Trump’s 2016 campaign chair had contact with Russian intelligence, Senate panel finds

By Sarah D. Wire and Chris Megerian

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign eagerly capitalized on Russia’s efforts to meddle in the election, raising new concerns about connections between his top aides and Moscow, the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in a bipartisan report released Tuesday.

When Russian military intelligence officers were releasing hacked Democratic Party emails through WikiLeaks, the report said, the Trump campaign “sought to maximize the impact of those leaks” and “created messaging strategies” around them.

“The Trump campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian election interference effort,” the report said.

The report describes Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman currently serving prison time for financial crimes, as a “grave counterintelligence threat” because of his relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business partner in Ukraine who is conclusively described as a “Russian intelligence officer.”

Although Kilimnik has been the target of scrutiny before, the report adds a new wrinkle, saying 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.” GRU is an acronym for Russian military intelligence; no such allegation has previously been made and details are redacted from the report.

Manafort and Kilimnik used encrypted messaging applications and codes to communicate, sometimes telling each other to look at the “tea bag” or the “updated travel schedule” when it was time to check the email account they shared. Some phones were referred to as “bat phones.”

The 966-page document is the fifth and final volume from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election meddling. It arrives soon after Trump’s own intelligence officials warned that Moscow was revisiting its playbook ahead of the 2020 election by trying to undermine Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate.

Although the latest report does not dramatically alter the public’s understanding of Russia’s operations in 2016, it’s the most comprehensive examination yet and it represents a rare bipartisan consensus on a hotly contested topic. In addition, it includes some new details that raise additional concerns about Trump’s campaign, including Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering. Trump recently commuted his sentence.

Although it’s unclear whether Stone knew in advance that WikiLeaks was releasing hacked emails, the report said he repeatedly communicated about the topic with Trump campaign officials, and “at their direction, Stone took action to gain inside knowledge.”

According to the report, WikiLeaks “likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort,” and Trump allies tried to spur more releases to help his campaign.

For example, the Trump campaign team heard about the “Access Hollywood” videotape an hour before it was revealed by The Washington Post. Stone told Jerome Corsi, an associate in right-wing circles, to get WikiLeaks to “drop the Podesta emails immediately.”

WikiLeaks did so 30 minutes after the tape report published, although it’s unclear whether any message was communicated between Corsi and WikiLeaks.

John Podesta served as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and the release of embarrassing details disclosed in his stolen emails dominated the final weeks of the campaign.

At the same time Stone was trying to learn about WikiLeaks’ plans, he was helping Trump draft tweets friendly to Russia, the report said. In an email to Trump’s assistant titled “Tweets Mr. Trump requested last night,” Stone suggested tweeting “I want a new detente with Russia under Putin.”

The concerted effort to harness an illegal Russian operation to harm Clinton’s candidacy undermines Trump’s frequent claims of “no collusion” between his campaign and Moscow.

However, no criminal conspiracy was established by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who ultimately did not charge any members of the president’s campaign with working with Russians.

The Senate Intelligence Committee was alarmed by efforts to mislead or stonewall its investigation.

According to a letter reviewed by the Los Angeles Times last week, the panel told federal prosecutors last year that three witnesses —including former campaign strategist Stephen K. Bannon —may have provided false testimony. Lying to Congress is a felony.

In addition, the latest report said the White House tried to limit testimony to the committee with claims of executive privilege that had “no basis in law.”

By comparison, former officials from President Barack Obama’s administration “freely shared their conversations.”