President Trump’s commutation of the prison sentence of his longtime confidante Roger Stone is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, given Trump’s repeated teasing of the matter over the life of the case against Stone, it would have been something of a surprise had he not intervened so that his felonious friend was spared time behind bars.
But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption. In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.
In a normal world, this pattern of conduct would constitute an almost prototypical impeachable offense. But this is not a normal world. Congress is unlikely to bestir itself to do anything about what Trump has done—just as it has previously done nothing about the obstruction allegations detailed in the Mueller report. Indeed, in the midst of a presidential campaign, a second impeachment would surely be ill advised. The only remedy for this behavior, at least while Trump remains in office, has to lie in accountability in the context of Trump’s campaign for reelection.
That is why it is so important to understand the history that led to the Stone commutation, just how corrupt it is, and why the predictability of the president’s action actually inflames public outrage—not inures the public to what Trump has done here.
Roger Stone isn’t just Trump’s confidante or friend. According to newly unsealed material in the Mueller report, he’s also a person who had the power to reveal to investigators that Trump likely lied to Mueller—and to whom Trump publicly dangled rewards if Stone refused to provide Mueller with that information. Now, it seems, the president is making good on that promise.
When the report first became public in April 2019, it described how Stone reached out to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and represented himself to the Trump campaign as having inside information on upcoming releases of information damaging to Hillary Clinton. But a significant portion of the material on Stone was redacted because of ongoing criminal proceedings against him. Recently, however, following the guilty verdict against Stone, a court unsealed that hidden material thanks to litigation by BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The newly unredacted information—some but not all of which was revealed over the course of Stone’s trial, but some of which was not previously public—is highly revealing of Stone’s relationship with the president.
During the 2016 campaign, Mueller writes, Stone “made several attempts to contact WikiLeaks founder Assange, boasted of his access to Assange, and was in regular contact with Campaign officials about the releases that Assange made and was believed to be planning.” He spoke repeatedly about his connections to Assange, witnesses told Mueller, and his ability to find out what new releases of information WikiLeaks was planning. Crucially, the unredacted information includes testimony from multiple witnesses who described Stone’s conversations about upcoming WikiLeaks releases with high-level campaign officials—including Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort—and even Trump himself.
According to Manafort, Trump personally told the chairman that he should keep in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks. Another campaign official, Rick Gates, recalled an incident during the campaign in which Trump spoke by phone with Stone and then told Gates that, as Mueller paraphrases, “more releases of damaging information would be coming.” Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Mueller about overhearing a phone call in which Stone told Trump that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and in a couple of days WikiLeaks would release information.” Then, Mueller writes, once WikiLeaks began dumping material damaging to Clinton in July 2016, Trump “said to Cohen something to the effect of, ‘I guess Roger was right.’”
So Trump clearly knew about and encouraged Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks, the unredacted report shows. Yet in written answers the president provided to Mueller’s office in the course of the special counsel’s investigation, Trump insisted that he did not recall “the specifics of any call [he] had” with Stone during the campaign or any discussions with Stone of WikiLeaks. And shortly after he submitted those answers, the unredacted report states, Trump began tweeting publicly in support of Stone—calling him “brave” and congratulating his “guts” for refusing to testify.
Trump’s tweets were always suspicious, to say the least. And his answers to Mueller seemed less than entirely credible even when the redacted report was first released. But the newly revealed text makes clear Mueller’s suspicions that Trump lied in his written answers—and then pushed Stone not to testify in order to prevent Mueller from discovering that lie. As Mueller put it dryly: “[T]he President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.” The special counsel also writes that Trump’s tweets to Stone—along with his tweets criticizing Cohen, who was by then cooperating with investigators—“support the inference that the President intended to communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the President and disparaged if they chose to cooperate.”
Stone did, indeed, refuse to provide testimony adverse to Trump. And while his precise relationship to WikiLeaks and Assange was never fully explained, he stood trial for lies to Congress denying his efforts to contact WikiLeaks, and for intimidating another witness who could have contradicted those lies. As the judge in Stone’s case put it: “He was prosecuted for covering up for the President.”
Now, with Trump’s commutation, Stone has received the precise reward Trump dangled at the time his possible testimony was at issue.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” the White House said Friday evening. In the White House’s telling, Stone was targeted by out-of-control Mueller prosecutors for mere “process” crimes when their “collusion delusion” fell apart. He was subject to needless humiliation in his arrest, and he did not get a fair trial. “[P]articularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Indeed he is. But the story may not be over.
“Time to put Roger Stone in the grand jury to find out what he knows about Trump but would not tell. Commutation can’t stop that,” tweeted Andrew Weissman, one of Mueller’s top prosecutors, following the president’s action.
That’s most unlikely while the Justice Department remains in the hands of Attorney General William Barr. But it’s far from unthinkable should Trump leave office in January. What’s more, the commutation means that the story Mueller tells about potential obstruction vis-a-vis Stone did not end with the activity described by the Mueller report. It is a continuing pattern of conduct up until the present day. That potentially makes it easier for a future Justice Department to revive at least one of the obstruction questions that Barr squelched when he closed the cases Mueller intentionally did not resolve. In addition to all the facts reported by Mueller, including facts that have been redacted until recently, Trump has now consummated the deal he dangled before Stone.
That’s something the Justice Department may want to examine anew—someday.
As part of the Russia inquiry, President Trump had given written answers to questions from Robert S. Mueller III.
House Democrats are exploring whether President Trump lied in his written answers to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, a lawyer for the House told a federal appeals court on Monday, raising the prospect of an additional basis for an article of impeachment.
The acknowledgment refocused attention on a quiet debate among Democrats about whether any impeachment of Mr. Trump should go beyond the Ukraine affair and also accuse him of obstructing the Russia investigation. Additional evidence, hidden in grand jury files, that Mr. Trump may have lied under oath to Mr. Mueller could bolster the case for an additional article of impeachment, Democratic aides said.
The House lawyer’s statement was also striking because it came shortly after Mr. Trump said he may also be willing to provide written answers about the Ukraine matter to impeachment investigators.
“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.
His statement and the hearing, in a case over the House’s attempt to gain access to secret grand jury evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, came as witnesses and lawmakers jostled for leverage before a new round of impeachment hearings scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who will appear before lawmakers on Tuesday, planned to testify that he was out of the loop at key moments during Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, according to an account of his prepared testimony.
Democrats conducting the inquiry added to their witness list an official at the American Embassy in Kyiv, David Holmes, who testified privately that he overheard Mr. Trump ask a top diplomat if Ukraine would move forward with investigations he sought. They also released transcripts of depositions by Mr. Holmes and David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, that offered more details about the effort by Trump loyalists to pressure Ukraine for the investigations.
And House Republicans wrote to Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who attended the inauguration of Ukraine’s president this year, asking him to provide “any firsthand information you have about President Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.”
But the court hearing heightened attention on House Democrats’ longstanding suspicions about Mr. Trump’s responses to questions in the Russia investigation.
The hearing centered on a Federal District Court’s ruling last month that the House should be given access to secret grand jury evidence from the Mueller investigation immediately, and whether enforcement of that ruling should be stayed while the Justice Department’s appeal is fully litigated.
Later on Monday, the appellate panel decided to keep a stay of the lower-court ruling in place “pending further order of the court,” while issuing an expedited briefing schedule with arguments set for Jan. 3.
If the judiciary keeps the stay in place — including for the likely appeals — House Democrats appear unlikely to receive the grand jury evidence before they decide whether to move forward with an impeachment vote.
Still, the argument underscored that they already have evidence calling into question the honesty of Mr. Trump’s responses from the Mueller report and the recently concluded trial of Mr. Trump’s longtime friend and informal adviser Roger J. Stone Jr.
Mr. Trump had refused to let the special counsel’s office interview him. But in his written responses, which were appended to the Mueller report, he denied that he was aware of any communications between his campaign and WikiLeaks.
House lawyers had suggested in a Sept. 30 filing that some of the materials they were seeking bore in on whether Mr. Trump lied about that subject. And on Monday, Douglas Letter, the general counsel for the House, told a federal appeals court panel that impeachment investigators had an “immense” need to swiftly see the grand jury evidence — redacted portions of the Mueller report, as well as the underlying testimony transcripts they came from.
“Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” Mr. Letter said, adding, “I believe the special counsel said the president had been untruthful in some of his answers.”
He was referring to congressional testimony in July when Mr. Mueller agreed with a lawmaker’s assertion that the president’s written responses “showed that he wasn’t always being truthful.”
Both the lawmaker in July and Mr. Letter on Monday were referring in particular to the question of whether Mr. Trump lied about his campaign’s advance knowledge of and contacts with WikiLeaks about its possession of hacked Democratic emails and plans to publish them.
Mr. Trump wrote that he was “not aware during the campaign of any communications” between “any one I understood to be a representative of WikiLeaks” and people associated with his campaign. Mr. Stone was convicted last week of lying to congressional investigators about his efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks and his discussions with the campaign.
“I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him,” Mr. Trump also wrote of Mr. Stone, “nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.”
But the publicly available portions of the Mueller report suggest that evidence exists to the contrary. Several Trump aides, including Michael D. Cohen and Rick Gates, testified that they heard Mr. Trump discussing coming WikiLeaks releases over the phone.
And in October 2016 Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign chairman, wrote in an email that Mr. Stone had told the campaign “about potential future releases of damaging material” by WikiLeaks shortly before it began publishing more hacked emails.
Mr. Letter brought up redactions in the report associated with Mr. Stone and a redacted reference to an assertion by Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, to a grand jury.
“Manafort said that shortly after WikiLeaks’ July 22, 2016, released of hacked documents, he spoke to Trump [redacted]; Manafort recalled that Trump responded that Manafort should [redacted] keep Trump updated,” the Mueller report said, citing grand jury material as the reason for the redactions.
The report went on to suggest that House investigators may see Mr. Manafort’s grand jury testimony as potentially corroborating Mr. Gates’s account of Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Stone about WikiLeaks.
“Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates said that Manafort was getting pressure about [redacted] information and that Manafort instructed Gates [redacted] status updates on upcoming releases,” the report said, citing an F.B.I. interview with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Letter told the court, “The Manafort situation shows so clearly that there is evidence, very sadly, that the president might have provided untruthful answers,” and added that it “might be part of an impeachment inquiry.”
The Mueller report cited additional evidence from Mr. Gates that Mr. Trump did have discussions about the content or timing of the future release of hacked emails.
For example, Mr. Gates also told investigators that about that same time, he was with Mr. Trump in a car to an airport when Mr. Trump received a call. After something that is redacted in the public version of the report, it recounts that after Mr. Trump hung up, he told Mr. Gates “that more releases of damaging information would be coming,” the report said.
Attorney General William P. Barr permitted the House Judiciary Committee to see most of the Mueller report, including portions that are redacted from the public version because they pertained to continuing cases, but he has refused to let it see material that is subject to secrecy rules because it was presented to a grand jury.
In July, House lawmakers petitioned the chief judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, Beryl A. Howell, for an order allowing them to gain access to that material too. Their court filings in that matter were the first time that the House formally pronounced itself engaged in an impeachment inquiry; there is precedent, including in Watergate, permitting the House to get grand jury information for impeachment proceedings.
Judge Howell ruled in October that the Judiciary Committee should be permitted to see the grand jury material in the report and its underlying basis. But the Justice Department appealed that ruling, arguing that the Watergate precedent was wrong and Congress had no right to see grand jury evidence even for impeachment purposes.
The appeals court panel includes Judge Neomi Rao, a former Trump White House official whom he recently appointed to the bench; Judge Judith W. Rogers, a 1994 appointee of President Bill Clinton; and Thomas B. Griffith, a 2005 appointee of President George W. Bush.
Mr. Stone was found guilty of all seven counts against him, including five involving making false statements to Congress. Federal prosecutors made the case that Mr. Stone lied to Congress about his efforts to make contact with the organization WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The jury of nine women and three men began deliberating Thursday morning at a Washington D.C. courthouse after a one-week trial.
The witness tampering charge carries a stiff penalty, with Mr. Stone facing as much as 20 years in prison, although first-time offenders often get far less than the maximum penalty. The other charges carry a maximum of five years.
WikiLeaks published several troves of Democratic Party emails stolen by Russian hackers as part of a Kremlin campaign to boost Mr. Trump at the expense of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded.
““Roger Stone had no intention of being truthful with the committee…he is just making stuff up,” prosecutor Jonathan Kravis had told jurors, saying Mr. Stone did so to help Mr. Trump.
Mr. Stone is the sixth associate of Mr. Trump to be convicted on charges stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian activity in the 2016 election.
Mr. Mueller’s report didn’t establish that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia. The Stone trial was one of the final loose ends from the Mueller investigation, which wrapped up in March.
Mr. Stone’s defense attorneys portrayed him as a serial exaggerator who was merely pretending to have inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to inflate his standing in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. They offered no witnesses in Mr. Stone’s defense. They rested their case after playing a roughly hourlong clip of Mr. Stone’s testimony in front of Congress.
“There was no purpose for Mr. Stone to have to lie about anything to protect the campaign, when the campaign was doing nothing wrong,” Bruce Rogow told jurors in summing up the case. He also noted that Mr. Stone spoke to Congress after Mr. Trump was elected, so couldn’t have hurt Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Stone has been a Republican operative for decades, beginning in 1972 when he served as a junior staffer on President Nixon’s reelection campaign. He went on to work for Ronald Reagan in his presidential bid. When in New York organizing for the campaign in 1979, he was introduced to Mr. Trump by attorney Roy Cohn.
Mr. Stone registered as a lobbyist on behalf of the Trump Organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to public records. Around that time, he began counseling Mr. Trump on his political ambitions, and the two became friends.
Although Mr. Stone was sidelined from mainstream Republican politics following salacious revelations about his personal life in the mid-1990s, he continued to advise Mr. Trump for years, including helping to lead Mr. Trump’s aborted 2000 presidential campaign on the Reform Party ticket. He served on the Trump 2016 campaign when it started but severed ties in the summer of 2015.
Despite leaving his official role on the campaign, the two men remained in contact leading up to the 2016 election, according to testimony and phone logs introduced in court.
Witnesses testified that Mr. Stone relayed information about WikiLeaks’ plans directly to Mr. Trump and officials at the top of his campaign. Former campaign chairman Steve Bannon told jurors that the campaign considered Mr. Stone to be its “access point” to WikiLeaks, and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates testified that Mr. Stone spoke about forthcoming WikiLeaks releases as early as April of 2016.
Mr. Stone has denied speaking to Mr. Trump about WikiLeaks, and Mr. Trump told the special counsel’s office he didn’t recall discussing WikiLeaks with Mr. Stone, according to written responses he provided to Mr. Mueller’s office last year.
While prosecutors argued Mr. Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee and effectively obstructed their investigation by withholding the name of another witness—conservative activist Jerome Corsi—the trial didn’t resolve questions about whether Messrs. Stone and Corsi and Trump had inside information about WikiLeaks’ plans.
In July of 2016, Mr. Stone and Mr. Corsi exchanged emails as they scrambled to learn more about the material the organization planned to release.
Days later, Mr. Corsi responded that WikiLeaks planned “2 more dumps,” including one in October. “Time to let more than Podesta be exposed as in bed w enemy,” Mr. Corsi wrote, referring to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Soon thereafter, Mr. Stone began boasting privately and publicly about his contact with Mr. Assange. Then, on Aug. 21, Mr. Stone tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel” (sic). Weeks later, WikiLeaks began releasing emails stolen from Mr. Podesta, roiling the presidential race.
Mr. Corsi said he merely “figured out” that WikiLeaks had Mr. Podesta’s emails by using publicly available information, and both Mr. Corsi and Mr. Stone have denied being in touch with Mr. Assange directly or indirectly. Mr. Stone has also maintained that his tweet was related to the lobbying activities of Mr. Podesta and his brother Tony.
Mr. Assange has denied being in communication with Mr. Stone.
Mr. Corsi publicly rejected a plea deal from Mueller’s team last year. He said that while he was “constantly amending testimony,” he never intentionally lied to prosecutors. He also acknowledged deleting emails in which he and Mr. Stone discussed reaching out to WikiLeaks, though he denied wrongdoing and was never prosecuted.
To shield Mr. Corsi from scrutiny in the congressional probe, Mr. Stone falsely told lawmakers that he only had one “backchannel” to WikiLeaks, naming radio personality Randy Credico, prosecutors said. They argued that Mr. Stone corruptly persuaded Mr. Credico to lie to the House committee and even avoid testifying.
The other Trump associates who have been convicted in connection with the Mueller investigation are: Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, convicted by a jury of financial crimes; Mr. Gates, former deputy chairman of the campaign, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false statements; former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who pleaded guilty to false statements; former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to false statements, tax charges and campaign finance allegations; and George Papadopoulos, a low-level campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying.
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.
In 2018, impunity came to an end.
Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.
Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.
.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.
.. At the beginning of 2018,
- Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
- Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
- Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
- The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
- He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
- and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
When this year began,
- Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
- Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
- David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.
At the start of 2018, the
- casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
- Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
- (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)
As this year began,
- Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.
- McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
- On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
.. his time on the witness stand provided an invaluable public lesson in how tax evasion, money laundering, and political corruption work.
.. The ability of rich people such as Manafort and his oligarchic clients to shuffle money across borders, beyond the purview of tax collectors and law-enforcement authorities, is a huge and intractable problem. In many places, these practices are
- denuding tax bases,
- corrupting a large class of professional enablers, and
- undermining public confidence in the political and financial systems.
.. roughly $7.6 trillion, or eight per cent of the world’s financial wealth, was held in offshore tax havens. In some countries, the proportion is much higher; in the case of Russia, it is more than half.
.. . In the United States, he has estimated, the annual tax loss is about thirty-five billion dollars.
.. It is only when there is a prominent court case or a leak—such as the 2016 Panama Papers, which exposed the dealings of the law firm Mossack Fonseca—that a light is shined on this system’s hidden mechanics. What Gates provided this week was a firsthand account of how the illicit game is played.
.. Manafort’s consulting firm was paid by Ukrainian businessmen close to Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected President in 2010. Many of these figures already had bank accounts in Cyprus
.. Gates described how he and Manafort used a Cypriot law firm to establish bank accounts in the name of shell companies that they controlled but weren’t publicly associated with.
“Did these companies sell a product?” Andres asked Gates.
“No,” he replied.
“Did they have any employees?” Andres asked.
“No,” Gates repeated. “The purpose of the companies was to accept payments and to make payments.”
.. The Cypriot law firm Chrysostomides “handled everything,” Gates said, including listing the names of locals, rather than the two Americans, as the directors of the shell firms into which the fees from Ukraine flowed.
.. he arranged to have money wired from the Cypriot accounts to vendors in the United States from whom Manafort had bought expensive clothes
.. problems arose, Gates said. So, again using the Cypriot law firm, he and Manafort transferred some money to bank accounts in the Grenadines, a chain of small islands in the Lesser Antilles. But, when the banks in the Grenadines were asked to transfer money to companies in the United States, they demanded invoices for the payments—something that the Cypriot banks hadn’t bothered with. At Manafort’s direction, Gates said, he created “modified invoices” and gave them to the banks... “About 50% of the wealth held in tax havens belongs to households with more than $50m in net wealth,” Zucman, of Berkeley, noted in an article last year. “These ultra-rich represent about 0.01% of the population of advanced economies.”These were the type of people whom Manafort was working for in Ukraine, and it’s pretty clear from the life style he adopted that he wanted to join their ranks... he allegedly resorted to bank fraud rather than modify his spending patterns.Gates described how, in 2015, together with Manafort’s accountants, he helped put together bogus financial documents that Manafort then used to obtain bank loans.
.. toward the end of Andres’s questioning of Gates, the prosecutor showed the witness an e-mail that Manafort wrote to Gates in November, 2016, shortly after Trump was elected. By that stage, Gates was working for Trump’s Presidential transition team. “We need to discuss Steve Calk for Sec of the Army,” Manafort’s e-mail said. “I hear the list is being considered this weekend.”
.. When he joined the Trump campaign, he’d long been known as the ultimate swamp creature. Thanks to Mueller and Gates, we now know more about how that swamp operates.
testified that he knew about what the prosecutors allege is a multiyear tax and bank fraud scheme by Mr. Manafort because “I was the one who helped organize the paperwork.”
.. Mr. Manafort’s allies argue that Mr. Gates can be discredited as a morally bankrupt and untrustworthy narrator who owes his professional career to Mr. Manafort, yet siphoned millions from his accounts. Then, faced with the prospect of prison and huge fines, Mr. Manafort’s allies say, he blamed Mr. Manafort for financial machinations that he himself executed. The defense also signaled Monday that it may allege extramarital affairs by Mr. Gates in a further attempt to attack a man who Mr. Manafort’s friends say took advantage of his boss.
.. “Rick Gates owes everything to Paul. Paul made Rick a lot of money,” said Hector Hoyos, a longtime friend and former business partner of Mr. Manafort’s who remained in contact with him after his indictment. “But Rick is not the strong-valued guy that Paul is. Rick will go wherever the wind takes him, and it just goes to show you that there is no such thing as loyalty and friendship anymore,” Mr. Hoyos said in June
.. The men spent countless hours together traveling the world, and by all accounts got along quite well. But in some ways they are a study in contrasts. Prosecutors have detailed the lavish lifestyle on which Mr. Manafort spent his riches, while Mr. Gates, by contrast, lived less ostentatiously. When he wore a suit, he still carried a backpack.
.. Even as he detailed Mr. Manafort’s financial crimes, Mr. Gates worked in a bit of praise for his former boss.
“Probably one of the most politically brilliant strategists I’ve ever worked with,” he said of Mr. Manafort.
.. While Mr. Gates was the one who demanded accountants give him copies of financial statements in PDF format so he could convert them to Word and alter them, some of the falsified documents bear Mr. Manafort’s signature.
.. Mr. Manafort told the accountants that he had no foreign bank accounts, although prosecutors claim that millions of dollars flowed through his accounts in Cyprus and St. Vincent and the Grenadines
.. Judge T.S. Ellis III of the United States District Court in Alexandria said prosecutors had proved both that Mr. Manafort personally denied that those accounts existed and that he controlled them.
.. Mr. Manafort left the firm the year Mr. Gates arrived. But they continued traveling in the same circles as Mr. Gates impressed remaining partners, whom he occasionally chauffeured between the firm’s Alexandria offices and meetings in Washington.
“Very smart. Good work ethic. He was a guy I thought would go places someday,” said Charlie Black, a co-founder of the firm, who offered Mr. Gates the internship at the recommendation of a friend, and then hired him full-time afterward. “I didn’t know where he would end up, but I always liked him. I still do.”
.. The accountant, Cynthia Laporta, testified that in 2006, Mr. Manafort received a $10 million loan from Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir V. Putin. Ms. Laporta said she saw no evidence it was ever repaid.
And Mr. Gates testified that Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a Russian who prosecutors claim is tied to Russian intelligence, had signatory authority over some of Mr. Manafort’s accounts in Cyprus.