The Shadowy Operative at the Center of the Russia Scandal

2018/3/30 17:29:26

“[Rick] Gates knew of Kilimnik’s background. He told Alex van der Zwaan—a lawyer he and Manafort worked with on a project to shore up support for Manafort’s client at the time, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—about the former intelligence officer’s past as a GRU officer, according to prosecutors. Gates was indicted last October on charges including money laundering and tax fraud, and is now cooperating with the special counsel.[Photo: Konstantin Kilimnik]


BY NATASHA BERTRAND,  for THE ATLANTIC, Mar 29, 2018

 

Court documents call him Person A, but descriptions match the officer to Russian intelligence and to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

 

Buried in a late-night court filing in Robert Mueller’s expansive probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was an explosive claim: An adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams had knowingly been in contact with a former Russian intelligence officer as late as September 2016, prosecutors said. The revelation is the strongest connection to date between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s intelligence services, which U.S. officials say were behind the cyberattacks on Democrats during the election.

 

The adviser, Rick Gates, was a deputy to Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and stayed on as a liaison between Trump’s transition team and the Republican National Committee after the election, well after Manafort was forced to step down over his alleged ties to dirty Ukrainian money. Manafort and Gates’s arrival to the campaign team coincided with the most pivotal Russia-related episode of the election: the release of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee by hackers working for the GRU, Russia’s premier military-intelligence unit. The GRU remained at the center of the Russians’ interference campaign, using the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to publish the hacked material in droves before the election. Gates and Manafort, meanwhile, remained in touch with the former GRU officer who the special counsel’s office believes was still connected to Russian intelligence services during the election—raising new questions about what the campaign officials knew about Russia’s hack-and-dump scheme.

 

The former GRU officer was identified in Mueller’s latest filing only as “Person A.” But the descriptions allude to Konstantin Kilimnik—a Russian-Ukrainian dual citizen who attended a Soviet military school in Ukraine and later joined the Russian Army as a translator. Kilimnik left the army and eventually landed at the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in 1995, where he worked for over a decade.

 

Gates knew of Kilimnik’s background. He told Alex van der Zwaan—a lawyer he and Manafort worked with on a project to shore up support for Manafort’s client at the time, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—about the former intelligence officer’s past as a GRU officer, according to prosecutors. Gates was indicted last October on charges including money laundering and tax fraud, and is now cooperating with the special counsel.

 

An IRI spokeswoman told me that “he was asked to leave because he violated IRI’s code of ethics,” and that, to her knowledge, “no one had any reason to believe that he was affiliated with Russian intelligence.” The spokeswoman would not elaborate on Kilimnik’s alleged ethics breach, but it may have had something to do with his overlapping work as a translator for Manafort in 2005. Kilimnik soon began working for Manafort’s firms full time. The lawyer at the center of Tuesday’s court filing, van der Zwaan, had “grown too close to Manafort,  Gates, and Person A,” prosecutors alleged.

 

Manafort, like Gates, was in touch with Kilimnik in 2016. As The Atlantic reported last year, emails Manafort turned over to investigators as part of their examination of Russia’s election interference included correspondence with Kilimnik about a Russian oligarch with whom Manafort hoped to curry favor—using his campaign role. Manafort and Kilimnik also had two in-person meetings in May and August 2016.

 

The special counsel’s office appears to have referenced Kilimnik in court filings before Tuesday: Urging a judge to reject a proposed bail deal for Manafort in December, prosecutors noted that Manafort and his “longtime Russian colleague” who is “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service” had been collaborating on an English-language op-ed aimed at portraying Manafort’s work in Ukraine in a positive light. But the special counsel’s office did not specify then, as it did on Tuesday, that this individual “had such ties in 2016”—seemingly drawing a straight line from the Trump campaign to Russia.

 

Legal experts and former federal prosecutors told me it was too difficult to say, at this point, why Mueller’s team had declined to identify Kilimnik by name. “There are many reasons why a prosecutor might not name a person uncharged in an indictment,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and longtime white-collar defense attorney. “Indeed, DOJ standard policy holds that persons not charged should, presumptively, NOT be named in indictment, as a simple matter of fairness. Of course, there are sometimes reasons that rule is not followed.” Another possibility is that Kilimnik is already cooperating with prosecutors.

 

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