Manafort Ties to Russia Posed ‘Grave Threat,’ Senate Concludes

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., hold a 2018 hearing to examine efforts to secure state election systems and to safeguard against foreign meddling in this year’s elections. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Intelligence Committee wrapped up its long-running investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections on Tuesday with a sharp indictment of Paul Manafort, the now-convicted former chairman of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

In just under 1,000 pages, the fifth and final report says Manafort posed “a grave counterintelligence threat” because of his proximity to then-candidate Trump and a willingness to disclose information to individuals closely affiliated with Russian intelligence services. 

The bipartisan findings follow more than three years of investigation, including more than 200 witness interviews and the review of over a million pages of documents, and reaches similar conclusions to those made by former special counsel Robert Mueller. 

Notably, the report reaches no determination on whether Trump’s campaign coordinated or colluded with Russia to change the outcome of the 2016 election, though Democrats and Republicans each submitted “additional views” on the conclusions to draw from the findings. 

U.S. officials tagged Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort associate whom Mueller indicted for obstruction of justice and conspiracy, as a Russian intelligence officer for the first time Tuesday. 

Manafort communicated with Kilimnik directly and indirectly throughout his time running Trump’s 2016 campaign, the report states.

“On numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal campaign information with Kilimnik,” the report lays out. 

But the Senate was unable to nail down why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategies with Kilimnik and to whom the Russian actor passed the information along. 

“The committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election,” the report states, referring to the Russian military intelligence agency.  

Manafort was found guilty of eight criminal counts brought by Mueller, unrelated to Russian meddling, including bank fraud. 

While Mueller reached distinct conclusions on the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the willingness of the Trump campaign to benefit from Russian-led hacks, the former special counsel did not charge any Trump officials with conspiring with Russia.

But Democrats said the latest report unambiguously shows that the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian efforts to land Trump in the White House, revealing for the first time Manafort’s direct connections to Russian meddling in his links to Kilimnik.

The Democrats further argue that the former Trump campaign chairman took steps to hide his communications and lied to federal investigators about his possible connections to the Russian hack-and-leak operation targeting the Democratic National Committee. 

“This is what collusion looks like,” Senators Martin Heinrich, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, Kamala Harris and Michael Bennet wrote. 

For Republicans, however, the extensive Senate investigation leaves no room for doubt that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

“Decisions taken were the result of a foreign policy viewpoint, not illicit Russian influence. We feel Volume 5 should have explicitly stated this,” Senators James Risch, Marco Rubio, Roy Blunt, Tom Cotton, John Cornyn and Ben Sasse wrote. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said the report reinforces the now-accepted conclusion that foreign actors targeted U.S. elections three years ago and continue to do so today. 

“The committee’s findings, along with other information recently released by the Intelligence Community, confirm what we already knew: Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign actors want to influence our politics, interfere with our elections, and stoke fear and division among Americans,” the GOP leader said in a statement.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Intelligence Committee’s detailed review adds to the Mueller report by making clear the Trump campaign sought out information from the Kremlin. 

“It shows how much the Trump campaign relied on hacked Russian information for its own political gain, while courting multiple connections with Moscow’s operatives,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.  

Among evidence that the campaign sought to benefit from Russian interference, the report states that Trump and senior officials sought advance information through Roger Stone on WikiLeaks releasing Russian-hacked emails. 

The Republican-endorsed report states that Stone shared purported knowledge on WikiLeaks directly with then-candidate Trump, contradicting the president’s written statement to Mueller that he had “no recollection” of such communications.

The Senate investigation also unpacked the FBI’s handling of allegations by Christopher Steele, saying the bureau gave Steele’s dossier “unjustified credence, based on an incomplete understanding” of the former British intelligence officer’s past reporting. 

Rubio, the acting committee chair and a Florida Republican, said in a statement that the committee was troubled by the FBI’s “acceptance and willingness to rely on the ‘Steele Dossier’ without verifying its methodology or sourcing.”

But Democrats noted that Steele’s reports in no way supported the committee’s investigation.  

Echoing information made public by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz last year, the Senate found the FBI relied on the dossier in its applications for and renewals of warrants to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. 

“Further, FBI did not effectively adjust its approach to Steele’s reporting once one of Steele’s subsources provided information that raised serious concerns about the source descriptions in the Steele Dossier,” the report states. 

Criticizing FBI investigators for relying on the memos, McConnell called the now-infamous dossier “dubious” and “potential disinformation.” 

In several accounts of 2016 meetings and communications with Russian actors, the Senate also revealed Tuesday that foreign intelligence agencies targeted the array of informal and inexperienced advisers at Trump’s side in the lead up to his inauguration. 

Among repeated actions by incoming Trump officials who interfered in the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts, the report points to discussions by former national security adviser Michael Flynn with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on sanctions.

“Russia may have deferred response to the sanctions the Obama administration put in place in late December because of Flynn’s intervention and promise of a new relationship with the Trump administration,” the report states.  

Flynn admitted to lying to the FBI about his communications with Kislyak, but has since withdrawn his guilty plea. The Justice Department recently moved to drop the prosecution first brought by Mueller’s team, setting off a heated legal battle.

The Senate also concluded that there was no evidence that any member of the campaign held substantive private conversations with Kislyak back in April 2016 — when Trump gave a speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. 

Investigators found a similar lack of findings to support that two individuals with close ties to the Russian government passed any information of benefit to the campaign in a June 2016 meeting. 

But the Trump team’s failure to vet meetings between Kremlin-linked individuals and top-level advisors — such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon — left the incoming administration open to influence and manipulation by foreign intelligence services, the Senate concluded. 

“The existence of a cadre of informal advisors to the transition team with varying levels of access to the president-elect and varying awareness of foreign affairs presented attractive targets for foreign influence, creating notable counterintelligence vulnerabilities,” the report states. 

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