It was late 2015, and the Trump Organization had just signed a letter of intent to fulfil its longstanding ambition of developing a tower in Moscow. Lana Erchova, the wife of a prominent businessman with high-level political connections, contacted Ivanka Trump.
"If you ask anyone who knows Russian to Google my husband Dmitry Klokov, you'll see who he is close to and that he has done Putin's political campaigns," Erchova wrote in a boastful email, as she offered Klokov's help with Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
Ivanka Trump forwarded the email to Michael Cohen, her father's personal lawyer, who did an internet search and concluded – incorrectly – that Klokov was a former Olympic weightlifter.
That exchange gives a sense of the many desperate attempts at connection between Trump intimates and a network of Russians with greater and lesser Kremlin ties in the fateful window of time around the 2016 US election.
The Russians were seeking a foothold in the Trump campaign with the hope of shifting US policy that had been unfriendly since the annexation of Crimea
As portrayed by the report of Robert Mueller, special counsel, their contacts are frequent, and sometimes feverish. They are also often doomed by miscommunication, mixed motives and miscalculation. Above all, they feature the posing of mid-level bureaucrats desperate to rise in the estimation of their respective bosses: Trump and Vladimir Putin, Russian president.
As Klokov wrote when he finally got through to Cohen, he could offer "political synergy" and "synergy on a government level". Despite much talk of a Moscow meeting, their contacts eventually fizzled out, according to the Mueller report. At one point, a distant relative of a Trump Organization lawyer invoked the chief rabbi of Russia in the hopes of brokering a Trump-Putin meeting; it did not work.
As portrayed in Mueller’s voluminous report, the Russians were seeking to obtain a foothold in the Trump campaign – and later the administration – with the hope of shifting US policy that had been increasingly unfriendly since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. The Americans, meanwhile, were occasionally sniffing for material to help Trump’s presidential campaign and often seeking money.
"It's obvious that he wants to earn a lot of money," a Russian intelligence agent posing as a diplomat in New York said of Carter Page, a Trump aide he was cultivating. The spy, according to the report, led Page on by "feeding him empty promises" about his business connections in Russia. (Once he had extracted the relevant information from foreign sources, the spy noted, his usual practice was to discard them.)
Underlings were not the only ones driven by money: Trump gave some associates the impression that his campaign was more a business and publicity ploy than an earnest run for the nation’s highest office. Cohen told prosecutors his boss had suggested to him that the campaign was “an infomercial” for Trump-branded properties.
He and Felix Sater, another Brooklyn boy-turned-Trump Organization executive, hatched repeated plans to bring Trump and Putin together – both to advance the Trump Tower project and, Sater believes, to boost his political campaign.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” he emailed Cohen in November 2105. “We will manage this process better than anyone. You and I will get Donald and Vladimir on a stage together very shortly. That the game changer.”
The most hapless of the many comedic-seeming officials in the report is George Papadopoulos, who signed on as a foreign policy adviser after contacting the campaign via LinkedIn
Their repeated efforts came to naught – as did those of a UBS banker, Robert Foresman, who presented himself as someone who had once opened a back channel for Putin and George W Bush. As he pleaded in April 2016 for a meeting with Trump – or one of his sons – Foresman claimed in an email to have information "that should be conveyed to [the candidate] personally".
Mueller found no evidence that Trump campaign officials met Foresman until after the election. When interviewed by prosecutors, he explained that he had not been proposing to open a channel between the candidate and the Kremlin – as he did for Bush – but was merely trying to burnish his credentials.
Of the many comedic-seeming Trump campaign officials in the Mueller report, the most hapless may be George Papadopoulos, a young aide who signed on as a foreign policy adviser after contacting the campaign from London via LinkedIn. (At the time, Mueller observed, the Trump campaign was desperate just to assemble a foreign policy team.)
Papadopoulos soon met a Maltese professor in London who, according to prosecutors, had ties to various Russian intelligence agents. After learning of Papadopoulos's role in the campaign, the professor, Joseph Mifsud, introduced him to a Russian woman who claimed to be Putin's niece and promised to help broker a meeting with the Russian leader.
“I just finished a very productive lunch with a good friend of mine,” Papadopoulos wrote to headquarters, with apparent excitement. “They said the leadership, including Putin, is ready to meet with us and Mr Trump should there be interest. Waiting for everyone’s thoughts on moving forward with this very important issue.”
Sam Clovis, the campaign's chief policy adviser who hired Papadopoulos after a Google search and a phone call, demurred, according to the report. "My thought is that we probably should not go forward with any meetings with the Russians until we have had occasion to sit with our Nato allies," he replied.
Mifsud and the woman, Olga Polonskaya – who was not, in fact, Putin's niece – kept in touch. "We are all very excited the possibility of a good relationship with Mr Trump," she wrote at one point. Papadopoulos eventually learnt through Mifsud in May that the Russians had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails".
While Papadopoulos disclosed this information to at least one foreign diplomat, Mueller could not find evidence that he had shared it with anyone else from the Trump campaign.
After the gathering at Trump Tower in which a Russian lawyer was supposed to disclose damaging information on Clinton, Kusher texted 'Waste of time' to Paul Manafort,
If Papadopoulos appeared naive, Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, comes across as more savvy in the Mueller report. Amid a barrage of invitations from Russians claiming connections to Putin, Kushner urged caution.
“A lot of people come claiming to carry messages. Very few are able to verify. For now I think we decline such meetings,” he wrote to campaign advisers. “Most likely these people go back home and claim they have special access to gain importance for themselves. Be careful.”
Kushner bristled at the infamous June 9th, 2016, gathering at Trump Tower in New York – arranged by Donald Trump Jr – in which a Russian lawyer was supposed to disclose damaging information on Clinton. "Waste of time," he texted Paul Manafort, the campaign manager, as the Russian lawyer turned the talk instead to US sanctions law, and then cut out early.
The report offers new insight into Kushner's dealings with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, whose meetings with Michael Flynn, Trump's shortlived national security adviser, resulted in criminal charges.
After Trump's surprise victory, Kislyak was desperate to forge ties with the incoming administration. Kushner met with him on November 30th at Trump Tower, along with Flynn and Steve Bannon, the campaign strategist.
According to the report, they discussed Syria, among other issues, and the ambassador suggested that it would be useful to arrange a briefing by Russian generals. When Flynn noted the need for a secure communications line to do so, Kushner suggested they could use the Russian embassy – an idea, according to the report, that Kislyak "quickly rejected".
Kushner has faced considerable scrutiny of his ties to the ambassador since details of that meeting became public. Yet the Mueller report suggests that he was actually trying to avoid Kislyak after being advised that the ambassador had limited influence with Putin. Despite Kislyak’s pleadings, Kushner sent a subordinate to a follow-up meeting.
For Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign chief from March to August, the report suggests less confusion about his motives: they were almost entirely commercial
Instead, the report suggests another meeting in December might be more problematic for Kushner. It was with Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian government-controlled Vnesheconombank.
Kushner has claimed their discussion was purely about policy, including Russian discontent with US sanctions. In particular, he told the special counsel his family's looming debt payment for its troubled skyscraper at 666 5th Avenue in Manhattan was never mentioned.
But in public statements, the bank has claimed that Gorkov was there to discuss business. The banker came bearing gifts: a painting and two bags of soil from the Belarus town where Kushner's ancestors lived before the Holocaust. "The accounts from Kushner and Gorkov differ as to whether the meeting was diplomatic or business in nature," the report concludes, without making a determination.
For Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chief from March to August, the report suggests less confusion about his motives: they were almost entirely commercial.
He took the job without pay and if Trump won the presidency he did not want a job in the administration, his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, told prosecutors. Rather, Manafort preferred to remain on the "outside" so he could "monetise his relationship with the administration", the report stated.
Manafort shared internal campaign data with Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire with close ties to Putin. The report claims he did so in the hopes of settling an old debt after an investment fund he launched with Deripaska went bust.
According to Gates, Manafort, a political consultant who had earned millions working in Ukraine, believed the Trump campaign would be "good for business" by returning him to relevance.
Some of the polling material he supplied – including information on battleground states in the Midwest, where the election ultimately turned – was shared by encrypted messages and through an intermediary, Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a former Manafort employee in Ukraine who US authorities believe has ties to Russian intelligence.
One email Kilimnik sent Manafort in late July was cryptically entitled "Black Caviar". It was an apparent reference to Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian leader and one-time Manafort client who was ousted by a popular, pro-western uprising in 2014.
It was a reference, according to the report, to a $30,000 to $40,000 jar of black caviar Yanukovich once gave to Manafort to celebrate an election victory. With a Trump presidency, Yanukovich was also hoping to return to relevance. With Manafort's help, he hoped that a Trump administration might support a plan for him to return from exile in Russia to leadership of at least a part of Ukraine.
Manafort dismissed the idea as “crazy” during a meeting with Kilimnik in early August 2016, according to the report.
A few weeks later, he resigned from the campaign amid scrutiny of his past Russia ties. Still, Manafort tried to keep a hand in the action. In an October email, he outlined a strategy of bashing Clinton as “the failed and corrupt candidate of the establishment” and suggested “WikiLeaks provides the Trump campaign the ability to make the case in a very credible way”.
In a separate email, on the eve of the election, Manafort – now in prison – told his erstwhile Trump campaign comrades that he was “really feeling good about our prospects”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019