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Propaganda and Collusion in the Trump-Russia Affair, Part 2
How two ostensible skeptics got willingly played by a high-priced liar.
Photo: Close-up of a stenographer typing on a stenography machine. Image used under license from Shutterstock.
Last time, we introduced Konstantin Kilimnik, the alleged Russian spy who met with Paul Manafort in 2016 while Manafort was serving as Trump’s campaign manager. Today we begin our examination of Matt Taibbi and Aaron Maté and their respective interviews with Kilimnik.
It is a tale of stunning naïveté and motivated reasoning masquerading as hard-nosed cynicism.
This is the second entry in our series on Russiagate. In Part 1, I presented some of the main characters we will examine in the first few installments, including Manafort and Kilimnik. We also got to know Taibbi and Maté, the two stenographers…err, journalists who interviewed Kilimnik in hopes of quashing allegations that Manafort’s dealings with him in 2016 marked an example of collusion with Russia.
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Fresh revelations prompt desperation
In August 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee released Volume 5 of its report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Of its many findings, the one that elicited the most media attention was the revelation of Manafort’s August 2016 meeting with Kilimnik. The report also alleged that Manafort passed sensitive internal polling data to Kilimnik, which might have aided Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere in the election.
By the time Volume 5 came out, Taibbi and Maté had each built reputations as leading skeptics of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. But now, a Senate committee—a Republican-led Senate committee, no less—had breathed new life into the story.
In an effort to stem the damage, Maté followed up on the report’s release with an essay attempting to pour cold water on the new collusion allegations. Later, in 2021, after the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Kilimnik, he reached out to interview him.
Taibbi’s path to Kilimnik was more circuitous. He did not pay the Senate report much attention at first. Instead, it took the ordeal of getting humiliated in an October 2021 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to make him sit up and take notice. Here is Taibbi’s own transcription of the exchange:
MAHER: You compared it to WMDs. You said, the Russia connection with Trump is this generation’s WMD. I don’t think that’s an accurate analogy, because there were no WMDs. But there was collusion with Russia.
TAIBBI: Really? Where?
MAHER: Where? The Senate Intelligence Committee, run by Republicans, who are if anything slavish to Trump, their report said, “The Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence services during the 2016 presidential election posed a ‘grave’ counterintelligence threat.”
After letting himself get owned by Maher, of all people (seriously?), Taibbi, like Maté before him, decided to interview Kilimnik.
If Taibbi and Maté could somehow prove that Kilimnik (a) was not connected to Russian intelligence and (b) did not really do anything that bad anyway, they might be able to finish off the whole collusion story once and for all. Here is Taibbi, for instance:
By all rights, Russiagate should be dead as a serious news story. But as the Real Time episode showed, “collusion” is still alive for some, and the bulk of the case essentially rests now upon the characterization of one person from the above passage as a Russian agent: a former aide to Paul Manafort named Konstantin Kilimnik.
There could be no doubt: If Taibbi and Maté were going to put the collusion story to rest, they had to dispel these allegations. And if doing so required believing anything Kilimnik told them, so be it. Never mind that this highly-paid propagandist in the employ of oligarchs and dictators literally lies for a living. They just had to get him to say what they needed to hear.
When it comes to proving Trump-Russia collusion, these two will accept nothing less than a smoking gun. But put them in front of Kilimnik, a man for whom lying is a vocation, and they eat up whatever he tells them. The credulity they display is astounding.
Now, regarding Kilimnik’s most important claim—that he is not connected to Russian intelligence—Taibbi did a bit of actual reporting (emphasis on “a bit”) to verify it. He reached out to a few of Kilimnik’s former colleagues to ask if they believed he was a spy. They did not.
Maté, for his part, furnished a copy of Kilimnik’s passport. Contrary to the Special Counsel’s assertion, it appears to show he did not, in fact, enter the U.S. under diplomatic status in 1997. Maté also spoke to a “Congressional source” who told him nobody had seen evidence that Kilimnik passed polling data to Russia. (Considering the gaping chasm between the sane and deranged in the 117th United States Congress, however, an attribution to a “Congressional source” does leave much to the imagination.)
In addition, both Taibbi and Maté asked Rick Gates, a former associate of Kilimnik and Manafort’s convicted of conspiracy and false statements, about the polling data. Gates claimed it was merely “old, topline data from public polls and from some internal polls, but all dated.” Of course, Gates would say that, assuming he wants to mitigate public suspicions that he aided and abetted treason.
That aside, Taibbi and Maté mostly take Kilimnik at his word—on the nature of his past work, his likely intelligence training, his links to Kremlin-connected Russians, his past and ongoing work for said Russians, etc. Some of these issues we will cover today, others in the next two installments.
It is not just that Taibbi and Maté tend to believe Kilimnik without question. They also neglect to inform their audience that the guy is, you know, a professional liar who’s on record telling many lies and so to maybe take him with a grain of salt.
“It’s not a lie…if you believe it”
To illustrate Kilimnik’s mendacity, let’s examine the demonstrable lies he has publicly advanced, including but not limited to those he told Taibbi and Maté, who (a) believed the lie, (b) were unaware Kilimnik made the statement in question, and/or (c) did not care either way.
For starters, consider just a few of Kilimnik’s lies that are documented in the Senate report.
Lie #1: Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election
One of Kilimnik’s lies is that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election and that the real culprit was Ukraine. After multiple federal investigations, reports by a Republican special counsel and a GOP-led Senate committee, the conclusions of multiple federal intelligence agencies spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations, and a public admission by one of the key figures accused of orchestrating the Kremlin’s interference, the fact that this is a lie should be self-evident.
Lie #2: The “Black Ledger” was fake
Another of Kilimnik’s lies is that the so-called “Black Ledger,” the 2016 release of 800 pages of records documenting illicit payments by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his political party over the course of 2007-12, is fake. It is, in fact, real.
The ledger reveals thousands of informal payments to all sorts of malign actors, including one for $750,000 to Manafort, a key adviser to Yanukovych and his party.
Below, on the left, is the ledger entry from October 14th, 2009 recording the $750,000 payment to Manafort. On the right is the falsified invoice Manafort used to receive the money the next day.
So, yeah, Kilimnik is lying when he claims the ledger is fake.
Lie #3: The 2014-21 Donbas war was a domestic rebellion
A third lie Kilimnik pushed, as revealed in a New York Times investigation, is that Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014 was an honest-to-god uprising of local Russian-speakers unhappy with the government in Kyiv.
I have written at length on the Donbas war of 2014-21, as have many others. It was not some organic rebellion mounted by locals but an actual invasion by Russia’s armed forces along with Russian irregulars sent by the Kremlin. Not that I would expect Taibbi or Maté to know this—or that they would care one way or the other if they did know.
(Probable) Lie #4: The polling data Kilimnik received was rudimentary
Kilimnik likely lied to Taibbi and Maté about the nature of the polling data he obtained from Manafort—“two figures maybe once a month,” he explains to Taibbi; “mostly quotes of polls from the media…never anything more detailed,” he assures Maté.
But as investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler shows, court filings, the Senate report, and Manafort’s own attorney reveal that the data Manafort may have given Kilimnik was non-public, recent, and extremely detailed—so much so that its sheer complexity struck Manafort’s lawyer as “gibberish.”
Now, both Manafort and Rick Gates, his assistant, deny, or at least do not recall, actually providing this information to Kilimnik at their August 2016 meeting. But as Wheeler explains, there are good reasons to doubt their claims.
Contrary to what Kilimnik told Taibbi and Maté, Manafort’s attorney admits the polling data was detailed, complex, non-public, and recent. But, the attorney adds, an email from Manafort asking Gates to print out the data in advance of an August 2nd, 2016 meeting referred not to the meeting with Kilimnik but rather a “scheduling meeting” set to occur the same day.
The Department of Justice rejects this characterization, asserting the data was intended for the meeting with Kilimnik that day. Apparently, the judge agreed, on the basis of classified information that could not be shared with the defense.
So, do we know Manafort provided Kilimnik with all of this highly-detailed, internal polling data? No, we do not, as Taibbi and Maté eagerly affirm. But what Taibbi and Maté don’t acknowledge is that there are very reasonable grounds to suspect he did provide it.
Lie #5: Manafort and Kilimnik’s Ukrainian clients were nice guys, really
Another falsehood Kilimnik relays to Taibbi concerns the Ukrainian clients for whom he and Manafort worked. They were, he says, “not even close to being [the] thugs they had been portrayed by the Western media to be.”
Reader, this is a bald-faced lie.
Kilimnik and Manafort’s Ukrainian clients— namely, multi-billionaire oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and his associates from Donetsk—are among the world’s biggest scumbags. I should know, as I have been following these very individuals for the better part of two decades. In his conversation with Taibbi, Kilimnik explains that he
went to Donetsk in, I think, November 2004 to meet some guy I had no previous knowledge of (who turned out to be Rinat Akhmetov’s closest confidant, Borys Kolesnikov). Manafort and he spoke for several days and got convinced that the “Donetsk guys” were not even close to being [the] thugs they had been portrayed by the Western media to be.
In truth, Rinat Akhmetov is the very embodiment of a thug. He allegedly began his career helping to run a protection racket in Donetsk, shaking down local businesses under threat of punitive action by the state as well as direct violence.
According to documents obtained by Ukrainian weekly Grani Plus, Akhmetov, along with other members of his organization, took part in the brutal 1986 torture and murder of a Donetsk businessman. He only managed to avoid prosecution, the weekly reports, thanks to the group’s patrons in the interior ministry.
Akhmetov eventually emerged as the lone survivor of the violent gang wars that shook Donetsk in the early-1990s. Through ever-larger shakedowns and the plundering of state assets, he would go on to become the richest and most powerful man in Ukraine. Among other feats, he is personally responsible for launching the career of Viktor Yanukovych, the would-be dictator ousted in the Euromaidan.
So when Kilimnik suggests to Taibbi that Akhmetov and his Donetsk associates “are not even close to being the thugs” they are portrayed to be, he is lying. Blatantly. Because he is a professional liar. Still, on this and other issues, Taibbi and Maté take him at his word since it bolsters their narrative.
Look, these details about the people for whom Kilimnik and Manafort worked are not things I would expect Taibbi and Maté to know. But when you lend your platform to paid-liars like Kilimnik, they are going to gaslight your audience without you even realizing it.
The purpose of all this is not to argue that Taibbi and Maté should have gone out of their way to debunk every single one of these lies. Rather, it is to point out the ample evidence that Kilimnik is a liar, evidence any honest reporter should have taken into account before interviewing him. That is because his documented mendacity must frame how one evaluates his most important claim: That he is not in any way an agent of Russian intelligence.
But this would have required actual reporting. Because if you start with the premise that Kilimnik is a liar, then it is hardly worth writing an entire article about whether he works for Russian intelligence that’s based largely on his own claims to the contrary.
Now, is there proof he works for Russian intelligence? No.
What is certain, though, is that Taibbi and Maté do a piss-poor job of getting to the bottom of it. Next time, we’ll see how.
Other entries in this series:
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