World

Russian Oligarch Scoffed at FBI’s Collusion Theory

Oleg Deripaska (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
Oleg Deripaska did not exculpate Paul Manafort, but he raises more questions about Christopher Steele.

John Solomon is a terrific reporter, and he has done excellent work on the Trump-Russia investigation. Nevertheless, legal analysis is not his specialty. That is evident in his otherwise intriguing report at The Hill about Oleg Deripaska’s dealings with the FBI.

Deripaska is an aluminum magnate who is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s oligarch” thanks to his close relationship with the Russian strongman. He was also Paul Manafort’s business partner.

Manafort, of course, was Donald Trump’s campaign chairman for about four months in mid 2016. He has paid dearly for entering Trump World.

In 2014, an investigation of Manafort’s work for the deposed Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych was closed. Manafort joined the Trump campaign in early 2016. The FBI and the Obama Justice Department reopened the Manafort case, helped along by pro-Clinton officials in Ukraine’s government. In August 2016, the latter leaked a ledger of questionable provenance, purporting to show over $12 million in cash payments to Manafort. The leak of the ledger led to Manafort’s dismissal from the Trump campaign. He was eventually indicted and convicted in the Mueller investigation for tax evasion and other financial-fraud charges. He is serving a 90-month prison sentence. (Manafort has never denied being paid by Yanukovych and his Party of Regions; he has maintained that he was paid by wire, not in cash. As Solomon has reported, the current Ukrainian government does not vouch for the authenticity of the ledger.)

Deripaska has credibly accused Manafort of swindling him in connection with an investment in a grossly overvalued Ukrainian telecom firm. He has sued the political consultant in various jurisdictions for over $25 million.

Solomon has reported that early in the Obama administration (while Robert Mueller was the FBI’s director), Deripaska attempted to help the bureau rescue Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent captured by Iran in 2007 while reportedly working for the CIA. Though the oligarch is said to have spent millions of his own funds, the rescue effort was unsuccessful. The recriminations about why are an interesting story for another day. For present purposes, the point is that the FBI came to believe the oft-sanctioned Deripaska might prove to be a useful U.S.-government source. They sought to flip him, hoping he’d provide damning information of Trump-campaign “collusion” with the Kremlin in connection with the 2016 campaign.

Upon being interviewed by the FBI, Deripaska scoffed at that collusion theory. He further told the agents that Manafort was highly unlikely to have been involved in any Trump–Russia conspiracy.

To grasp that Deripaska was right about this, one need not be favorably disposed toward a Putin crony who made his fortune in the post-Soviet “gangster capitalism” era. Contrary to the collusion fable tirelessly peddled by the media-Democrat complex, Manafort’s work for Ukraine did not make him a Russian agent (note that Special Counsel Mueller never accused him of such a thing). Moreover, Manafort is known to have tried to nudge Yanukovych into pursuing tighter ties to Western Europe despite intense pressure from Putin.

In any event, as Solomon suggests, the fact that Deripaska has no love lost for Manafort lends some credence to his exculpatory opinion about Manafort — although not much, I’d say, since Deripaska would be expected to toe the Putin line regardless of the impact on Manafort.

Solomon reports that the FBI’s interview of Deripaska was not disclosed to Manafort’s defense during the proceedings at which he was convicted — federal criminal cases in Virginia and Washington, D.C. Manafort’s lawyers claim that this concealment violated Manafort’s due-process rights. One need not be a Trump-deranged collusion diehard to understand why this claim will get nowhere.

The suggestion that the nondisclosure amounts to a Brady violation (the relevant precedent is the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Brady v. Maryland) misapprehends the prosecution’s obligations. Brady requires the government to surrender to the defense information uniquely in its possession that tends to exculpate the defendant. Information is not exculpatory unless it shows the defendant is not guilty of the crime charged. Manafort was never charged with any offense alleging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. As Solomon notes, he was charged and “convicted on tax and lobbying violations unrelated to the Russia case.” Deripaska’s reported statements to the FBI have no bearing on those offenses.

Manafort’s counsel intimates that the government’s possession of potentially exculpatory information means the investigation of Manafort was illegitimate. I am not a fan of Mueller’s probe, but there is no Brady right against being investigated. The purpose of an investigation is to determine if a crime has been committed. Usually, there is evidence on both sides of the question — that’s why you investigate rather than forging ahead with an indictment. Brady simply means that if prosecutors formally charge a person with a crime, they must disclose information in their possession that indicates the person did not commit the crime.

That information, by the way, must actually be exculpatory. Here, not only is Deripaska’s information irrelevant to the crimes that were charged against Manafort. It might not have qualified as Brady material even if “collusion with Russia” had been alleged. The statement amounts to Deripaska’s opinion. To be sure, it is not an uninformed opinion. The oligarch is close to Putin and the Russian regime. To my knowledge, however, no one has alleged that Deripaska had any knowledge or participation in Russia’s hacking of Democratic email accounts, or of the dissemination of those emails to the media via WikiLeaks and other channels. Unless he was a conspirator in the scheme, or otherwise shown to have insider knowledge about it, Deripaska’s opinion about who might or might not have participated in it would be immaterial. Brady only requires government disclosure of material information that shows innocence.

Furthermore, Brady generally applies only to information that is uniquely in the government’s possession. If the defendant has access to the same information, the government has no obligation to disclose it. Here, Manafort and his associates (in particular, his protégé Konstantin Kilimnik) had access to Deripaska. To be sure, relations were not good between them, but they were good enough that — as has been widely reported and as the Mueller Report confirms — Manafort instructed Kilimnik to offer Deripaska briefings about the Trump campaign. (Deripaska denies receiving any Trump-campaign information from Manafort.) If Manafort had been in a position to obtain any helpful information directly from Deripaska, the government would probably not have been obligated to disclose the FBI’s interview with Deripaska, even if it were deemed exculpatory. At most, prosecutors might have been obliged to advise Manafort’s lawyers that they should consider interviewing Deripaska — but again, that would only be if there were a “collusion” allegation, which there was not.

So Deripaska’s FBI interview would not have been much help to Manafort. Does this mean the oligarch is of no interest to Russiagate followers? Hardly.

What is most interesting about Deripaska vis-à-vis the collusion caper is the fact that Christopher Steele was working for him and lobbying the U.S. government on his behalf. Steele, of course, is the British former intelligence agent who is the principal author of the “dossier” — the unverified anti-Trump research project commissioned by the Clinton campaign and the DNC.

While he was running a private intelligence business, Steele was an FBI informant — even before his anti-Trump research began in June 2016. He also provided his private intelligence reporting about Russia and Eastern Europe to the Obama State Department. Naturally, his private-eye work was heavily influenced by who was paying him. As Eric Felten has reported, the State Department’s Russia analysts were dismissive of Steele’s work due to its “Putinesque spin.” We now know that Steele was not consulting only with Deripaska; he also told the State Department (and, presumably the FBI) that he was getting information indirectly from two highly-placed Kremlin sources: top Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov and former SVR chief Vyacheslav Trubnikov. (The SVR is Russia’s foreign intelligence service.)

After nearly three years of investigation, Steele’s major anti-Trump allegations remain unverified. The FBI and the Obama Justice Department relied on Steele’s information to claim there was probable cause to believe that Carter Page was a clandestine agent of Russia, yet Page has never been charged with a crime. And Mueller closed his investigation by concluding that there was no Trump–Russia conspiracy. There is no credible reason to believe the collusion narrative. There is, however, a great deal of reason to suspect that the Russian regime used Steele to channel disinformation into the intelligence and foreign-policy arms of the United States government.

Deripaska, Surkov, and Trubnikov were not informing on the Kremlin. These are Putin’s guys. They were peddling what the Kremlin wanted the world to believe, and what the Kremlin shrewdly calculated would sow division in the American body politic. So, the question is: Did they find the perfect patsy in Christopher Steele?

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