OPINION — It’s time to put Paul J. Manafort into the chronology of the Russian intelligence hacking program, as described in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers, released last Friday.
The indictment provides a clear reminder that the hacking effort went into full swing during the five months that Manafort, with his deep Russian political and financial connections, was running the Trump campaign and taking no salary.
As the New York Times has reported, Manafort, back on February 19, 2016, put together a job-seeking memo for Trump that was delivered to the then GOP-presidential candidate through Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a close mutual friend of both. Among its talking points, was that Manafort had worked with rich business leaders and powerful political leaders, including oligarchs and dictators in Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines and Pakistan. “I am not looking for a paid job,” Mr. Manafort wrote, according to the Times.
While Trump was mulling over hiring Manafort, elements of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, were beginning their serious focus on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), according to the Mueller indictment. On March 15, 2016, one GRU unit had begun technical queries for finding the DNC’s internet protocol configurations, in its ultimate search for connected computers and other devices. Four days later, another GRU unit launched spear phishing emails at some 300 Clinton campaign workers, including those employed by Campaign Chairman John Podesta. Two days later, hackers stole 50,000 Podesta emails.
For context, remember that Mueller’s February 16, 2018 indictment of several Russian-controlled entities and 13 Russian individuals, which alleged that beginning in 2014, the Russians began to put together a social network distribution system within the U.S. Its goal was “to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016,” according to that earlier indictment.
With those Moscow-driven operations already underway, on March 28, Trump announced he had hired Manafort, the man with Russian connections, to gather delegates and manage his GOP convention operation. By April 7, Manafort had in effect taken over the entire Trump campaign, according to Corey Lewandowski, the person Manafort officially ousted one month later. Meanwhile, on April 18, according to Friday’s indictment, GRU operatives hacked into DNC using Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee computers. They installed malware that would continually explore and monitor the DNC computer network, and when desirable, steal documents. One day later, other GRU operatives registered, under an anonymous name, the website called DCLeaks as a place where they could publish stolen documents.
The first, currently-known, word reaching the Trump campaign about the Russian collection of Clinton emails came around April 26, 2016. That was when, according to an FBI report, George Papadopoulos, a young Trump foreign policy campaign adviser, said he learned from a Moscow-connected source that “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails from Clinton’s server,” “thousands of emails.” The Papadopoulos FBI interview, which contained those quotes, was disclosed as part of Papadopoulos’ October 5, 2017, guilty plea agreement with Special Counsel Mueller.
What’s interesting about the content of Mueller’s publicly disclosed Papadopoulos plea agreement, is that it focused almost entirely on Papadopoulos’ letters back and forth with Trump campaign officials about setting up a proposed Trump-Putin meeting. The agreement never indicates what Papadopoulos did with the information about Russians having “dirt” on Clinton. It must be assumed, however, he told someone back at Trump Tower, so perhaps the Special Counsel has held that information back.
On May 19, Manafort officially was named campaign manager and chief strategist, replacing Lewandowski.
At that time, Manafort brought to the campaign as his deputy, Richard (Rick) W. Gates III, who had, since 2006, been working with Manafort’s new consulting firm. Since 2008, Gates dealt with the firm’s Eastern European clients, that included people such as Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a pal of President Vladimir Putin. As Manafort’s deputy, Gates sat in on Trump Tower meetings, traveled with Trump, was close to top Trump campaign officials and members of the candidate’s informal kitchen cabinet, including Tom Barrack. As important, Gates remained with the campaign after Manafort left. He also was a senior aide on the presidential inaugural committee and even after Trump took office, worked with America First Policies, a group supporting the Trump presidency.
Gates’ February 23, guilty plea with Mueller’s team, although based on charges unrelated to the Russian election activities, indicates that he will provide information and testify not only about the Manafort –related investigation, but also “at any proceeding in the District of Columbia or elsewhere as requested by the [Special Counsel’s] Office.” That apparently could include the Russian election investigation, giving Mueller’s team a potential first-hand witness inside.the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, and perhaps the early days of the administration.
The public got its first official information about foreign government hacking into the U.S. election campaigns right at the time Manafort took over. On May 18, 2016, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center, announced there were “some indications” that Democratic and Republican presidential campaign computer networks were being spied upon by foreign hackers, possibly associated with governments.
With talk of foreign hacking being publicly discussed, on June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from British publicist and former tabloid reporter Rob Goldstone saying that a mutual friend, had met with “The Crown prosecutor of Russia,” probably a reference to the office of the general prosecutor, who leads Russia’s judiciary system. That person, according to Goldstone, “offered to provide the Trump campaign some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” according to Goldstone’s email. He added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Within 17 minutes, Trump Jr. responded, saying he was “on the road,” but “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?” Of course that led to the famous Trump Tower meeting on June 9, where Trump Jr., Manafort and Jared Kushner met with five Russians, including Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with Kremlin connections, and her translator, Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet counterintelligence operative who was then a Russian-American lobbyist.
What Friday’s indictment disclosed was that on June 8, the day before the Trump Tower meeting, the GRU team released a series of stolen emails and documents, not only on DC Leaks, but also on another site they had set up, Guccifer 2.0, and through Facebook and Twitter accounts established for DCLeaks.
In addition, the Russians employed the secret, social network distribution system already established, as illustrated by a September 7, 2017, New York Times story last year. That Times story reported that on June 8, 2016, a Russian-created, bogus person named Melvin Redick of Harrisburg, Pa., posted on Facebook that day, “Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!… These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US,” How many other Russian-created persons posted or tweeted that same message, we probably will never know.
However, what that may show is that the Russian group at Trump Tower did not have to deliver any documents to Trump Jr., at all. They only had to direct him to DCLeaks, to show what they were already doing and could do, when Trump Jr. said they wanted it, “later in the summer.”
I doubt it was by chance that the first big WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails came on July 22, 2016, just three days before the Democratic Convention that nominated Hillary Clinton.
On Sunday, July 24, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, that he believed the Russians were behind the hacking of the DNC emails and documents.
Tapper, later in the same program, asked Trump Jr., his response to Mook’s claim. Trump Jr. responded, “It’s disgusting. It’s so phony. I watched him bumble through the interview, I was able to hear it on audio a little bit. I mean, I can’t think of bigger lies, but that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.”
Three days later, Candidate Trump, in Florida, held a morning press conference. It was one day after the FBI announced it was investigating the hacking of the DNC. Asked about Mook’s statement, Trump initially said he saw the remarks about Russia and the hacking. He then said, “By the way, they hacked [meaning the Russians] — they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do.”
Was that a slip by Trump? It was only later in that same press conference, when the hacking came up another time, that Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
As if responding to Trump’s order, which was voiced when it was late afternoon in Moscow, the GRU teams “attempted after-hours” that very day to, for the first time, attempt to hack into the computers of Clinton’s personal office, according to Mueller’s Friday indictment.
Commenting on those indictments last week, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told CNN, “The richer the detail we get, the more I begin to believe that we’re probably going to be seeing a widening circle (of indictments) here.”
I agree, primarily because the Mueller team has yet to disclose what they have learned from three already-known key witnesses — Gates, Papadopoulos and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It’s got to be highly relevant to the investigation because all three have earned reduced jeopardy for crimes to which they each have pleaded guilty.
The Mueller team is hardly finished.