According to a new bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Tuesday, Manafort began quickly working with a Russian employee based in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on a counternarrative — that it was the Ukrainians who were actually interfering in the U.S. election, not Russia, and that they were framing Manafort to help the Democrats.
It has been embraced by Trump’s allies in conservative media and in Congress. It was touted on the right during Trump’s impeachment last year and has carried into the present as the backdrop to an ongoing GOP effort to use Ukraine to attack Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
In fact, the idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 campaign began as a Russian influence operation designed to distract attention from the Kremlin’s own activities that year, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded after an exhaustive three-year investigation.
It was advanced for years by Manafort’s employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the committee identified as a Russian intelligence officer who, among other things, used a false persona on Twitter to circulate and promote the Ukrainian counternarrative, the report found.
Manafort was personally involved in promoting the disinformation, as well, the committee found, strategizing with Kilimnik in secret meetings in Madrid in early 2017 and pushing the idea with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. around the same time.
Kilimnik’s role — and his influence in getting Trump and his supporters to seize on the propaganda — shows how the interests of the president and the Kremlin have aligned, long after the 2016 election.
Trump and Republican senators said Tuesday that the most important takeaway of the new Senate report is that there was no evidence of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Indeed, the panel did not conclude that Trump entered into a knowing conspiracy with the Kremlin to win the election.
But the bipartisan investigation — like the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III before it — did find that Russia engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to affect the outcome of the election and that the Trump campaign sought to benefit from those efforts. The panel also concluded that a number of key campaign aides were vulnerable to Russian influence, sometimes unwittingly.
Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 of financial crimes related to his work in Ukraine, in particular posed a “grave counterintelligence threat” to the country, the committee found.
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said its report should be seen as a warning to members of Congress and all Americans.
“This report was not fundamentally about trying to write the history of 2016,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It was trying to say: How do we prevent it from happening again in 2020?”
Asked about the committee’s findings on Ukraine, White House spokesman Judd Deere did not directly respond. Instead, he said in a statement that the committee’s report “affirms what we have known for years. There was absolutely no collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia.”
An attorney for Manafort did not respond to a request for comment. Kilimnik, who was charged in 2018 with obstruction of justice and is believed to be in Russia, also did not respond to an email requesting comment. He has previously denied ties to Russian intelligence.
In its nearly 1,000-page report on Russian counterintelligence threats released Tuesday, the committee said Russia’s influence operation included “overlapping false narratives which sought to discredit investigations into Russian inference in the 2016 U.S. elections and spread false information about the events of 2016.”
The committee said the disinformation campaign claiming Ukraine’s role began in late 2016 and continued until at least January 2020 and was promoted not just by Manafort and Kilimnik but by “numerous Russian-government actors,” including an oligarch named Oleg Deripaska who had business ties to Manafort.
The committee wrote that “similarities in narrative content, the use of common dissemination platforms, the involvement of Kremlin agents Kilimnik and Deripaska” led them to conclude that “the influence efforts were coordinated to some degree.”
The bipartisan finding was released at a key moment, just weeks after the country’s top counterintelligence official described Russia’s efforts to again try to shape public opinion in the United States before a presidential vote — and named a Ukrainian lawmaker as a key participant.
Earlier this month, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, publicly asserted that Russia is using a “range of measures” to denigrate Biden and said that Kremlin-linked actors are working to boost Trump’s reelection bid.
Evanina cited the recent release by pro-Russian parliamentarian Andriy…