Updated on March 30, 2018.
Buried in a late-night court filing in Robert Mueller’s expansive probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was an explosive claim: An adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams had knowingly been in contact with a former Russian intelligence officer as late as September 2016, prosecutors said. The revelation is the strongest connection to date between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s intelligence services, which U.S. officials say were behind the cyberattacks on Democrats during the election.
The adviser, Rick Gates, was a deputy to Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and stayed on as a liaison between Trump’s transition team and the Republican National Committee after the election, well after Manafort was forced to step down over his alleged ties to dirty Ukrainian money. Manafort and Gates’s arrival to the campaign team coincided with the most pivotal Russia-related episode of the election: the release of emails that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee by hackers working for the GRU, Russia’s premier military-intelligence unit. The GRU remained at the center of the Russians’ interference campaign, using the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to publish the hacked material in droves before the election. Gates and Manafort, meanwhile, remained in touch with the former GRU officer who the special counsel’s office believes was still connected to Russian intelligence services during the election—raising new questions about what the campaign officials knew about Russia’s hack-and-dump scheme.
The former GRU officer was identified in Mueller’s latest filing only as “Person A.” But the descriptions allude to Konstantin Kilimnik—a Russian-Ukrainian dual citizen who attended a Soviet military school and later joined the Russian Army as a translator. A former classmate of Kilimnik's told me that, between 1987 and 1992, Kilimnik attended the First Department of the Moscow Military Red-Banner Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR, which "was the premier military education institution for training military linguists, information and psychological warfare experts, and military jurists.” Kilimnik graduated in June 1992 as a lieutenant, the former classmate said. The Institute is now called The Military University of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
Gates knew of Kilimnik’s background. He told Alex van der Zwaan—a lawyer he and Manafort worked with on a project to shore up support for Manafort’s client at the time, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—about the former intelligence officer’s past as a GRU officer, according to prosecutors. Gates was indicted last October on charges including money laundering and tax fraud, and is now cooperating with the special counsel.
Kilimnik left the army and eventually landed at the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in 1995, where he worked for over a decade. An IRI spokeswoman told me that “he was asked to leave because he violated IRI’s code of ethics,” and that, to her knowledge, “no one had any reason to believe that he was affiliated with Russian intelligence.” The spokeswoman would not elaborate on Kilimnik’s alleged ethics breach, but it may have had something to do with his overlapping work as a translator for Manafort in 2005. Kilimnik soon began working for Manafort’s firms full time. The lawyer at the center of Tuesday’s court filing, van der Zwaan, had “grown too close to Manafort, Gates, and Person A,” prosecutors alleged.
Manafort, like Gates, was in touch with Kilimnik in 2016. As The Atlantic reported last year, emails Manafort turned over to investigators as part of their examination of Russia’s election interference included correspondence with Kilimnik about a Russian oligarch with whom Manafort hoped to curry favor—using his campaign role. Manafort and Kilimnik also had two in-person meetings in May and August 2016.
The special counsel’s office appears to have referenced Kilimnik in court filings before Tuesday: Urging a judge to reject a proposed bail deal for Manafort in December, prosecutors noted that Manafort and his “longtime Russian colleague” who is “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service” had been collaborating on an English-language op-ed aimed at portraying Manafort’s work in Ukraine in a positive light. But the special counsel’s office did not specify then, as it did on Tuesday, that this individual “had such ties in 2016”—seemingly drawing a straight line from the Trump campaign to Russia.
Legal experts and former federal prosecutors told me it was too difficult to say, at this point, why Mueller’s team had declined to identify Kilimnik by name. “There are many reasons why a prosecutor might not name a person uncharged in an indictment,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and longtime white-collar defense attorney. “Indeed, DOJ standard policy holds that persons not charged should, presumptively, NOT be named in indictment, as a simple matter of fairness. Of course, there are sometimes reasons that rule is not followed.” Another possibility is that Kilimnik is already cooperating with prosecutors.
“It’s certainly possible that he’s a U.S. asset,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, where he specializes in national-security law. “It’s also possible that they’re still investigating his role, and don’t want to say any more than they have to so as to not provide too much information to him (or others who might be implicated).” Kilimnik “might be cooperating and an asset, or there might not be a possible allegation against him yet,” said former federal prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney Jeff Cramer. “This could, however, change that dynamic.”
The special counsel’s office did not offer evidence that Kilimnik’s relationship with Russian military intelligence—which he denies having—persisted through 2016. Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague who specializes in modern Russian politics and organized crime, told me that “just having a GRU background does not mean anything.” John Sipher, a retired CIA officer who ran the agency’s Russia operations, noted that, in Russia, someone’s past ties to the security services “certainly suggests that they can continue to be tasked and trusted”—and it is “a standard Russian line that there’s no such thing as a ‘former’ KGB officer. That said, there are a ton of people who worked for a short time for Russian military intelligence who have moved on to civilian lives.”
Steve Hall, who retired as CIA chief of Russia operations in 2015 after 30 years of managing and running intelligence operations, agreed that the “once a GRU officer, always a GRU officer” wisdom was “a bit exaggerated.” But, he said, “the ties are there.”
Hall noted that because informal relationships among power brokers in Russia are “much more important” than in the West, Kilimnik’s past work for military intelligence—even if wasn’t later formalized—is “notable.” It’s not surprising, moreover, that associates of Manafort would’ve had ties to Russian security services, Hall said. “Manafort would have at the very least been vetted by the Russians when he worked for [Viktor] Yanukovych in Ukraine.” Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine whom Manafort advised for over a decade, was ousted in 2014 and fled to Russia amid mass popular protests over his refusal to sign an agreement that would’ve brought Ukraine closer to the West.
Kilimnik later acknowledged in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that he and Manafort emailed each other “about Trump and everything” during the campaign. “There were millions of emails,” Kilimnik told RFERL in a text message. “We worked for 11 years. And we discussed a lot of issues, from Putin to women.” Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said last fall that Manafort had simply been trying to leverage his high-level role on the campaign to collect past debts. Kilimnik seemed to echo that statement, telling RFERL: “Our clients owe us money.”