before prosecutors accused him of telling additional lies and breaking off the deal. Manafort was sentenced to 7 and ½ years in prison but was released to home confinement amid the coronavirus pandemic after serving 23 months.

Although Mueller’s report described Kilimnik as simply having “ties” to Russian intelligence, the Senate panel said a more probing analysis revealed him to be a Russian intelligence officer carrying out Kremlin-backed influence operations abroad. In a heavily redacted section of the report, the committee delves into its own assessment of Kilimnik, describing an extensive body of evidence, including communications that reveal Kilimnik misleading even close associates about his connections to Russia.

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