Last week one could feel the tremors of excitement in the latest Trump campaign/Russia collusion stories coming out of the Mueller investigation. According to these stories, a Trump campaign adviser had repeated communications during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential race with a business associate tied to Russian intelligence, according to a sentencing memo filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In this post I am borrowing from a summary provided by the Fordham Law Center in its National Security Morning Brief, prepared by the Soufan Group.
Trump campaign official Rick Gates had frequent phone calls in September and October 2016 with a person the FBI believes had active links to Russian spy services at the time, Mueller’s team wrote in the memo. Gates told London-based lawyer Alex van der Zwaan that a longtime business associate in Ukraine was a “former Russian intelligence officer” with the GRU, Russia’s military-intelligence agency. Van der Zwaan admitted to hiding from prosecutors the fact that the three men were in touch. According to the memo, Mueller’s team assessed the ex-spy, only referred to as Person A, “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.”
Van der Zwaan was an attorney at a firm that worked with Gates and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to prepare a report used to defend Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president, from international criticism over the prosecution and incarceration of one of his political rivals. Van der Zwaan “worked closely” on the report with Person A and Gates. A source with knowledge of the matter reportedly identified Person A as Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who for years was Manafort’s right-hand man in Ukraine. Both Gates and van der Zwaan have pleaded guilty as part of Mueller’s investigation. Van der Zwaan is scheduled to be sentenced tomorrow and faces up to six months in prison under a plea agreement with Mueller’s office.
The New York Times published a story based on the sentencing memorandum here, the Washington Post published stories here and here, the Wall Street Journal here, and Bloomberg here. The Mueller sentencing memorandum that generated all of these stories is posted here.
Reading the stories, I thought that the contacts in issue were highly unlikely to constitute Putinesque collusion in the supposedly dreamed-of election of Donald Trump. This isn’t how it would be done. At least, I thought, we have moved beyond the infamous June 2016 meeting of Glenn Simpson’s friend Natalia Veselnitskaya with Don Jr. et al. in Trump Tower.
Byron York takes up that CNN analysis segment in his column “So why was Trump aide talking to a Russian spy?” Byron digs into related stories going back a year or two that suggest a plausible explanation for the contacts. Surprise: it has nothing to do with “collusion.”