Manafort developments trigger new ‘collusion’ debate

The revelation that President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE’s former campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortWebb: Questions for Robert Mueller Top Mueller prosecutor Zainab Ahmad joins law firm Gibson Dunn Russian oligarch's story could spell trouble for Team Mueller MORE allegedly shared polling data with a Russian suspected of ties to Kremlin intelligence during the 2016 presidential race has triggered fresh debate about “collusion” in Washington.

Democrats on Capitol Hill see the detail as perhaps the starkest signal yet that the Trump campaign may have coordinated with Moscow to interfere in the election.

But their Republican counterparts, along with the president’s attorney, say that’s not the case.

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“If sharing polling data with your former partner in political races in the Ukraine is collusion, then I guess it is. I don’t perceive it as collusion,” Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Sanders mounts staunch defense of 'Medicare for All' | Biden, Sanders fight over health care heats up | House votes to repeal ObamaCare 'Cadillac Tax' | Dems want details on fetal tissue research ban Top North Carolina newspapers editorial board to GOP: 'Are you OK with a racist president?' Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee leading the Russia investigation in the upper chamber, told The Hill.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in an interview with The Hill dismissed the sharing of the polling information.

“Should he have done it? No. But there’s nothing criminal about it,” Giuliani said.

Still, the revelation, coupled with new details about a Kremlin-linked lawyer who met with the campaign at Trump Tower during the heat of the presidential race, has raised new questions about the Trump team’s links to Russia.

And it has left many wondering what may have been done with the data, which Manafort allegedly handed over to his former business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, amid a burgeoning effort by the Russian government to use hacking and social media to meddle in the presidential vote with the aim of tipping it in favor of Trump over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge Takei: US has hit a new low under Trump Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE.

Manafort’s defense attorneys inadvertently disclosed in a court filing Tuesday that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE had accused their client of lying about sharing polling data with Kilimnik “related to the 2016 presidential campaign.” They appeared to acknowledge that the interaction occurred but contested the notion that Manafort lied about it, noting he “was unable to recall specific details” before having his “recollection refreshed” by the special counsel.

The New York Times subsequently reported that Manafort and Richard Gates, his former business partner, sent the data to Kilimnik in spring 2016 and directed him to give it to two Ukrainian oligarchs, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov. A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment on the Times report.

It remains unclear what was behind the transfer or what Kilimnik may have done with the information, but it has raised accusations from Democrats.

“Clearly, Manafort was trying to collude with Russian agents and the question is, what did the president know?” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing MORE (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN. “What did Donald Trump know about this exchange of information? Did the Russians end up using this information in their efforts that took place later in the fall?”

Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichHillicon Valley: Harris spikes in Google searches after debate clash with Biden | Second US city blocks facial recognition | Apple said to be moving Mac Pro production from US to China | Bipartisan Senate bill takes aim at 'deepfake' videos Senators unveil bipartisan bill to target 'deepfake' video threat Senate Democrats wish talk on reparations would go away MORE (D-N.M.), another member of the committee, said the revelation “should set off very big red flags for anyone.”

“It looks an awful lot like the definition of collusion, so I think we need to learn everything we can about that,” Heinrich said.

Trump, who has vehemently denied that the campaign colluded with Russia, on Thursday said he knew nothing about Manafort sharing polling data with Kilimnik.

Legal experts say that the act of sharing polling data is not a crime in and of itself, but it could be a data point connected to Russia’s robust campaign at the time to meddle in the election.

Mueller has already indicted more than a dozen Russian nationals and entities on conspiracy and fraud charges in connection with an elaborate plot to use social media to spread divisive political and social content to U.S. audiences with the aim of sowing discord during the election. And he has charged 12 Russians working for the GRU, the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency, with hacking emails of high-level Democrats that were eventually released to the public by WikiLeaks.

“Depending on the context of what was involved in Manafort’s reasoning and any quid pro quo, there are possible crimes,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington-based lawyer specializing in national security cases. “But the mere fact of turning this over, I don’t think there is anything criminal in that.”  

Zaid noted that handing over polling data could be part of a broader conspiracy to commit an underlying, substantive crime. He also said the revelation could expose associates of the Trump campaign to potential perjury charges if anyone who denied contacts between the campaign and Moscow in meetings with investigators is found to have known about Manafort’s actions.

Kilimnik, a Russian national, was the point man for Manafort’s consulting business in Kiev and helped him lobby on behalf of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Mueller indicted Kilimnik alongside Manafort last year on charges of trying to obstruct the investigation by tampering with witnesses. Kilimnik is believed to be out of reach of federal prosecutors in Russia, with which the U.S. does not have an extradition agreement.

Kilimnik has attracted particular attention for his suspected ties to the Russian government. In a filing last March in a related case, Mueller revealed that the FBI believes an individual matching Kilimnik’s description — identified only as “Person A” — of having ties to Russian intelligence in 2016. The filing also suggested that Gates, who is cooperating in the investigation, knew Kilimnik to be a former GRU agent, according to testimony from Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan.

Republicans shrugged off those ties as evidence Manafort was knowingly communicating with the Russian government. When asked about Kilimnik’s suspected ties to the GRU, Burr replied, “Name a Russian that’s not.”

Mueller has also accused Manafort of lying about discussions with Kilimnik regarding a “Ukraine peace plan” as well as a meeting with him in Madrid during the campaign, according to the Tuesday filing, which was improperly redacted so that it revealed details meant to be concealed.

Manafort’s attorneys argued he never deliberately lied to the special counsel about his contacts with Kilimnik, noting his mental and physical wellbeing have been impacted by his months in federal prison. He told the truth “to the best of his ability,” they wrote.

The court filing came the same day as prosecutors in Manhattan filed charges against Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Manafort, Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump campaign selling branded plastic straws as alternative to 'liberal paper straws' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Trump set to host controversial social media summit MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump: 'We already started' talks to get A$AP Rocky home from Sweden Kim Kardashian West thanks Trump, Kushner for helping efforts to free A$AP Rocky from Swedish jail MORE in Trump Tower in June 2016, for allegedly obstructing a tax fraud investigation. While unrelated to the Trump Tower meeting, the charges underscored the close ties that Veselnitskaya is believed to have to the Russian government.

Manafort was ensnared in the Russia investigation in October 2017 when Mueller unsealed charges against him related to his foreign lobbying activities. Found guilty of bank and tax fraud in August, Manafort agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with Mueller’s investigation in September to avert a second federal trial in D.C.

In a filing last April requesting a hearing on media leaks about Manafort’s case in Virginia, his attorneys alleged that the special counsel had produced no evidence of communications between Manafort and Russian government officials despite numerous discovery requests and that unauthorized government disclosures to media outlets had unfairly painted the picture of Manafort colluding with the Kremlin. That was before Manafort agreed to cooperate in the investigation.

He is expected to be sentenced in Virginia next month and separately in D.C. in March, proceedings that could shed more light on his engagement with the special counsel. Trump has long maintained Manafort’s case has nothing to do with the campaign.

Mueller has conducted the investigation quietly for more than 19 months amid intense public scrutiny and the president’s constant attacks on its legitimacy. Some reports have suggested Mueller’s final report on his findings could be imminent, while other developments indicate the probe could go on much longer.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to press forward in its own parallel investigation, which is entering its third year. The Manafort revelations exposed the first signs that the collusion question could ultimately divide Republicans and Democrats on the committee, despite Burr and Warner going to great lengths to keep the investigation bipartisan.

“When I finish, I’ll make a judgment,” Burr said, “Based upon the information that I have seen today, I don’t see evidence of collusion.”  

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are planning to revive their investigation into Russian interference, equipped with a newfound majority in the lower chamber that affords them new subpoena and oversight powers as they eye new probes into Trump, his business and administration.

Both committees have signaled they want to hear more from Manafort, who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2017 but whose appearance eluded lawmakers in the House.