Thursday, January 10, 2019

Keep your eyes on the timeline

Tom Barrack, in blue tie, applauding the president at the inauguration, photo by Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes. Barrack has denied the report in Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury that he ever said Trump is "not only crazy—he's stupid."
At some point yesterday morning I became aware of a story that had showed up overnight in the New York Times that made me want to give up writing about Trump and Russia altogether, because it suggested that everything I thought I understood about the thing was not just wrong but incoherent; the story, elaborating yesterday's story about Paul Manafort transmitting some Trump-campaign polling data to his confederate Konstantin Kilimnik, that the data was destined for the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

What the hell was that? This information transfer supposedly took place in spring 2016, as Manafort was just settling into his job with the Trump campaign, and two months later Manafort was writing to Kilimnik, essentially, "Hey Kostya does Oleg know about my new gig?" and offering to supply Deripaska with a bunch of private information from the campaign, in the hopes of getting some slack over the $10 million or whatever it was (I've seen quotes from $8.5M to $16M) he owed Deripaska. How could he be doing that if he'd been sending Deripaska information since May?

Well, I can't link that story, because it doesn't exist any more. The Times story was wrong:

So now I'm feeling a little better about myself. Though a little shaken in my faith in The Times. It should have been obvious to them that the Deripaska story was wrong, and there must have been something funky about the sourcing. And whoever is the source for the admirably specific correction, assuming they have it right this time, would have been able to tell them.

The initial story continues to be interesting—that Manafort's lawyers had failed to redact a filing properly, so that journalists were able to read blacked-out material telling us stuff we weren't supposed to know about some of the lies Manafort told the FBI during his "cooperation" (via Emptywheel): when he denied that he'd

  • been paid for something or other, through a third-party contractor, by Trump's Russia-loving billionaire pal Tom Barrack, the same guy who submitted Manafort's original job application to Trump;
  • given Kilimnik this polling data;
  • had several discussions about a "Ukrainian peace plan" with Kilimnik (in one of which Barrack may have participated); and
  • met Kilimnik in Madrid sometime in early 2017.

But the thing that's got all the journalists delirious as evidence of collusion, about the polling data ("he transmitted sensitive proprietary information to somebody who transmitted it to somebody who is close to the Russian government!"), seems to me the least startling part. People aren't asking themselves what kind of polling it was, and it sounds like they're blending it in their minds with the kind of research done by the Cambridge Analytica firm, or some such secret skullduggery, without looking at the dates: it wasn't even certain that Trump was going to get the nomination until the Indiana primary on May 3, and until then Cambridge Analytica had been working for Ted Cruz. Whatever internal polling Manafort was working with was something a lot less diabolical than the social media data sets Russians were already working with in the Internet Research Agency.

What I'd imagine Manafort might have had from internal polling is just some strong indications that Trump had a better chance of winning the election than the conventional wisdom held, a week or two before the American media started to come to the same conclusion, and wanted to get it to Russian intelligence agencies, through those two Ukrainian billionaires, who belonged to his and Kilimnik's own Russia-friendly circle, to demonstrate his own importance. Not as secrets provided under the terms of some previous agreement to be their spy, but as a heads-up notification that he, Manafort, might well be on the verge of becoming a senior counselor to the president of the United States, and in a position to do them favors, and they'd do well to cultivate him.

To which the Agalarovs' setting up of that Trump Tower meeting on 9 June, where all the parties started laying out the kinds of goals they'd have and jobs they'd be interested in performing in a broad collaboration, would have been a response. (And as I've said before, the move to attract Deripaska's attention in July was a completely independent effort to settle his financial problems with that billionaire.) The narratology approach is not to throw all the things you're suspicious about into a box and shake the box ("Deripaska knows Manafort therefore he must be the guy!") but to keep your eyes on the timeline.

That's about all I've really got on this. I don't understand anything about this Madrid meeting, other than to suppose that the purported Ukraine peace plan (different, The Times says, from the plan offered by Cohen, Sater, and Artemenko in January 2017 between the inauguration and Flynn's resignation, but it's safe to assume it was a similar preparation for recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea and lifting sanctions) must have been one of the things they were talking about, or about the role of Tom Barrack (also the chair of the Trump Inaugural Grift Operation Committee), other than expecting it to turn out to be extremely important. We're being told, in connection with Rod Rosenstein's planned departure from the Justice Department, that Mueller's report will be finished in mid- to late February, and I'm pretty much ready to stop thinking about it myself, but I'll let you know.

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