We interrupt the breathless coverage of President Donald Trumpâ€™s deceptive and unconvincing Oval Office address on the border wall to bring you some genuinely big news: The collusion case against the presidentâ€™s campaign, already strong, is getting even stronger.
Attorneys for New Britain native Paul Manafort Jr., Trumpâ€™s former campaign chairman, inadvertently included a big reveal in a court filing on Tuesday through their clumsy failure to properly redact key portions. They admitted that during the 2016 campaign Manafort and his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, discussed a peace plan for Ukraine and that Manafort also shared with him political polling data.
Peace plan? Where have we heard that before? Oh, thatâ€™s right: Trumpâ€™s attorney, Michael Cohen, Trumpâ€™s former Mafia-linked, Russian American business associate Felix Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko conspired after the 2016 election to present a peace plan to incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was himself suspiciously friendly to the Russians. The plan would have legitimated Russian annexation of Crimea and lifted sanctions on Russia. In other words, it would have been the payoff that Russian President Vladimir Putin was seeking from his well-documented intervention on behalf of candidate Trump - and it could easily have come to fruition if the Russian election interference had not become a scandal. So now we know that there was yet another senior figure in Trump World who was plotting to sell out Ukraine to the Russians.
But the even more significant part of the Tuesday revelations concerns the polling data that Manafort allegedly shared with Kilimnik. Why would an individual with ties to Russian intelligence need polling data on the U.S. election? There is only on reason I can think of: to help direct the covert social-media propaganda campaign that Russian intelligence was running on Trumpâ€™s behalf. The Russians reached 126 million people via Facebook alone and millions more on other social-media platforms. Combined with Russiaâ€™s theft and strategically timed release of Democratic Party emails, this most likely swung an exceedingly close election - decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states - to Trump.
One of the central mysteries about the Russian campaign is how the Kremlin could have been so skillful in targeting American voters, focusing especially on African Americans, Bernie Sanders supporters and other groups who might otherwise have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton. When political campaigns run advertising, they typically rely on detailed voter data to guide their efforts. Did the Kremlin do its own polling? It didnâ€™t have to, if Manafort was providing the Russians with poll numbers.
According to the New York Times, â€śMost of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign,â€ť and Manafort asked Kilimnik â€śto pass the data to Oleg V. Deripaska.â€ť Deripaska is a Russian oligarch who is close to Putin and who claims that Manafort owed him as much as $17 million. The Post has previously reported that Manafort, who was running the Trump campaign for no pay, offered Deripaska â€śprivate briefingsâ€ť on the 2016 campaign in order to â€śget whole.â€ť Now we know what else he did to â€śget whole.â€ť We donâ€™t know whether Manafort was technically a Russian agent, but this is classic espionage tradecraft: Compromise a person of influence, put him at your mercy, and then force him to do your bidding.
Actually, there is evidence to indicate that the data-sharing might have gone both ways. Special counsel Robert Mueller has revealed that the Russians stole not only emails but also data analytics from the Democratic Party. A few weeks after this theft in September 2016, the Trump campaign shifted its â€śdata-drivenâ€ť strategy to focus on the very states where it would win the election. Maybe thatâ€™s just a coincidence. Or maybe not.
There is a name for cooperation between an American political campaign and a foreign government. Itâ€™s commonly called collusion. Or, if you prefer the legal term, conspiracy.
The revelation about Manafort sharing data with Kilimnik is the most significant evidence of collusion/conspiracy since Michael Cohenâ€™s Nov. 29 guilty plea on charges of lying to Congress to conceal the Trump Organizationâ€™s active pursuit during the 2016 campaign, with help from Putin aides, of a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That, in turn, was the most damning evidence to emerge since the New York Times revealed that there had been a meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, between the campaign high command and a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. (Veselnitskayaâ€™s deep links to the Kremlin have just been confirmed in a new court filing.)
The only questions that remain are: What did the president know? And when did he know it?
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.