A Glimpse Behind the Mueller Curtain

January 10, 2019
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Robert S. Mueller. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

During the nearly two years of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign’s potential connections to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, President Trump has maintained a steady drumbeat defense: There was no collusion between the campaign and Russia, and any suggestion otherwise is mere partisan hackery. After this week, that defense might need a few revisions. On Tuesday, the legal team for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort accidentally let slip an extraordinary new accusation from the government: that during the campaign, Manafort had deliberately passed polling data to a former business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the United States has accused of being a Kremlin informant, and later lied about it to investigators.

Many of the president’s critics have rushed to label this development a “smoking gun”—the latest of many—that demonstrates beyond doubt that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to ensure a Trump victory over Hillary Clinton. It certainly proves further that the Trump team’s months of broad denials of campaign contact with Russians were untrue. Beyond that, however, it may yet be too early to say.

It’s important to point out everything we still don’t know about this story. First, and most importantly, what exactly was the nature of the data prosecutors allege Manafort was passing to Kilimnik? Was it simply publicly available polling information, the kind of numbers Manafort could ostensibly have been passing to a former colleague (albeit a Kremlin-connected one) for purely informational purposes? This would seem to be consistent with Manafort’s defense—that he misled Mueller about the transaction only because it seemed so unimportant at the time that he simply forgot about it later. Or, conversely, was it confidential internal polling data—the kind that the campaign would dispense only to trusted allies? The information Manafort’s lawyers accidentally released doesn’t specify. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that at least some of the data was internal polling—but attributed that claim only to a single anonymous source.

All of which means the data is consistent with a few possibilities. The most charitable possible construction for the president—the one you’re likely to see Trump’s supporters pick up as the story develops—is that Manafort was working in his own interest and without the knowledge of others on the campaign while ferrying information to his Russia-adjacent contacts. Whether this construction is more or less likely than other, more ominous readings—the kind we’re likely to see bandied about on cable news—is simply impossible to tell from this quick glimpse behind the curtain of Mueller’s collected evidence.

What should be clear to all, however, is this: even at this late date, Mueller is still holding cards of which we the public so far know nothing. If not for the clumsiness of Manafort’s team this week, we’d hardly be paying the special counsel a thought. We need not yell ourselves hoarse quarreling about what Manafort’s accidental revelation might entail; it is interesting enough to know that, whatever took place, Mueller knows about it and is certainly running it down on his own, whatever the press says.

One other point is worth making. While there are several ways this latest revelation could be interpreted, all of them spell trouble for one person: Paul Manafort. He already blew his best chance at a lenient sentence by continuing to lie to the special counsel after taking a plea deal. Now he’s created a new news cycle that—rightly or wrongly—appears to implicate the president’s campaign in the clearest sign of potential collusion we’ve seen to date. Last we heard, President Trump was still giving some thought to throwing a pardon Paul Manafort’s way. After this week, Manafort had best not count on it.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.