Authorities looked into Manafort protégé

An associate of an ex-Trump campaign chairman is suspected of connections to Russian intelligence

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Paul Manafort summarily rejected questions about whether Konstantin Kilimnik might be in league with Russian intelligence. | Getty

U.S. and Ukrainian authorities have expressed interest in the activities of a Kiev-based operative with suspected ties to Russian intelligence who consulted regularly with Paul Manafort last year while Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The operative, Konstantin Kilimnik, came under scrutiny from officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department partly because of at least two trips he took to the U.S. during the presidential campaign, according to three international political operatives familiar with the agencies’ interest in Kilimnik.

Kilimnik, a joint Russian-Ukrainian citizen who trained in the Russian army as a linguist, told operatives in Kiev and Washington that he met with Manafort during an April trip to the United States. And, after a late summer trip to the U.S., Kilimnik suggested that he had played a role in gutting a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform that would have staked out a more adversarial stance towards Russia, according to a Kiev operative.

The FBI declined to comment on Kilimnik, while the State Department did not respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear whether either agency launched any kind of official inquiry into Kilimnik, nor is it clear whether the interest from the U.S. authorities is ongoing.

The Ukrainian prosecutor general in August did launch a formal investigation into Kilimnik’s suspected ties to Russian intelligence, according to documents obtained by POLITICO. The prosecutor’s office subsequently told POLITICO that it has cleared Kilimnik, though the Ukrainian parliamentarian who requested the investigation questioned its thoroughness and suggested the agency was trying to avoid an investigation that could have had implications in the U.S. presidential race.

The revelations about the authorities’ interest in Kilimnik come amid ongoing FBI and congressional investigations into Russia’s alleged meddling in the presidential race, as well as probes into ties between Russia and President Trump’s associates.

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Trump, who has downplayed U.S. intelligence findings that Russia, in an effort to help his campaign, engineered cyberhacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, has blasted the investigations as a witch hunt. And on Saturday, Trump accused former President Barack Obama, without evidence, of ordering the tapping of the phones at Trump’s New York campaign headquarters.

Manafort summarily rejected questions about whether Kilimnik might be in league with Russian intelligence, declaring Kilimnik “pro-Ukraine,” and casting the inquiries into his associate as politically motivated “smears.”

Kilimnik declined to answer questions about any interest by authorities into his activities. Instead, he attributed scrutiny of him to “a heated political environment [that has] led to exaggerated and out of context reporting in the hope of establishing connections that, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet been proven.”

He added that “Ukraine and Ukrainians are being used as scapegoats in the U.S. political and media battles” — a dynamic that he said has been made “abundantly evident from how my own circumstantial relationships were misrepresented, exaggerated and overblown.”

The White House declined to respond to questions about Manafort’s relationship with Kilimnik, or whether there were any inquiries into it by U.S. authorities.

But two international political consultants who work in Kiev said that U.S. authorities became increasingly interested in Kilimnik after he made a trip to the U.S. in April 2016. Several people said Kilimnik told them that he met with Manafort during that trip, which came as Manafort was guiding Trump’s campaign through the bitter Republican presidential primaries, and trying to distance himself from his work in Ukraine.

Kilimnik’s relationship with Manafort traces back to 2005. That’s when Manafort hired Kilimnik to work for him in Ukraine after Kilimnik was forced out of a position he held for about a decade in Moscow with the U.S.-based International Republican Institute amid suspicion over his ties to Russia.

Manafort and Kilimnik were part of a group that formed a private equity fund that used millions of dollars contributed by the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to purchase a Ukrainian cable and internet company. And they did work on behalf of the businesses owned by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

Their work in Ukraine became political when Akhmetov began funding the political comeback of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. With Manafort’s help, Yanukovych was elected prime minister in 2006 and president in 2010 as the leader of the Russia-aligned Party of Regions. Multiple sources said the party paid millions of dollars a year to Manafort’s firm, for which Kilimnik eventually came to run the Kiev office.

Manafort stressed that his work in Ukraine was intended to steer Yanukovych towards more pro-Western policies and more engagement with the European Union. And Kilimnik told POLITICO that “one thing that was grossly under-reported to date is the effort that Paul Manafort undertook to help Ukrainian leaders defend Ukraine’s interests and move the country towards [a European Union] Free Trade Agreement.”

Yet Yanukovych in 2013 backed away from a commitment to that agreement, and fled Ukraine for Russia under the protection of Russian President Vladimir Putin amid widespread protests over government corruption.

Manafort and Kilimnik started working for a Russia-aligned party that arose from the ashes of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, operatives close to Kilimnik and Manafort told POLITICO. The new party, Opposition Bloc, stopped paying Manafort’s company, and the effort to collect unpaid invoices was part of the reason Manafort and Kilimnik remained in contact during the presidential race, the operatives said.

But Kilimnik last month also told RadioFreeEurope that “every couple months” during the campaign he “was briefing [Manafort] on Ukraine,” though he subsequently clarified his comments, adding that he wasn’t formally advising Manafort.

Manafort told POLITICO that he called Kilimnik to discuss what he called the “the smear campaign against me coming out of Ukraine” — a reference to the publication by Ukrainian investigators and the media of ledgers appearing to show $12.7 million in cash earmarked for him by the Party of Regions. (Manafort has said he never received the cash and has questioned the authenticity of the ledgers, as have some Ukrainian officials).

During their conversations last year, Manafort said he and Kilimnik also discussed an array of subjects related to the presidential campaign, including the hacking of the DNC’s emails, though Manafort stressed that at the time of the conversations, neither he nor other Trump campaign officials knew that Russia was involved in the hacking.

When Kilimnik traveled to the U.S. in late summer, he drew the attention of U.S. authorities, according to a Washington consultant with ties to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

And when Kilimnik returned to Ukraine after that trip, he suggested to Kiev political operatives that he played a role in a move by Trump’s representatives to dilute a proposed amendment to the GOP platform calling for the U.S. to provide “lethal defensive weapons” for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian incursion.

“He led me to believe that he was involved in the platform fight, but not necessarily through Paul,” said a Kiev-based operative who travels in the same circles as Kilimnik. The operative added that Kilimnik could have been “just bullshitting like political consultants do.”

A Trump campaign adviser familiar with the platform debate said he was not aware of Kilimnik playing any role in the proceedings and, in fact, hadn’t even met Kilimnik.

In Kiev, Kilimnik continued representing Opposition Bloc in meetings with international diplomats, according to several people in the international business and diplomat communities in Ukraine’s capital. Kilimnik is regarded there and in some U.S. foreign policy circles as a trustworthy liaison to the party and to an influential oligarch who is helping to fund it.

Several people who’ve worked with Kilimnik told POLITICO he was not particularly ideological and never betrayed either a strong bias toward or against the Kremlin as it grew increasingly hostile to Ukraine under Putin.

But after a POLITICO exposé in August revealed Kilimnik’s suspected ties to Russian intelligence and other media followed the story, Volodymyr Ariev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, formally requested that the country’s prosecutor general investigate Kilimnik.

“This person, from his biographical details, could be connected to Russian special services, and could possess valuable information about the criminal activities of … former members of the Party of Regions and the government at the time of Yanukovych, who are being investigated by the general prosecutor,” Ariev wrote in a letter to the general prosecutor.

The prosecutor’s office, which is obligated to investigate any inquiry from a member of parliament, for years has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into government spending under Yanukovych. And, even before Ariev’s letter, it had questioned at least one person about the work of Kilimnik, Manafort and their associates on behalf of Yanukovych, according to a political operative in Kiev briefed on the inquiry.

Ariev’s letter was dated Aug. 19 — a day after POLITICO’s exposé. Later that day, the general prosecutor’s office responded with a letter of its own, writing Ariev that his requested inquiry related to Kilimnik and Manafort’s company, Davis Manafort International LLC, “has been considered.”

The letter indicated that the Kilimnik matter “has been combined” with the “criminal proceeding” into government spending under Yanukovych. But the press office for the prosecutor on Tuesday told POLITICO that “Kilimnik is not being processed now as a witness, suspect or accused.”

Ariev told POLITICO “This is one of the shortest answers I’ve received from the general prosecutor’s office. I think the reason is that the government did not want to be involved in the U.S. elections.”

Nonetheless, the mounting scrutiny of Manafort’s work in Ukraine, and alleged cash payments from the Party of Regions, forced him to resign from the Trump campaign the same day that the prosecutor general’s office responded to Ariev.

Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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