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.

The Year Justice Caught Up With Trumpworld

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.

In January,

  • 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.”

Rick Gates Delivers a Public Lesson on Money Laundering and Political Corruption

.. 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.

 

 

 

Rick Gates Testifies He Committed Crimes With Paul Manafort

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.