How Paul Manafort promoted Russian disinformation that has been embraced by Trump

Author : Rosalind Helderman

Source : The Washington Post

The effort began only days after Paul Manafort resigned as chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in August 2016
23:18, 20 August 2020

Open source

The effort began only days after Paul Manafort resigned as chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in August 2016.

Manafort faced scrutiny for accepting millions in off-book payments from pro-Russian Ukrainian officials — an uncomfortable situation for the longtime lobbyist, since accusations were then emerging that Russia was interfering in the White House race to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

According to a new bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Tuesday, Manafort began quickly working with a Russian employee based in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on a counternarrative — that it was the Ukrainians who were actually interfering in the U.S. election, not Russia, and that they were framing Manafort to help the Democrats.

That claim has persisted ever since, even after U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials said it had no merit — promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin abroad and President Trump himself at home.

It has been embraced by Trump’s allies in conservative media and in Congress. It was touted on the right during Trump’s impeachment last year and has carried into the present as the backdrop to an ongoing GOP effort to use Ukraine to attack Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

In fact, the idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 campaign began as a Russian influence operation designed to distract attention from the Kremlin’s own activities that year, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded after an exhaustive three-year investigation.

It was advanced for years by Manafort’s employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the committee identified as a Russian intelligence officer who, among other things, used a false persona on Twitter to circulate and promote the Ukrainian counternarrative, the report found.

Related: Mueller documents: Manafort pushed Ukraine hack theory

Manafort was personally involved in promoting the disinformation, as well, the committee found, strategizing with Kilimnik in secret meetings in Madrid in early 2017 and pushing the idea with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. around the same time.

Kilimnik’s role — and his influence in getting Trump and his supporters to seize on the propaganda — shows how the interests of the president and the Kremlin have aligned, long after the 2016 election.

Trump and Republican senators said Tuesday that the most important takeaway of the new Senate report is that there was no evidence of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Indeed, the panel did not conclude that Trump entered into a knowing conspiracy with the Kremlin to win the election.

But the bipartisan investigation — like the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III before it — did find that Russia engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to affect the outcome of the election and that the Trump campaign sought to benefit from those efforts. The panel also concluded that a number of key campaign aides were vulnerable to Russian influence, sometimes unwittingly.

Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 of financial crimes related to his work in Ukraine, in particular posed a “grave counterintelligence threat” to the country, the committee found.

Related: Trump's administration put hold on Ukraine aid same day as Trump-Zelensky call

Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said its report should be seen as a warning to members of Congress and all Americans.

“This report was not fundamentally about trying to write the history of 2016,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It was trying to say: How do we prevent it from happening again in 2020?”

Asked about the committee’s findings on Ukraine, White House spokesman Judd Deere did not directly respond. Instead, he said in a statement that the committee’s report “affirms what we have known for years. There was absolutely no collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.”

An attorney for Manafort did not respond to a request for comment. Kilimnik, who was charged in 2018 with obstruction of justice and is believed to be in Russia, also did not respond to an email requesting comment. He has previously denied ties to Russian intelligence.

In its nearly 1,000-page report on Russian counterintelligence threats released Tuesday, the committee said Russia’s influence operation included “overlapping false narratives which sought to discredit investigations into Russian inference in the 2016 U.S. elections and spread false information about the events of 2016.”

The committee said the disinformation campaign claiming Ukraine’s role began in late 2016 and continued until at least January 2020 and was promoted not just by Manafort and Kilimnik but by “numerous Russian-government actors,” including an oligarch named Oleg Deripaska who had business ties to Manafort.

Related: U.S. Cybercom contemplates information warfare to counter Russian interference in 2020 election

The committee wrote that “similarities in narrative content, the use of common dissemination platforms, the involvement of Kremlin agents Kilimnik and Deripaska” led them to conclude that “the influence efforts were coordinated to some degree.”

The bipartisan finding was released at a key moment, just weeks after the country’s top counterintelligence official described Russia’s efforts to again try to shape public opinion in the United States before a presidential vote — and named a Ukrainian lawmaker as a key participant.

Earlier this month, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, publicly asserted that Russia is using a “range of measures” to denigrate Biden and said that Kremlin-linked actors are working to boost Trump’s reelection bid.

Evanina cited the recent release by pro-Russian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach of leaked phone calls dating to 2016 between Biden and the former Ukrainian president as part of a Russian effort to hurt Biden.

The new Senate Intelligence Committee report also identified Derkach as a figure who played a role in promoting the false narrative that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. election to help Democrats.

Earlier this week, Trump retweeted an account promoting snippets of one of the recordings promoted by Derkach to his more than 85 million Twitter followers. The account has since been suspended by Twitter for violating the site’s policies on “platform manipulation and spam.”

Related: Trump's triumph: US gives green light to Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau head resignation

The White House did not respond to questions about the tweet.

Derkach, the son of a KGB officer who also attended a school associated with the former Soviet intelligence service, has met at least twice in the past year with Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

In a statement to The Washington Post earlier this year, Derkach said allegations that he is working in the interests of foreign intelligence services are attempts to pressure him into stopping his activity. “There is not a single confirmed or reliable fact of my illegal activity or wrongful connections,” he said.

Derkach also said that he had provided information to two Senate committees investigating Biden and the 2016 Russia probe. Spokesmen for those committees, led by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) deny that they received information from Derkach.

In the wake of the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrats renewed their calls for Johnson and Grassley to end their ongoing probes.

“The findings of this bipartisan report are yet more evidence that their investigation is giving credibility to disinformation pushed by Russian intelligence,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.

“The bottom line is that Senate investigations must not be based on conspiracy theories propagated by Russian intelligence officers and discredited foreign nationals,” he said. “This one is, which is why Republicans should abandon it immediately.”

Johnson has forcefully denied Democratic claims that he is promoting Russian propaganda.

A spokesman for Johnson’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected the Democratic criticism Wednesday, calling it “yet again another false claim from Democrats as they try to politicize foreign election interference and discredit our investigation.”

The spokesman, Austin Altenburg, said in a statement that the panel “has never received nor taken information from Kilimnik or Derkach, and it’s shocking that Democrats continue peddling Derkach’s conspiracy theories even after the intelligence community has communicated that Derkach is spreading Russian disinformation. It’s simply a pathetic attempt to mislead the American people and only leaves us with one question: what are they afraid we’ll uncover?”

Related: The White House reportedly quashed part of an intelligence report that showed Russia is helping the Trump campaign

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said that the Senate Finance Committee he chairs has not received, requested or made use of anything provided by Derkach and that Kilimnik has nothing to do with its work.

“Unsupported innuendo that our work is somehow inspired or orchestrated by foreign actors, or anyone else for that matter, is simply untrue, and very likely the product of a foreign disinformation campaign,” he said in a statement.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election to help Clinton. “They tried to take me down,” he told advisers in an Oval Office meeting in May 2019, according to testimony during the congressional impeachment inquiry.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has said there is “no evidence” to support the theory. Fiona Hill, who served on Trump’s National Security Council, told Congress last year that it was a “fictional narrative” advanced by the Russian security services.

The Senate Intelligence Committee found that Kilimnik was probably behind some of the first public suggestions that Ukrainians were interfering in the election to help Democrats. Behind the scenes, he pushed the claim that the “black ledger” that tracked Manafort’s payments as a private consultant in Kyiv before he went to work for Trump — the document that led to Manafort’s ouster from the campaign — had been forged and leaked by Clinton allies, the report said.

According to the committee, Manafort and Kilimnik were in close contact during the campaign and after the campaign. Manafort on “numerous occasions” shared with Kilimnik internal information about the Trump campaign, including polling data and its battleground strategy, the committee wrote.

The panel said it had difficulty discerning why Manafort passed along the material or with whom Kilimnik shared the information. But the committee noted that the two took steps to hide their communications by using encrypted apps and a burner phone and by saving their most sensitive conversations for in-person contact.

One key meeting between the two took place at a Manhattan cigar bar while Manafort was still leading Trump’s election effort, according to the report.

Related: US Senate looks into actions of Manafort's right hand in Ukraine

According to the committee, Kilimnik privately promoted to journalists the idea that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. election — not Russia — as early as August 2016. He later helped ghostwrite a February 2017 opinion piece that argued that pro-Clinton Ukrainians had “manufactured” a case against Manafort, the report found.

The column, which ran under the byline of a Ukrainian parliamentarian in U.S. News & World Report, also dismissed possible ties between Trump and Russia.

For his part, Manafort pressed the same theory with Trump Jr. in February 2017, the committee found, citing an email Manafort wrote the president's son. It linked to a Politico report that Manafort claimed laid out “the conspiracy to implement the disinformation campaign on me between the DNC/Obama Administration and the Govt of Ukraine.”

Starting later that year, other “Russian-government proxies and personas” were echoing the same “false narrative” online, according to the report.

One cyber-persona the committee said was controlled by Russian military intelligence alleged in July 2017 on its blog that Ukraine had interfered in the U.S. election. A day later, a Twitter handle the committee said was operated by a company with ties to the Russian government tweeted that Clinton and her campaign colluded with Ukraine.

Nine days after that, Derkach sent a formal letter to Yuri Lutsenko, then serving as Ukraine’s top prosecutor, asking him to investigate Ukrainian interference in the U.S. election.

By the following month, Manafort and Fox News host Sean Hannity were exchanging text messages about “Ukraine interference,” according to messages made public by prosecutors in Manafort’s criminal case.

In spring 2019, the theory that Ukrainians had worked to help Democrats in 2016 gave way to a separate assertion that Biden, then rising in the polls as a 2020 candidate, had used his role as vice president to protect his son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Giuliani has said that his efforts to uncover information about Biden in Ukraine began when he set out to explore the idea that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election. Acting as Trump’s defense attorney, Giuliani has said he thought he could help Trump face down the Mueller investigation.

“I knew they were hot and heavy on this Russian collusion thing, even though I knew 100 percent that it was false,” Giuliani told conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck last year. “I said to myself: ‘Hallelujah. I’ve got what a defense lawyer always wants. I can go prove someone else committed this crime.’ ”

Giuliani has said he consulted with Manafort about the theory that it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 race. In a text message to The Post on Wednesday night, Giuliani wrote that “none of the information I received over a year and half ago had any connection to Russia.” He called the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report a “one side inquiry,” adding that “people who wrote this report never contacted me, or my witnesses or asked to see the documents I have or tapes.”

Related: The Trump campaign accepted Russian help to win in 2016. Case closed

By summer 2019, the two ideas had become fully fused for Trump, who pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations of both subjects on a July 25 phone call.

“They say a lot of it started with Ukraine,” Trump told Zelensky in the call, pressing him to work with Giuliani or Attorney General William P. Barr to “get to the bottom of it.” Trump also pressed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.

The call prompted a whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Portions of the Senate report that appear to deal with some of these topics were redacted from public view.

But the evolution of the Ukraine-related claims could be seen in messages posted by a Twitter handle used by Kilimnik, the committee found.

In 2017 and 2018, the onetime Manafort aide used the handle @PBaranenko to promote the idea that Ukraine interfered in the last U.S. presidential election.

By 2019, Kilimnik had moved on. In that year, the committee wrote, the alleged Russian intelligence officer “repeatedly tweeted information related to the Bidens and Ukraine.”

Read the original text at The Washington Post

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