Russian Spy or Hustling Political Operative? The Enigmatic Figure at the Heart of Mueller’s Inquiry

Dozens of interviews, court filings and other documents show Mr. Kilimnik to be an operator who moved easily between Russian, Ukrainian and American patrons, playing one off the other while leaving a jumble of conflicting suspicions in his wake. The effort to disentangle the mysteries surrounding him seems likely to leave questions even after the conclusion of the special counsel’s work.

To American diplomats in Washington and Kiev, he has been a well-known character for nearly a decade, developing a reputation as a broker of valuable information like the alliances of Ukraine’s oligarchs and the country’s handling of foreign investment and sensitive criminal cases.

.. Prosecutors have also scrutinized the effort by Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik to drum up political consulting business with Kremlin-aligned political figures in Ukraine and Russia who were pushing plans to end the simmering conflict between the countries.

Those so-called peace plans could have resulted in the easing of sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States — a policy shift to which Mr. Trump had signaled an openness during the campaign and one that would have been a major foreign policy victory for the Kremlin.

.. To some of those he encountered, he was an impish, 5-foot-tall cynic whose American associates nicknamed him “Carry-on” or “KK” and who was rejected for a job with an oil company in Moscow in late 2003 or early 2004 because he was seen as too meek.

At the same time, he did little to defuse long-running suspicions that he was a Russian agent. And his involvement in discussions related to back-channel peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia attracted attention from President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, which saw him as a functionary for oligarchs working to sell out Ukraine to Moscow’s benefit, a former United States official said.

Mr. Kilimnik, 49, who has Russian citizenship, now lives in Moscow. He is unlikely to ever face obstruction of justice charges that the special counsel brought against him and Mr. Manafort. And the once chatty operative — who was known for kibitzing with reporters, diplomats and political consultants over WhatsApp and in the bar of the Hyatt hotel in Kiev — has gone dark.

Mr. Kilimnik quickly made himself indispensable to Mr. Manafort, who spoke neither Ukrainian nor Russian. At the time, Mr. Manafort worked as a political and business consultant to the Ukrainian steel and coal oligarch Rinat L. Akhmetov, as well as the Russian aluminum oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska.

Mr. Kilimnik traveled extensively with Mr. Manafort, accompanying him to all his meetings and eventually becoming known as “Manafort’s Manafort” in Kiev.

Paul took Konstantin under his wing, not just as a protégé but as his own surrogate son,” Mr. Caputo said.

Mr. Gates, who joined Mr. Manafort’s Ukraine team the year after Mr. Kilimnik and has since pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mr. Mueller stemming from his work there, later told an associate he knew that Mr. Kilimnik was a former officer with the G.R.U., according to a court filing by Mr. Mueller’s team.

In a February 2017 interview with The New York Times in Kiev, Mr. Kilimnik denied ever serving in a Russian intelligence agency. “What would I do if I were a real Russian spy?” he said. “I would not be here. I would be in Russia.”

But for the politicians and oligarchs who were Mr. Manafort’s clients, Mr. Kilimnik’s suspected intelligence connections suggested a seal of approval from Moscow. That was an important selling point, especially when combined with Mr. Manafort’s connections. The perception in political circles in Kiev was that hiring Mr. Manafort’s team would open doors in Washington and Moscow.

Mr. Akhmetov persuaded Mr. Manafort to try to resuscitate the political career of the former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Russia-aligned figure who lost the 2004 presidential election amid allegations of vote-rigging.

In Mr. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Mr. Kilimnik was “known as the representative of Russia,” said Taras V. Chernovyl, a former party member.

With help from Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik, Mr. Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010.

Mr. Manafort, who was not known for spreading the wealth among his subordinates, paid Mr. Kilimnik $530,000 for “professional services and administrative overhead for Kiev operations” from June 2013 to January 2014, according to Justice Department lobbying filings, which show that Mr. Manafort’s company was paid $17 million over a two-year stretch around that time.

.. By then, Mr. Kilimnik was married with two children. His family lived in a modest house not far from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, where he traveled most weekends. But he lived a parallel life in Kiev, where he embraced trappings of his boss’s jet-setting lifestyle, trading the khakis and sweaters he wore at I.R.I. for tailored suits, a chauffeur-driven German car and evenings at an estate with a pool.

Things started going south for Mr. Yanukovych and, by extension, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik, in late 2013, as mass protests erupted over the government’s corruption and pivot toward Russia. Mr. Yanukovych stepped down and fled in February 2014, eventually arriving in Moscow.

Russia began a military incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014. And Mr. Kilimnik leveraged his access to American diplomats for a new endeavor.

He turned up in Donetsk as the city was slipping into war, presenting himself as having “the State Department’s ear, the American ear in general,” said Aleksei Kovzhun, a member of a group of pro-Ukrainian political advisers working there.

.. Mr. Kilimnik joined their ranks, and in emails reviewed by The Times, he encouraged them to appease the Russian-speaking population, who, he wrote, merely wanted “stable work, good salaries and a turn to the better for their children.”

The American Embassy was overly focused on the Russian military threat, he said. “The whole American Embassy is counting barricades,” he wrote, adding about the United States diplomats he was in contact with, “the idiots.”

In hindsight, Mr. Kovzhun said, “I can see that he could easily be a Russian agent who just came to monitor the situation, and be in the center of pro-Ukrainian power in the region.”

With their primary benefactor in exile, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik sought business with Russia-aligned factions that arose from the ashes of Mr. Yanukovych’s party.

A common goal for these factions was to pursue initiatives to settle the Ukraine conflict on terms seen by many in the country as favorable to Russia, and as an opening for an effort to persuade the United States and its allies to lift sanctions on Moscow.

Among the Russia-aligned Ukrainians they advised was Oleksandr V. Klymenko, who was a minister in Mr. Yanukovych’s government. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik discussed plans to conduct polling in connection with a possible bid by Mr. Klymenko for president of Ukraine in 2019, even though he was living in exile in Moscow and under European Union sanctions, according to three people briefed on their activities.

Another client was a party backed by Serhiy Lyovochkin, a television company owner who served as Mr. Yanukovych’s chief of staff. The party, known as Opposition Bloc, had fallen behind in paying Mr. Manafort’s invoices, according to Mr. Kilimnik and other people familiar with the situation, and the pair hoped to persuade Mr. Lyovochkin to turn the spigot back on.

.. The situation was on Mr. Kilimnik’s agenda when he headed to the United States within a month of Mr. Manafort’s joining the Trump campaign, telling associates in Kiev that he also hoped to meet with Mr. Trump and to potentially work with his campaign in some capacity.

A White House spokesman said Mr. Trump was introduced to thousands of people during the 2016 campaign. While it is possible he met with Mr. Kilimnik, “the president has no recollection of it,” the spokesman said.

Around the time of Mr. Kilimnik’s trip to the United States in spring 2016, Mr. Manafort directed Mr. Gates to transfer some polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, including public polling and some developed by a private polling company working for the campaign, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov, the person said. Representatives for both Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov said they neither requested nor received the data, and would have had no use for it.

Mr. Mueller’s team has focused on what appears to have been another discussion about polling data in New York on Aug. 2, 2016. A partly redacted court transcript suggests that Mr. Gates, who entered a plea agreement with the special counsel that requires his cooperation, may have told prosecutors that Mr. Manafort had walked Mr. Kilimnik through detailed polling data at a meeting that day in the cigar lounge of the Grand Havana Room in Manhattan.

.. The meeting also included a conversation about one Ukrainian “peace plan,” according to court filings.

Prosecutors contend that Mr. Manafort lied to them about the meeting and other interactions with Mr. Kilimnik. Those lies, a federal judge ruled, violated Mr. Manafort’s agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for consideration of a reduced sentence related to his work in Ukraine.

Mr. Manafort’s lies about his interactions with Mr. Kilimnik gave “rise to legitimate questions about where his loyalties lie,” Judge Amy Berman Jackson said.

.. Just before Mr. Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign in mid-August 2016 amid scrutiny of his work in Ukraine, the F.B.I. opened an investigation into the campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

It led to a guilty plea by Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, for lying to the F.B.I. about conversations with the Russian ambassador related to the sanctions.

By the inauguration, investigators were focusing on Mr. Kilimnik and his connections to Mr. Manafort.

Yet Mr. Kilimnik again traveled to the United States for Mr. Trump’s inauguration, meeting in the Washington area with Mr. Manafort, according to Mr. Mueller’s team.

.. While the trip was not publicly revealed until nearly two years later, it was on the F.B.I.’s radar. Peter Strzok, the agent who oversaw the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the election until he was reassigned and later fired for sending text messages critical of Mr. Trump, expressed frustration when he learned that Mr. Kilimnik had come and gone without being interviewed by agents.

Yet Mr. Kilimnik again traveled to the United States for Mr. Trump’s inauguration, meeting in the Washington area with Mr. Manafort, according to Mr. Mueller’s team.

While the trip was not publicly revealed until nearly two years later, it was on the F.B.I.’s radar. Peter Strzok, the agent who oversaw the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the election until he was reassigned and later fired for sending text messages critical of Mr. Trump, expressed frustration when he learned that Mr. Kilimnik had come and gone without being interviewed by agents.

“Everything is completely falling off the rails,” Mr. Strzok wrote in a text to a colleague on Jan. 23, 2017 — three days after the inauguration — referring to the missed opportunity.

The month after the inauguration, Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Manafort met again and discussed a poll being planned for Mr. Klymenko’s prospective presidential campaign, according to court filings and interviews.

The poll was not conducted, according to people familiar with the arrangement, and Mr. Klymenko ultimately did not run.

In previously unpublished messages to The Times around the time of that meeting, Mr. Kilimnik suggested that the escalating news coverage was making him a target in both Ukraine and Russia.

“After another surge of attention, I am sure I will finally get on the radar screen of the Russian authorities,” he wrote.

Mr. Manafort’s allies point out that Mr. Mueller’s team has not publicly presented any evidence that Mr. Kilimnik is a Russian agent. They argue that it is unlikely that he is an agent because he was able to travel freely to the United States and deal regularly with its officials. To buttress this case, Mr. Manafort’s lawyers requested and received records from the government showing that Mr. Kilimnik communicated with officials at the American Embassy in Kiev.

“If he was a Russian intelligence asset, then the State Department officials who met with him over the years should be under investigation,” Mr. Caputo said.

Of Course There Is Such a Thing as a ‘Perjury Trap’

They point out that the president says many things that are not just inaccurate but knowingly false. In maintaining that there are no perjury traps, what they are really arguing is that Trump does not need to be “trapped” into perjury; that his lawyers’ claims about Mueller’s treacherousness are a smokescreen to hide their real worry: viz., that Trump will lie in the interview because that is what Trump does.

If that is what they think, then that is what they should say. It’s a perfectly coherent position, especially if one is predisposed to believe that Trump is incorrigible, and that he conspired with Russia to steal the election, then obstructed the FBI in order to cover it up.

But see, for charging purposes, the witness who answers the questions does not get to decide whether they have been answered truthfully. That is up to the prosecutor who asks the questions. The honest person can make his best effort to provide truthful, accurate, and complete responses; but the interrogator’s evaluation, right or wrong, determines whether those responses warrant prosecution.

.. There were some discrepancies between Flynn’s account of the discussions and the FBI’s understanding of them (we’ll come back to why). Did that necessarily mean Flynn lied? Of course not. To take the most obvious possibility, Flynn could have had an innocent failure of recollection. It happens to all of us; it would happen to you if you tried to describe this this column to someone without having a copy of it in hand.

The investigators and prosecutors had to weigh whether Flynn’s discrepancies were honest mistakes or conscious misstatements. It appears that the first set of investigators gave him the benefit of the doubt, but Mueller’s team drew the opposite conclusion. Yes, Flynn ultimately pled guilty, but when highly experienced investigators assess the same basic facts differently, the matter cannot be black-and-white.

..  The conversations happened months before the FBI asked him about them, so could he simply have remembered them wrong? Sure . . . but the investigators decided otherwise because Papadopoulos had a strong motive to fudge the timing: The conversations would seem innocuous if they’d happened before he joined the Trump campaign, but possibly sinister if after he joined, as was in fact the case. The fact that this was a sensible conclusion hardly makes it an ineluctable one.

.. In his fourth day on the job as national-security adviser, Flynn had every reason to believe Strzok was there to talk business, not because Flynn was a suspect. Flynn did not have a lawyer present. We do not know whether Strzok advised him of his Miranda rights (which is often done even when, as in Flynn’s situation, it is not legally required because the suspect is not in custody). Here’s what we do know: The Justice Department and FBI were so hot to make a criminal case on Flynn that they used the Logan Act — an unconstitutional blight on the penal code that has never been used to convict anyone in over 200 years — as a pretext to investigate him.

.. And what did they ask him about? Conversations of which they had recordings. Why on earth would it be necessary to interrogate someone — let alone a top government national-security official — regarding the details of conversations about which the FBI already knew the details? Why conduct an investigative interview, carrying potential criminal peril, under circumstances in which the FBI already knew

.. We don’t know for certain that the Flynn interview was a perjury trap. But it sure looks like one. And regardless of whether Flynn pled guilty because he is guilty (or because enormous pressure, such as the possibility of charging his son, was put on him), we also know that the question of whether to prosecute him was a judgment call — one on which Mueller aggressively said yes, when others had said no.

.. What we refer to as a “perjury” trap covers both perjury and false statements. The difference between the two is more form than substance. To oversimplify a bit, perjury is a lie under oath; a false statement or material omission is a lie told to government investigators when no oath has been administered; the potential sentence for both is zero to five years’ imprisonment.

.. Successful perjury traps do not get prosecuted all that often. But that does not mean perjury traps are uncommon. They tend to be used more for leverage than to prosecute as a stand-alone charge. A prosecutor who knows a reluctant witness will lie elicits the lie and then exploits the resulting specter of prosecution — along with other leverage points — to pressure the witness into spilling the beans. Or, in a jury trial, the prosecutor who suspects a defense witness will lie, sets the trap, elicits the lie, and then blows it up — not to lay the groundwork for a future perjury charge but to destroy the witness’s credibility, which helps win the trial.

Why are Republicans hiding Peter Strzok’s testimony?

He testified in a closed session before the House Oversight and Judiciary committees on Wednesday.

The president and his supporters argue that Strzok’s early involvement in the Russia probe taints the entire investigation. On Thursday Trump tweeted that Strzok “was given poor marks on yesterday’s closed-door testimony” and that Strzok’s role in the Russia investigation was further evidence of the “witch hunt” against him. But although the president himself had called for Strzok’s testimony to be public, Congress did not agree.

Strzok certainly doesn’t act like someone with anything to hide. He offered to testify publicly and without a subpoena. He didn’t take the Fifth or demand immunity. Unlike the president in his dealings with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Strzok did not haggle for months over the terms or scope of an interview.

.. based on a few dozen text messages out of more than 40,000 that he and Page exchanged on FBI devices.

.. “We’ll stop it” text message? Most have assumed that “we” means the FBI. But it’s at least as likely that Strzok, in a personal message to his girlfriend, was referring to we the voters, or we the American people. That would have been an unremarkable sentiment shared by about half the people in the country

.. It’s quite a leap to go from that text message to a claim that Strzok tried to use his official powers to tip the election.

And there’s no evidence that he did.

.. Maybe Strzok really was part of a “deep state” conspiracy to take down Trump — even though everything the FBI did during the email investigation actually ended up hurting his opponent.

.. Maybe that same conspiracy now infects Mueller’s probe. If that’s the fear, what’s the argument for keeping Strzok’s testimony secret?

.. These congressmen who claim to be interested in transparency and full disclosure should be eager to make Strzok’s testimony public — particularly since the president claims that testimony will provide evidence of the “witch hunt” against him. So what are these Republicans hiding?

.. Strzok’s text messaging habits, however imprudent, have nothing to do with the merits of the Mueller investigation. Keeping his testimony secret leads only to selective leaks, spin and speculation.

Documents suggest possible coordination between CIA, FBI, Obama WH and Dem officials early in Trump-Russia probe: investigators

Newly uncovered text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page suggest a possible coordination between high-ranking officials at the Obama White House, CIA, FBI, Justice Department and former Senate Democratic leadership in the early stages of the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to GOP congressional investigators on Wednesday.

Lois Lerner’s Last Laugh

If Congress did its job, nobody would be talking about another special counsel.

When House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes subpoenaed documents and testimony from the FBI and Justice Department, he was stonewalled for months. In a last-minute bid to circumvent the committee’s demands, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with Speaker Paul Ryan. The two men ended up agreeing to comply with the subpoenas—but only because Mr. Ryan informed them they would be found in contempt if they did not.

This kind of stonewalling has fed the agitation on Capitol Hill for a second special counsel, who would look into everything from the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation to the use of the Christopher Steele dossier to obtain warrants to listen in on members of the Trump campaign. The calls are mistaken. But the frustration is real

.. But missing here is any discussion of the powers Congress itself has, including but not limited to the subpoena and contempt powers that ultimately forced Mr. Wray and Mr. Rosenstein into compliance.

.. If it only has the backbone, Congress can get what it wants out of the federal bureaucracy. Several executive-branch officials—including Justice’s Bruce Ohr and FBI lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page —will soon testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Possibly some or all of them will invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

If Congress insists on its prerogatives, however, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Witnesses who plead the Fifth can still be compelled to testify. The price is that the compelled testimony, and evidence derived from that testimony, couldn’t be used against the witness in a prosecution.

A special counsel might not like this, given his emphasis on indictments and prosecutions. But Congress should, because its end goal is political accountability. Which would be up to the American people to impose after learning exactly what abuses have transpired.

The Memo Doesn’t Make Its Case 

The truth requires greater transparency

.. That experience teaches me that the memo simply doesn’t make its case. Indeed, it gets less persuasive — and the material omissions more glaring — with each successive read. It might disclose the existence of troubling FBI misconduct, but the fair-minded reader has no way of knowing whether it does.

.. A good summary always supports assertions with evidence. A good summary provides context. A good summary even includes relevant information that contradicts its thesis so that the reader can evaluate the best counter-arguments. 

.. legal arguments typically depend on lawyers taking thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of pages of depositions and documents, crafting a concise narrative, and communicating that narrative to a judge — with citations referring to the relevant evidence and quotations of it as well.

.. If there is no citation or quotation, a judge will typically ask the lawyer, “Counselor, what record evidence supports that assertion?”

.. One of the first and most vital assertions in the entire memo is the claim that “the ‘dossier’ compiled by Christopher Steele (Steele dossier) on behalf of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application.” This statement is initially offered without proof. One has to read down to the next page to see any reference to evidence:

Furthermore, Deputy Director [Andrew] McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.

.. When I read this, I had two immediate thoughts. First, what did he actually say? And second, why the subtle change in language from the argument that the “dossier” was an “essential part” of the FISA application to the statement that the warrant wouldn’t have been sought without the dossier “information”? The “dossier” and the “information” are not the same thing.

.. An effective memo would do more to end the debate. How? By quoting the relevant portions of McCabe’s testimony.

Better yet, it could quote the testimony and attach an appropriately redacted copy of the testimony as an appendix.

.. Even the characterization that the dossier was “essential” is a judgment call based on evidence unavailable to the public. Even worse, it was a judgment call based in part on evidence unavailable even to the rest of the committee.

.. memo should have plainly stated the agreement between the DOJ and the committee, along with the reasons for this agreement.

.. good summaries don’t just support conclusions with evidence, they provide vital and necessary context. On this point, the memo fails utterly.

.. it fails to answer the following questions:

  1. How did the FISA application actually describe Steele?

    .. Democrats are arguing that the political nature of his work was appropriately disclosed.  Don’t we need the actual words used to properly evaluate whether the FBI materially misled the court?

  2. In addition to the information from the Steele dossier, what other information did the FISA application include?
  3. To what extent did the multiple renewal applications depend on the information in the dossier? The memo notes that a FISA order must be renewed every 90 days, and each renewal must be supported by an “independent” probable-cause finding. A Trump appointee, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, signed at least one of these FISA applications. He apparently believed that the request was supported by probable cause. Why?
  4.  What is the “information” regarding Papadopoulos that triggered the opening of the investigation in July 2016 — a full three months before the Page FISA application? The memo provides information obviously designed to impair the credibility of that investigation — by referring to FBI agent Peter Strzok’s well-known political leanings — but it provides no information about any facts supporting the opening of the probe, leaving the reader with the impression that it was opened solely because Strzok dislikes Trump.

I also wrote above that a good summary “even includes relevant information that contradicts its thesis.” The memo omits any such information, but a Democratic rebuttal exists.

.. But even if the public reviews the Democratic rebuttal, the process is still flawed. The proper way to resolve explosive claims of political bias at the highest levels of government isn’t by dribbling out short memoranda but by issuing comprehensively researched and comprehensively supported majority and minority committee reports.

..it’s not by itself scandalous to review political opposition research — a politically motivated person is no more suspect than the terrorists and criminals who routinely provide information used to support even the most intrusive warrants.

.. When I was in Iraq, we were constantly aware that our sources had their own axes to grind. They didn’t want to defeat their opponents in an election. They wanted them to die in a hail of gunfire.

.. Biased sources are an inherent part of intelligence-gathering.

 

Who’s Who Among Trump’s Law-Enforcement Targets

The president has attacked key FBI, Justice figures involved in investigating him

President Donald Trump’s attacks on top Justice Department and FBI officials on Friday mark his latest escalation of rhetoric on officials who one way or another have a hand in investigating ties between the president’s associates and Russia.

  1. Jeff Sessions, attorney general
  2. Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general
  3. Robert Mueller, special counsel
  4. Christopher Wray, FBI director
  5. Andrew McCabe, former FBI deputy director
  6. Peter Strzok, FBI investigator