Exposé in "The Hill" challenges Mueller, media

Claim that would-be key Russiagate figure Konstantin Kilimnik is a longtime American informant might be a game-changing story – in a country with a real press corps

John Solomon of The Hill just came out with what could be a narrative-changing story. If news organizations that heavily covered Russiagate don’t at least check out this report – confirm it or refute it – few explanations other than bias will make sense.   

In “Key figure that Mueller report linked to Russia was a State Department intel source,” Solomon asserts that Konstantin Kilimnik, the mysterious Ukrainian cohort of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, has been a “sensitive” source for the U.S. State department dating back to at least 2013, including “while he was still working for Manafort.” 

Solomon describes Kilimnik meeting “several times a week” with the chief political officer of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Kilimnik “relayed messages back to Ukraine’s leaders and delivered written reports to U.S. officials via emails that stretched on for thousands of words,” according to memos Solomon reviewed. 

Solomon’s report, which raises significant questions about an episode frequently described as the “heart” of the Mueller investigation (and which was the subject of thousands of news stories), came out on June 6th. As of June 8th, here’s the list of major news organizations that have followed up on his report:

That’s it. Nobody else has touched it. 

Solomon is a controversial figure, especially to Democratic audiences. The Columbia Journalism Review has hounded him in the past for what it called “suspect” work, especially for pushing “less than meets the eye” stories that turned into right-wing talking points. The Washington Post has done stories citing Hill staffers who’ve complained that a trail of “Solomon investigations” that veered “rightward” was also misleading and lacking “context.” The Post likewise quoted staffers who complained that Solomon was making too much of texts between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok of the FBI.

On the Russiagate story, however, Solomon clearly has sources, as he’s repeatedly broken news about things that other reporters have heard about, but didn’t have in full. He reported about former British spy and FBI informant Christopher Steele speaking to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavelec before the 2016 election, among other things admitting he’d been speaking to the media.

Solomon also reported that Kavelec’s notes about Steele had been passed to the FBI, eight days before the FBI described Steele as credible in a FISA warrant application.

It would be one thing if other outlets were rebutting his claims about Kilimnik, as people have with some of this other stories. But this report has attracted zero response from non-conservative media, despite the fact that Kilimnik has long been one of the most talked-about figures in the whole Russiagate drama.

This story matters for a few reasons. If Kilimnik was that regular and important a U.S. government source, it would deal a blow to the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

 Kilimnik’s relationship with Manafort was among the most damaging to Donald Trump in the Mueller report. Here was Trump’s campaign manager commiserating with a man Mueller said was “assessed” to have “ties to Russian intelligence.” 

In one of the most lurid sections of the Mueller report, Manafort is described writing to Kilimnik after being named Trump’s campaign manager to ask if “our friends” had seen media coverage about his new role. 

“Absolutely. Every article,” said Kilimnik. To this, Manafort replied: “How do we use to get whole. Has Ovd operation seen?” referring to Deripaska.  

The implication was clear: Manafort was offering to use his position within the Trump campaign to “get whole” with the scary metals baron, Deripaska. Manafort believed his role on the campaign could help “confirm” Deripaska would drop a lawsuit he had filed against Manafort. 

When Manafort later sent “internal polling data” to Kilimnik with the idea that it was being shared with Ukrainian oligarchs and Deripaska, this seemed like very damaging news indeed: high-ranking Trump official gives inside info to someone with “ties” to Russian intelligence.

Mueller didn’t just describe Kilimnik as having ties to Russian intelligence. He said that while working in Moscow between 1998 and 2005 for the International Republican Institute– that’s an American think-tank connected to the Republican Party, its sister organization being the National Democratic Institute – IRI officials told the FBI he’d been fired because his “links to Russian intelligence were too strong.” 

In other words, Mueller not only made a current assessment about Kilimnik, he made a show of retracing Kilimnik’s career steps in a series of bullet points, from his birth in the Dnieprpetrovsk region in 1970 to his travel to the U.S. in 1997, to his effort in 2014 to do PR work defending Russia’s move into Crimea. 

Mueller left out a bit, according to Solomon, who says he “reviewed” FBI and State Department memos about Kilimnik’s status as an informant. He even went so far as to name the U.S. embassy officials in Ukraine who dealt with Kilimnik:

Alan Purcell, the chief political officer at the Kiev embassy from 2014 to 2017, told FBI agents that State officials, including senior embassy officials Alexander Kasanof and Eric Schultz, deemed Kilimnik to be such a valuable asset that they kept his name out of cables for fear he would be compromised by leaks to WikiLeaks.

“Purcell described what he considered an unusual level of discretion that was taken with handling Kilimnik,” states one FBI interview report that I reviewed. “Normally the head of the political section would not handle sources, but Kasanof informed Purcell that KILIMNIK was a sensitive source.”

This relationship was described in “hundreds of pages of government documents” that Solomon reports Mueller “possessed since 2018.” The FBI, he added, knew all about Kilimnik’s status as a State Department informant before the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. 

This is one of a growing number of examples of people whose status as documented U.S. informants goes unmentioned in the Mueller report, where they are instead described under the general heading, “Russian government links to, and contact with, the Trump campaign.”

One of the first such “Russian-government connected individuals” is Felix Sater, described in Mueller’s report as a “New York based real estate advisor” who contacted Cohen with a “new inquiry about building a Trump Tower project in Moscow.”

It’s Sater who initiates the inquiry and Sater who wrote the most oft-quoted emails to Cohen, like “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA” and “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in.” Sater in the report encourages Cohen to keep the project alive and keeps promising he can deliver meetings with the likes of Putin and aide Dmitry Peskov.

But nowhere in the report is it disclosed that Sater, as reported by the Intercepthas been a registered FBI informant since 1998, when after racketeering and assault cases he signed a cooperation agreement. The document was signed on the government side by Mueller’s future chief investigator, Andrew Weissman, another detail no one seems to find odd.

Similarly there is a section in the report involving a character named Henry Oknyansky (a.k.a. Henry Greenberg). Oknyansky-Greenberg (he has other aliases) is a Miami-based hustler who approached former Trump aide Michael Caputo in May of 2016, ostensibly offering “derogatory information” on Hillary Clinton. Mueller lists the Greenberg case under a header about “potential Russian interest in Russian hacked materials.” 

He leaves out the part where any idiot with a PACER account can run a search on Greenberg and find the series of court documents in which the oft-arrested figure claims, “I cooperated with the FBI for 17 years, often put my life in danger.” 

Of course, anyone bold enough might claim to be an FBI informant in an effort to stave off deportation. But in this case, in an effort to prove to he was in fact a government tipster, Greenberg submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the FBI about himself – and actually got the documentation!

California court records show Oknyansky/Greenberg received a series of “significant public benefit” parole visas of varying lengths from the U.S. government between 2008 and 2012. The documents even list the name and phone number of his FBI case officer. 

Mueller’s failure to identify the U.S. government links to either Greenberg or Sater was suspicious (there are other head-scratching omissions as well), but failing to do so in the case of Kilimnik would be mind-boggling. Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik were described by Judge Amy Berman Jackson as the “undisputed core of the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation.” 

Much was made of the fact that Kilimnik visited the Trump Tower in August of 2016 to present a plan for resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict:

Kilimnik requested the meeting to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine; both men believed the plan would require Trump assent to succeed.

But Solomon’s report indicates Kilimnik traveled to the U.S. twice in 2016 to meet with State officials, and delivered the same “peace plan” to Obama administration officials. Kilimnik appeared to have discussed the plan in Washington with former embassy official Alexander Kasanof – who’d since been promoted to a senior State position – at a dinner on May 5, 2016.

Not that anyone much cares, but Kilimnik has angrily denied the characterization of him as a spy. As Solomon writes:

Officials for the State Department, the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Kilimnik did not respond to an email seeking comment but, in an email last month to The Washington Post, he slammed the Mueller report’s “made-up narrative” about him. “I have no ties to Russian or, for that matter, any intelligence operation,” he wrote.

The Manafort-Kilimnik tale is a fundamentally different news story if Kilimnik is more of an American asset than a Russian one. 

If Kilimnik was giving regular reports to the State Department through 2016, if his peace plan was not a diabolical Trump-Manafort backdoor effort to carve up Ukraine, if Kilimnik was someone who could be “flabbergasted at the Russian invasion of Crimea,” as Solomon says the FBI concluded, then this entire part of the Russiagate story has been farce. 

It would become a more ambiguous story that was made to look diabolical through inference and omission. Though it might not absolve Paul Manafort of lying or thinking he was doing something wrong, it could change the complexion of the actual narrative, how we should understand the story.

“Trump campaign manager gives polling data to longtime U.S. government informant” doesn’t have the same punch as “Manafort Suggests He Gave Suspected Russian Spy 2016 Polling Data,” as the oft-hyperventilating Daily Beast put it. 

The Times did cover some of this ground a while ago, in a story that to me lends credence to the idea that the Hill and the Times were looking at the same Kilimnik documents. 

The Times, which has become a dependable venue for the gentle spinning of soon-to-be-released dispositive information about the collusion theory, wrote a long feature on Kilimnik in February: “Russian Spy or Hustling Political Operative? The Enigmatic Figure at the Heart of Mueller’s Inquiry.”

That piece, based on “dozens of interviews, court filings and other documents,” described Kilimnik as 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 Times added: 

To American diplomats in Washington and Kiev, [Kilimnik] has been a well-known character for nearly a decade, developing a reputation as a broker of valuable information…

The paper noted that Kilimnik traveled “freely” to the U.S. and appeared to reference the dinner with Kasanof, noting Kilimnik “in May 2016 met senior State Department officials for drinks at the Off the Record bar.” 

Only in the last two paragraphs did they get to the point, quoting Caputo:

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.

No shit! It’s one thing if Kilimnik was just another hustler who moved back and forth between Western and Russian orbits, trading on connections on both sides. There were countless such figures in Moscow, especially dating back to the nineties, when Kilimnik began working for the IRI. 

But it’s a different matter if Kilimnik was meeting multiple times a week with American embassy officials and providing thousands of words of intel on a regular basis. There’s no scenario where Kilimnik is actually a Russian spy and that kind of record doesn’t reflect badly on whoever was regularly downloading and sharing his intelligence on the American side.  

There are two big possibilities: either Solomon’s report is wrong somehow, and the nature of Kilimnik’s relationship with the United States government has been misrepresented, or he’s right and this tale at the “heart” of the Mueller probe has been over-spun in an Everest of misleading news reports. 

Either way, it has to be looked into. It appears, though, that no one among the usual suspects is interested, just as the press declined to descend upon Italy in search of the ostensible Patient Zero of Russiagate, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud (who was said to be shacked up in a Rome apartment for seven months after the Russiagate insanity broke before going to ground). 

MSNBC burned up countless hours obsessing over the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship. You can find the tale discussed ad nauseum here, here, here, here, and in many other places, with Kilimnik routinely described on air as a “Russian asset” with “ties to Russian intelligence,” who even bragged that he learned his English from Russian spies. 

CNN has likewise done a gazillion reports on the guy: see here, here, here, here, and here. Some reports said Manafort’s conduct “hints” at collusion, while Chris Cilizza said his meetings with a “Russian-linked operative” were a “very big deal.” Bloviator-in-chief Jake Tapper wondered if this story was “Game, Set, Match” for the collusion case. Anytime a Democrat spoke about how “stunning” and “damning” was the news that Manafort gave Kilimnik poll numbers, reporters repeated those assertions in a snap. 

I could go up and down the line with the Times,the Washington Postand other print outlets. Every major news organization that covered Russiagate has covered the hell out of this part of the story. But the instant there’s a suggestion there’s another angle: crickets.

Russiagate is fast becoming a post-journalistic news phenomenon. We live in an information landscape so bifurcated, media companies don’t cover news, because they can stick with narratives. Kilimnik being a regular State Department informant crosses the MSNBC-approved line that he’s a Russian cutout who tried to leverage Donald Trump’s campaign manager. So it literally has no news value to many companies, even if it’s clearly a newsworthy item according to traditional measure. 

Incidentally, Solomon’s report being true wouldn’t necessarily exonerate either Kilimnik or Manafort. It may just mean a complication of the picture, along with uncomfortable questions for Robert Muller and embassy officials who dealt with Kilimnik. That’s what’s so maddening. We’ve gotten to the point where news editors and producers are more like film continuity editors — worried about maintaining literary consistency in coverage — than addressing newsworthy developments that might move us into gray areas. 

Our press sucks. There are third-world dictatorships where newspapers try harder than they do here. We used to at least pretend to cover the bases. Now, we’re a joke. 

NEXT: The rise and fall of superhero Robert Mueller

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