Has Special Counsel Robert Mueller finally found the witch that Trump keeps claiming the special prosecutor is looking for?
The president has complained incessantly that the criminal investigation into his campaign's collusion with Russia is nothing more than a "witch hunt," but now the special prosecutor may have found that broom-riding phantom dressed in black with a crooked nose, gnarly chin and a peaked hat.
He's Konstantin Kilimnik.
This Ukrainian-Russian does not look anything like your stereotypical witch. But he was the Kiev office manager for the lobbying business run by Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and a sometimes translator for them for many years and has intelligence ties reportedly involving the Main Intelligence Directorate -- or GRU -- the shadowiest of the Kremlin's spy agencies and a major player in Russia's cyber-espionage of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which was a key factor in her shocking loss to Trump.
Kilimnik was in regular communication with Manafort and Gates while Manafort was Trump campaign manager and Gates his deputy. The implication being that Manafort and Gates were cutouts to convey information between the campaign and Putin's cyberwarriors, and GRU spy Kilimnik was the conduit.
Kilimnik's ties to Putin run deep.
He taught the Russian leader judo and is an associate of mobbed-up aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close friend of Putin's with whom Manafort has had a longtime business relationship. Manafort was in touch with Deripaska during the summer of 2016, at one point offering to give him back-channel briefings on the campaign. His name keeps coming up in connection with the Russia scandal, including outrageous but plausible claims being made by a U.S. political asylum-seeking high-end Belarus prostitute and self-described "sex expert" jailed in Thailand since February 25 who is a former mistress of Deripaska.
When the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes in July 2016 to transform the Republican National Convention platform on Ukraine from an anti-Moscow to a pro-Putin stance, Kilimnik bragged to friends in Kiev that he was involved in the effort.
Kilimnik hews to a familiar line in professing innocence.
"Ukraine and Ukrainians are being used as scapegoats in the U.S. political and media battles," a dynamic that Kilimnik said has been made "abundantly evident from how my own circumstantial relationships were misrepresented, exaggerated and overblown."
Gates, of course, is cooperating with Mueller while Manafort continues to hang tough despite facing 30 counts of money laundering and tax and foreign lobbying law violations that the judge supervising his case has said pretty much guarantees he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
DOES MANAFORT FACE A LIFE OR DEATH CHOICE and that explains his refusal to flip?
A former federal prosecutor calls Manafort's refusal to join Gates, Papadopoulos and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn in cooperating "the most enduring mystery to date" in Mueller's inquiry, but it may not be as mysterious as it seems.
In a March 8 post on the disappearance of George Mifsud and poisoning of Sergei Skripal, I first broached the possibility that Manafort, because of the tales he could tell about the role he played between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, may have more to fear from Putin's long hand than he does from Mueller and prison.
Mifsud is the Maltese professor who baited Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos with tales of Russian officials who had "dirt" on Clinton and "thousands" of her emails. He went missing on November 2, 2017, three days after Manafort and Gates were indicted by Mueller and there was a court filing in which Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the agents about his meetings with Mifsud and agreed to cooperate with the special prosecutor's investigation.
Skripal was a colonel in the KGB, had been recruited by MI6, the British intelligence service, and became a double agent who revealed the identities of several Russian spies working in Britain. He and his daughter were poisoned on March 4 with Novichok No. 5, a powerful nerve agent used in several Putin-sanctioned political assassinations, in Salisbury, England, and remains in critical condition.
There have been at least 30 other possible victims of Putin's use of assassination as a political weapon. These murders sometimes involve exotic, hard-to-trace poisons and often are carried out by hitmen for the FSB, a state security agency headed by Putin until he became prime minister and then president, and sometimes by mobsters loyal to Putin.
To suggest that the long arm of the Kremlin does not extend to the the U.S. beggars belief, and the modus operandi employed in the Skripal hit is fraught with deadly symbolism.
Skripal was not shot or killed in a staged accident. The nerve agent was left on his front door handle where Putin's thugs knew it would be identified and linked to Russia, sending a loud and clear message to others who would think of defecting to -- or informing for -- the West. And by conducting the operation in a British town some distance from London that is so rich in history, the attack also sent a message that no place is out of reach of Russian assassins.
And so the ghastly possibility that Manafort may fear for his life while modeling his two home confinement bracelets -- one for each of his forthcoming trials -- at his suburban Washington condo or home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida is gaining currency.
Writes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:I agree that it is hard to imagine that either the Russian government or powerful figures from the former Soviet Union would take such a reckless step on American soil. But look at the simple facts of the matter. Russia has killed a number of enemies abroad in recent years — not just in obscure lawless parts of the world but in major western metropoles. Manafort is deeply enmeshed with and apparently deeply in debt to a man the U.S. government has said for a decade is tied to Russian organized crime networks. It seems silly not to consider the possibility that a person in that position might realistically fear the consequences of shedding all his secrets.That man is Deripaska.
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