On Real Time With Bill Maher two Fridays ago, I fumbled and deflected politely over a Russiagate question, instead of going full cage match. The segment went off the rails beginning with this exchange:
MAHER: You compared it to WMDs. You said, the Russia connection with Trump is this generation’s WMD. I don’t think that’s an accurate analogy, because there were no WMDs. But there was collusion with Russia.
TAIBBI: Really? Where?
MAHER: Where? The Senate Intelligence Committee, run by Republicans, who are if anything slavish to Trump, their report said, “The Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence services during the 2016 presidential election posed a ‘grave’ counterintelligence threat.”
First of all, that quote isn’t from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report from last August. It’s actually a paraphrase of the report from an Associated Press article, “Trump campaign’s Russia contacts ‘grave’ threat, Senate says,” which reads:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence services during the 2016 presidential election posed a “grave” counterintelligence threat, a Senate panel concluded Tuesday…
The real SSCI quote is a little different:
Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik and associates of Oleg Deripaska, represented a grave counterintelligence threat.
By all rights, Russiagate should be dead as a serious news story. But as the Real Time episode showed, “collusion” is still alive for some, and the bulk of the case essentially rests now upon the characterization of one person from the above passage as a Russian agent: a former aide to Paul Manafort named Konstantin Kilimnik.
Kilimnik is a Ukrainian-American who’d served in the army and was hired to work as a translator at the American-funded International Republican Institute in Moscow beginning in the mid-nineties. In 2005, he left the IRI to go work for Paul Manafort, who was advising future president Viktor Yanukovich and the “Party of Regions” in Ukraine.
As it happens, Kilimnik worked at the IRI in Moscow during the same time I lived in that city in the nineties and early 2000s. In fact, he was well-known enough in that small expatriate community that in the space of a day last week I was able to reach, through mutual acquaintances, five of Kilimnik’s former colleagues, including three from the IRI and one from the U.S. State Department, to whom he was a regular and valuable contact (the Senate investigators left that fact out). I also called Kilimnik and had two lengthy interviews with him.
Why bring this up? Because in that little flurry of calls, I did more actual work on Konstantin Kilimnik than either the Special Counsel or SSCI researchers, who ostensibly spent thousands of man-hours investigating him.
Kilimnik being a spy wouldn’t just mean that the Trump campaign had been penetrated. It would mean the same thing for the IRI, which was chaired by late Senator and leading proponent of the Russiagate theory John McCain at the time. More to the point, it would also be disastrous for the State Department, and particularly for the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, whose staffers placed great trust in “KK” as a regular source.
The FBI’s own declassified reports show Kilimnik met with the head of the Kiev embassy’s political section “at least biweekly” during his time working with Manafort and Yanukovitch, adding that he “displayed good knowledge and seemed to know what was going on,” and came across as “less slanted” than other sources, among many other things. This fits with what I was told by multiple former colleagues of Kilimnik’s, that staffers in the Kiev embassy valued his analyses above those of some Americans in Yanukovitch’s orbit. (A third former co-worker was a little more blunt about what he heard, saying the Kiev embassy was “sucking his dick”).
They also show the embassy was so intent on protecting Kilimnik’s identity as a State Department source that they pulled his name out of diplomatic cables sent home:
Kilimnik says he “played a certain role in communication with the Western embassies in Kiev” both before and after the “Euromaidan” Revolution in 2014. “I tried to draw attention to facts about thugs attacking TV channels and opposition politicians, and things like [an arson attack against “InterTV” in 2016],” he says, adding that he “naively thought the West would stand for media freedom and protecting rules for fair play in politics, like it has for many years.”
The only reason nobody’s asked the Senate Committee why Kilimnik’s alleged spy status doesn’t also represent a “grave” embarrassment to, say, the U.S. State Department is because our press corps is the most dogshit on earth (more on that in a moment).
Special Counsel Robert Mueller claimed the FBI spoke to an IRI employee who said Kilimnik was “fired from his post because his links to Russian intelligence were too strong.” Though not all the IRI staffers I reached liked Kilimnik, each found the idea that he might be a spy alternately ridiculous and baffling. Multiple ex-colleagues said they believed he was fired for “moonlighting,” i.e. because he’d already started working for Manafort.
“I was actually moonlighting. It was a funny story,” Kilimnik says (for a more complete explanation, see the Q&A below).
As to the idea that it was known around the IRI office that Kilimnik had intelligence ties, one former senior IRI official said, “I think whoever said that, that’s someone trying to feel more important in retrospect,” adding that the idea that he was “some GRU plant from years gone by” was questionable because the Russians “didn’t know their right from their left back then, and the IRI could not described as a high-value target.” The official concluded: “I find the notion that Kilimnik is now this big figure remarkable.” None of former employees of the Moscow IRI office I spoke with had been contacted by any American investigator, including Mueller.
Then there’s the matter of the suspect himself. Question to Kilimnik: how many times was he questioned by American authorities, with whom he was so familiar — remember he met with American officials “at least biweekly” at one point pre-Trump — during the entire Russiagate period?
“Not a single person from the U.S. Government ever reached out to me,” Kilimnik says.
Nobody from the Office of the Special Counsel, the FBI, or the Senate Intelligence Committee ever contacted him?
“Not once,” Kilimnik says. “Nobody from Mueller’s team reached out to me, literally nobody.”
In reaching Kilimnik last week I also became just the second American reporter, after Aaron Maté of RealClear Investigations and Grayzone, to call Kilimnik for comment on the Senate report. Virtually every American news organization or TV commentary program has in the last year repeated accusations against Kilimnik made by either the Senate Intelligence Committee or the U.S. Treasury Department, which earlier this year called him a “Russian Intelligence Services agent” in an announcement of sanctions against Russia.
It was once normal practice in American media to give people a chance to respond to serious allegations, but no longer, apparently. “Zero. Zero,” says Kilimnik, when asked how many American media outlets called him after the release of the Senate report. Incidentally, Kilimnik isn’t hiding under a snow-covered trap door at a secret FSB installation outside Izhievsk. He’s in an apartment in Northwest Moscow, where anyone could find him.
“Everybody knows my phone number. It was in Mueller’s reports,” he says. “But I got no questions. I mean, a lot of people know how to find me. I guess they just didn’t care.”
Kilimnik was even on the list of 16 entities and 16 individuals the Treasury just this year said “attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government.” That’s the 2020 election, not the 2016 election, meaning the one that came after the Senate report.
“The US actually sanctioned me for interference in 2020 elections,” Kilimnik says. “I would not be able to say why. I’d love to know. I’ve been sitting in fucking Moscow, in my backyard, and feeding squirrels. Must have been some sort of interference.”
The aforementioned Maté published photos of Kilimnik’s passport that appear to show he entered the U.S. on a visa stamped in a regular Russian passport on October 28, 1997. This is the same date the Senate committee said he was entering the United States on a diplomatic passport. The Senate also said Kilimnik met with Manafort in Spain in 2017, which he denies. “I’ve never been to Spain,” Kilimnik laughs. “I haven’t been there. Let them prove I’ve been there.”
Another thing that came up on Real Time was the idea that we shouldn’t dismiss the monetarily tiny Russian Facebook campaign — featuring classics that ironically read like Real Time bits, with images of Jesus pleading with American voters, “Struggling with addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we’ll beat it together” — because “9/11 didn’t cost much either”:
I oversold things on the air, talking about how the Internet Research Agency only spent $100,000, as only $44,000 of that was before the campaign. More importantly, only a tiny percentage of ads qualified as coherent propaganda. I’d wager few Americans have actually read through all these ads, which have messages like, “Tell me once again that there’s no such thing as white privilege,” “Stop Trump and his bigoted agenda!”, and “Share the experience and the challenges of the black hair industry.” Overall, for 2016, they read like a creepy, overambitious parody of woke culture, with a tinge of Charlie Manson’s “Helter Skelter” plan thrown in. Whatever it is/was, it’s pretty far from 9/11:
Kilimnik stands accused of helping Evil Von Putin aim this high-tech weapon. How? Senate investigators said, “Manafort briefed Kilimnik on sensitive Campaign polling data and the Campaign’s strategy for beating Hillary Clinton.” What was sensitive about it?
“That’s bullshit. There was nothing that resembled ‘sensitive’ polling data,” Kilimnik says. “I would get two figures maybe once a month, not every day, not every week.”
Two figures — meaning two pages?
“Two digits,” he says. “Like, ‘Trump 40, Hillary 45.’ That’s all I would get, nothing more. So I don’t understand how this is sensitive data.”
Kilimnik was getting his information from former Trump deputy campaign chief Rick Gates, who was directed to send the data to Kilimnik by Manafort. None other than Rachel Maddow once called Gates “Mueller’s star cooperating witness.” I called Gates last week and asked: what was he passing to Kilimnik?
“Top-line data, and I want people to understand what that means,” he says. “It was like, ‘Ohio, Clinton 48, Trump 50,’ Or, ‘Wisconsin, Trump 50, Clinton 42.’ The sources were a combination of things like RealClear Politics and occasionally some numbers from [Republican pollster] Tony Fabrizio. But it was all just top-line stuff.”
Gates’s story is that Manafort was passing this data back to people like his longtime sponsors, the Ukrainian barons Rinat Akhmetov and Sergei Lyvochkin, because “Paul was just trying to show that Trump was doing well,” as “Paul was just trying to do what he’s always done,” i.e. trying to show how valuable he could be.
For those disinclined to believing the Gates or Kilimnik version of events, remember that neither Mueller nor the Senate Intelligence Committee could come up with a different one. Apart from adding “sensitive” to their description (Mueller just called it “internal polling data”), the Senate never offered evidence that Kilimnik was getting more than those few numbers. As to why Kilimnik was sent this information, this is what the Senate had to say:
The Committee was unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik. Manafort and Gates both claimed that it was part of an effort to resolve past business disputes and obtain new work with their past Russian and Ukrainian clients by showcasing Manafort’s success.
Why “sensitive?” The Committee was “unable to reliably determine” why, having no idea what Kilimnik did with those numbers. But they were sure enough it was bad to conclude it represented a “grave counterintelligence threat.”
Kilimnik is roughly the twentieth suspect in a long list of alleged secret conduits that across five years have already been tried out and discarded by pundits and investigators alike as “smoking gun” links between Trump and Putin.
An abbreviated list:
There was a Maltese professor named Josef Mifsud and a young Trump aide named George Papadopoulos, former Trump adviser Carter Page, an alleged “secret server” supposedly pinging between Trump and Alfa Bank, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, real estate developer Felix Sater, another Russian who approached Trump people claiming to have dirt on Hillary Clinton named Henry Oknyansky, a Russian firm called Concord Consulting, plus Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and many others.
The pattern with all of these “smoking gun” cases was the same. At first, there would be a great press hullaballoo, complete with front-page media profiles and heated straight-to-camera monologues at the tops of cable commentary shows over “Breaking News” chyrons:
Freakouts would be long, but months or years later, narratives would collapse. Ambassador Sergei Kislyak was everyone’s favorite suspect in the summer of 2016 for having done everything from rig the Republican convention platform to turning Sessions into a spy, but then Mueller quietly said Kisylak’s interactions with Trump officials in those months were “brief, public, and non-substantive.” Reporters howled that Christopher Steele was right about Cohen meeting Russian hackers in Prague to help rig the 2016 race, and even claimed (see above) that Mueller was about to release evidence of it any minute, until Mueller said flatly, “Cohen… never traveled to Prague.”
The saddest case involved Carter Page. Steele’s Dossier identified Page — not Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, or even Donald Trump — as the mastermind of the Wikileaks leak:
The aim of leaking the DNC e-mails to WikiLeaks during the Democratic Convention had been to swing supporters of Bernie SANDERS away from Hillary CLINTON and across to TRUMP… This objective had been conceived and promoted, inter alia, by TRUMP’s foreign policy adviser Carter PAGE…
Steele also had Page negotiating a massive bribe via the oil company Rosneft in exchange for the dropping of sanctions, and acting as the personal intermediary between Paul Manafort and the Kremlin. Page, not knowing he was being spied upon, told an FBI informant that August that he had “literally never met” or “said one word to” Paul Manafort, even going so far as to complain that Manafort never answered his emails. The FBI sat on this information, and wrote up a secret surveillance warrant application that read:
Sub-Source reported that the conspiracy was being managed by Candidate’s then campaign manager, who was using, among others, foreign policy advisor Carter Page as an intermediary…
It wasn’t until the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz came out in December of 2019 that the world found out that the FBI not only “did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page,” but had covered up Page’s history as an informant for the CIA, very much like the Senate and the Treasury are now covering up Kilimnik’s status as a U.S. State Department source.
Kilimnik is just the last person on the list, and he’s conveniently in Moscow, unlikely to ever come back here to defend himself. As such, he’s the perfect fall guy for the marooned-Japanese-soldier-type holdouts on Russiagate who think the collusion narrative is still viable. More from Kilimnik:
TK: You were described by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a “Russian Intelligence Officer.” Are you one?
Konstantin Kilimnik: I have not had any relationship with any intelligence agency. Not with U.S. intelligence, not the Ukrainian, Russian, Zimbabwean, whatever. I’m a consultant who has worked for many years running elections in Ukraine. I just haven’t had any relationship with any intelligence, and haven’t seen any facts proving otherwise.
I think the investigation was so politically charged from the beginning, that they just needed to find a Russian body that they could just put as much dirt as possible on. Ultimately, nobody is going to care, because all the Russians are considered to be bad anyhow, they’re all spies.
TK: The intelligence community in the U.S. seems unanimous in their conclusion that Russians interfered in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Did they not?
Konstantin Kilimnik: I don’t think Russians interfered… I know that runs counter to all the conclusions of the intelligence community and all that country to all the intelligence and press and all that. And maybe there were other efforts, as well. But, I was not involved in any of that.
There was a lot of misinformation, just because the public wanted someone, and I just happened to be that person thrown into the mix. If I had Hungarian citizenship or any other citizenship, of course, people would not have given my name. They just needed the Russian connection, and I happened to be that unfortunate Russian connection.
TK: The Mueller report claims an IRI employee believed you were “fired from his post because his links to Russian intelligence were too strong.” Others say you were “moonlighting.” Why did you leave the IRI?
Konstantin Kilimnik: I was actually moonlighting. It was a funny story. I was looking for ways to move on, because by 2005 I had been at IRI for 10 years. Some time in mid-2004 an old IRI pal, Phil Griffin, reemerged and proposed a well-paying job of going to Ukraine and writing analyses of what was going on during the Orange Revolution, for Manafort.
So, I went there after not having been to Ukraine for over 10 years. I was ecstatic about Kiev and got seriously interested in what was going on politically… Manafort, Griffin and I (as a translator) went to Donetsk in, I think, November 2004 to meet some guy I had no previous knowledge of (who turned out to be Rinat Akhmetov’s closest confidant, Borys Kolesnikov). Manafort and he spoke for several days and got convinced that the “Donetsk guys” were not even close to being thugs they had been portrayed by the Western media to be. I went back a couple of times to translate for these meetings, which I thought were not in any conflict with my work at IRI Moscow.
Then, the government in Ukraine changed. [Viktor] Yuschenko became the President, Manafort was in negotiations about the contract, and I almost forgot about my short translation jobs. In April 2005, we were at an IRI retreat, and my boss, director of Europe and Eurasia programs Steve Nix got a tip from the new President’s office that “Donetsk thugs” were looking to hire an American consultant, and that a guy who seemed to work at IRI was helping in the process.
Steve, who was very pro-Yuschenko, completely freaked out, and accused me of working for criminals. I said that a) I was doing this in my free time, 2) this did not conflict in any way with my job at IRI Russia, and 3) maybe things are not so straightforward in Ukrainian politics, and there are no guys in black and white hats, but mostly gray hats. He disagreed and demanded I resign, which I did.
TK: The Senate claims you met Manafort in Spain in 2017. Did you?
Konstantin Kilimnik: I have never been to Spain. (laughter)…I have not been there. They can’t prove that. And yet they’ve inserted that. And yet, that’s central to what they’re saying.
Europe is specific place in terms of passports and immigration. To cross the border, you have to give your fingerprints, and upon any re-entry too. If I went to Spain, I can guarantee that, first of all, Europe keeps a record of that. They would say that I have crossed the border at a certain time in a certain place. And that would be okay because, again, it’s all tied to the fingerprints. You cannot get into the EU without this. You can’t fake it. So let them prove it.
TK: You’ve been accused of obtaining that “sensitive polling data” for Oleg Deripaska. Was that right?
Konstantin Kilimnik: No, Deripaska was a Russian businessman. I actually didn’t have any contact with him. There were Ukrainian businessmen and Ukrainian politicians in 2016 who were in opposition, and who were actually under pressure from Petro Poroshenko’s government. Naturally, for them, any change, opening a channel into the U.S. Government, that for them would have been a great thing. So that’s why they were interested in the outcome of the elections. There was no Russian connection whatsoever. If there were, they would have a record of me talking to Deripaska or visiting him.
TK: You never had any contact with Deripaska?
Konstantin Kilimnik: No, I haven’t met him since, I’m afraid to be exact, but like 2006, I think was the last time I saw him. I was translating for Manafort. But after that, Manafort spoke to him himself, because Deripaska spoke the language by then. And there was no need for me.
Part 2 of my interview with Konstantin Kilimnik is coming later this week.