Riddle me this: Exactly how did the Deep State, anti-Trump conspirators in the FBI and CIA persuade Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to hand over sensitive internal polling data to a Russian spy? Not to mention, what did Konstantin Kilimnik do with it?
More to the point, how is Attorney General William Barr going to explain it away? Particularly in view of the fact that Manafort remains locked up in a federal slammer, having violated a plea agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller for lying to investigators about that very thing.
Because if Barr can’t explain, then all of his weasel-worded insinuations about the FBI “spying” on the Trump campaign stand revealed for what they are: the desperate rationalizations of a cunning political operative willing to play along with an absurd conspiracy theory concocted to appease Donald J. Trump and distract his fervid supporters.
According to hardcore Trumpists, see, the only real misconduct that took place during the 2016 presidential election was the Russia investigation itself: a hoax cooked up by a cabal of intelligence professionals directed by the Obama White House. A “coup” attempt, Trump calls it. He’s even used the word “treason,” as if he himself were the United States.
Hint: He’s not.
More excitable Trump cultists are even predicting election year show trials in 2020. Appearing recently on Fox News, longtime Trump associate Corey Lewandowski listed several high-ranking FBI officials he expected to see indicted, especially former Director James Comey for “crimes ... against the Fourth Amendment.” Whatever those are. Former CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. were also mentioned.
Can we pause for a moment here to observe that the U.S. government purging its own intelligence agencies would be a fulfillment of Vladimir Putin’s dreams? Such a spectacle could only make the onetime KGB agent and Russian dictator nostalgic for the Soviet Union’s glory days.
But back to Trump campaign director Manafort’s secretive meeting with Kilimnik, the Russian spy. Assistant campaign director Rick Gates also attended. A longtime Manafort employee during his days working for pro-Russian Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, Kilimnik flew in from Moscow.
Hardly, then, a casual get-together. They referred to Yanukovych, deposed and exiled to Russia, in coded messages as “the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar.” The meeting took place at the height of the campaign, on Aug. 2, 2016, in the Grand Havana Room, a penthouse cigar bar with dramatic views of the Manhattan skyline, very near Trump Tower. Tellingly, all three left by separate exits.
According to the Mueller report, they discussed a Ukraine “peace plan” Kilimnik had in mind, essentially a free hand for Moscow. He hoped Trump would endorse it, which, given the candidate’s repetition of Russian talking points about the occupation of Crimea, certainly seemed possible, although it never happened. (Media accounts of Manafort’s previous political work for Yanukovych led him to resign from the Trump campaign soon afterward.)
Only days before, Wikileaks had published the first batch of stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee to great fanfare. Democrats blamed Russian hackers, an accusation U.S. intelligence agencies ultimately confirmed.
Manafort has never come clean about the episode. Perhaps seeking a pardon from Trump, or possibly fearful of crossing the Russians, he has chosen prison – a standup guy if you learned your ethics from “Godfather” films.
According to the Mueller report, Manafort “lied to the Office and the grand jury about the peace plan and his meetings with Kilimnik, and his unreliability on this subject was among the reasons that the district judge found that he breached his cooperation agreement.”
Even so, Mueller established that the three chums discussed something else in the Grand Havana Room: Trump campaign tactics for the so-called “battleground states” of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. In short, information useful for anybody planning an online disinformation campaign like the one Russian operatives successfully deployed.
Detailed internal polling would have been very useful to such an effort. But Manafort lied, and the Russians aren’t talking. So in the end, no conspiracy could be proved. For all the circumstantial evidence, the Mueller report concluded that “because of questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the Office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.”
That said, an innocent explanation for Manafort’s actions would be hard to imagine. But that’s not the point. It’s preposterous to imagine that Comey made him do it. Indeed, if they knew the facts, most Americans would think that it would be a dereliction of duty for FBI counterintelligence officers not to investigate.
Put Comey on trial? Not a chance.
Barr may be an opportunist, but he’s not fool enough to volunteer to lose the trial of the century.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected]