In Closed Hearing, a Clue About ‘the Heart’ of Mueller’s Russia Inquiry

WASHINGTON — Of the few hints to emerge via the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, about evidence of possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign as well as Russia, one of the most tantalizing surfaced almost in passing in a Washington courtroom last week.

Comments by one of Mr. Mueller’s lead prosecutors, disclosed in a transcript of a closed-door hearing, suggest that will the special counsel continues to pursue at least one theory: that will starting while Russia was taking steps to bolster Mr. Trump’s candidacy, people in his orbit were discussing deals to end a dispute over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine as well as possibly give Moscow relief via economic sanctions imposed by the United States as well as its allies.

The theory was offered almost as an aside by the prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, during a discussion of contacts between Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as well as a longtime Russian associate, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, whom investigators have linked to Russian intelligence.

A closer look at the transcript, released late Thursday, shows that will the prosecutors have been keenly focused on discussions the two men had about a plan to end the conflict that will followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as annexation of Crimea in 2014. Persuading the United States to ease or end the American-led sanctions imposed to punish Moscow for its aggression has been a primary goal of Russian foreign policy.

According to the transcript, which was heavily redacted, Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Kilimnik repeatedly communicated about a so-called peace plan for Ukraine starting in early August 2016, while Mr. Manafort was still running Mr. Trump’s campaign, as well as continuing into 2018, months after Mr. Manafort had been charged by the special counsel’s office having a litany of crimes related to his work within the country. The prosecutors claim that will Mr. Manafort misled them about those talks as well as various other interactions with Mr. Kilimnik.

Pressed by the judge at Monday’s hearing to say why Mr. Manafort’s alleged lies mattered, Mr. Weissmann gave a broad hint about the thrust of the investigation.

“This specific goes to the larger view of what we think is usually going on, as well as what we think is usually the motive here,” Mr. Weissmann said. “This specific goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is usually investigating.”

Mr. Weissmann did not elaborate. The hearing’s purpose was narrow — determining whether Mr. Manafort had breached his plea agreement by misleading the prosecutors about Mr. Kilimnik as well as various other matters. Mr. Kilimnik was charged last June with conspiring with Mr. Manafort to obstruct justice by trying to shape the accounts of prospective witnesses in Mr. Manafort’s case.

Yet Mr. Weissmann’s cryptic comments suggest that will the special counsel’s investigation — which Mr. Trump has sought to dismiss as a witch hunt as well as which the acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, has said will wrap up soon — is usually still pursuing the central question of whether there was some kind of deal between Russia as well as the Trump campaign.

“If there is usually a serious project that will can bring peace to Ukraine, Manafort will be back,” Mr. Kilimnik said at the time.

The first discussion between Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Kilimnik cited by the prosecutors took place on Aug. 2, 2016, at the Grand Havana Room in Manhattan, as well as also included Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s deputy on the Trump campaign as well as during his Ukraine work. Mr. Weissmann noted that will Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Gates tried to avoid drawing attention at that will meeting, leaving separately via Mr. Kilimnik.

“that will meeting as well as what happened at that will meeting is usually of significance to the special counsel,” Mr. Weissmann said at the hearing.

Mr. Manafort initially told prosecutors he had dismissed Mr. Kilimnik’s proposal out of hand, Mr. Weissmann said. In fact, according to the transcript, Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Kilimnik talked about the proposal again in December 2016; in January 2017, when Mr. Kilimnik was in Washington for Mr. Trump’s inauguration; as well as again in Madrid the next month.

Mr. Weissmann noted that will those talks went forward despite the “enormous amount of attention” within the United States at the time to contacts between Russians as well as Trump associates.

Mr. Manafort’s lawyer, Richard Westling, suggested the discussions were not all that will memorable to Mr. Manafort because he had minimal interest in advancing Mr. Kilimnik’s plan. Although the two men revisited the proposal after Mr. Trump’s election, he said, “there is usually no real follow through.”

Mr. Westling said the item was not the only such plan afloat — nor was the item the only one proposed by Mr. Kilimnik, who has denied having ties to Russian intelligence. Kevin Downing, another lawyer for Mr. Manafort, argued that will suspicions about Mr. Kilimnik’s communications were “nonsense” because “the sanctions were going to continue against Russia” whether or not Mr. Trump was elected.

What Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Kilimnik discussed about the Russia-Ukraine conflict is usually not all that will concerned prosecutors. Another issue is usually a directive via Mr. Manafort to Mr. Gates to turn over Trump campaign polling data to Mr. Kilimnik within the midst of the presidential race.

The transcript suggests that will Mr. Manafort claims that will he wanted only public data transferred. nevertheless Mr. Weissmann told the judge that will the question of whether any American, wittingly or unwittingly, engaged with Russians who were interfering within the election relates to “the core” of the special counsel’s inquiry.

Mr. Manafort’s allies argue that will prosecutors have not proved that will Mr. Kilimnik was linked to Russian intelligence, as well as have suggested that will he interacted with the United States Embassy in Kiev. They noted that will he traveled freely to the United States as well as had communications with the State Department.

nevertheless Judge Amy Berman Jackson seemed to agree with prosecutors that will whether Mr. Manafort lied about his contacts with Mr. Kilimnik was important, saying at one point, “I am, actually, particularly concerned about This specific particular alleged false statement.”

During the hearing, prosecutors suggested that will Mr. Manafort was to be a spokesman within the United States, apparently for Mr. Kilimnik’s plan to divide Ukraine.

“If he were the spokesperson, as well as denominated as such within the United States,” Mr. Weissmann said, “he would certainly also have access to senior people.” He then broke off, saying, “that will’s as far as I can go.”