Why a shady meeting in a cigar bar could provide key evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy
Since the release of heavily redacted court documents on Feb. 7, another get-together has been vying to beat out the Trump Tower meeting as the most important face-to-face between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. That meeting took place at the Grand Havana Room, a private cigar club that apparently also serves food, for those who can stand to eat in the presence of cigars. And while the meeting may have lacked the presence of Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, it does seem to have what the House and Senate investigations into Trump have suggested was missing from their data—direct evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The Grand Havana gathering took place on Aug. 2, 2016, less than two weeks after the Republican convention. It featured Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and the Russian political operative who makes frequent appearances in other Manafort-related documents, Konstantin Kilimnik. Both Kilimnik and Manafort have maintained that the meeting was a “personal” meeting about “clients” they shared, but investigators are not buying it.
According to the Washington Post, prosecutors with the special counsel’s office believe that at that meeting, Manafort and Gates provided Kilimnik with “key information” in the form of internal polling data from the Trump campaign. That information could have been vital to assisting Russia in its social media attacks on the U.S. election.
Kilimnik also seems to have brought to the meeting a few topics of discussion that weren’t exactly client-related, including a resolution to the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine—a topic that had just been debated at the Republican convention, where the Trump campaign insisted on a softer position toward Russia. It’s not clear if they also discussed the Magnitsky Act, which was a major topic at the Trump Tower meeting.
The information about the Grand Havana meeting is not appearing now because it’s emerged as part of a leak or a deliberate release by the special counsel. It’s because Manafort’s statements about the meeting are a key feature of charges that he continued to lie to investigators even after agreeing to provide evidence to the special counsel in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. And one of the things that Manafort appears to have lied about was just how much of a two-way street there was between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Before, during, and after the campaign, Kilimnik acted as the go-between for Manafort and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. There have been still-unconfirmed stories that Manafort met with Kilimnik in Europe for the same reason that they were in the Grand Havana: to exchange data. On multiple occasions, Manafort offered to “brief” Deripaska on behind-the-scenes aspects of the Trump campaign. He certainly briefed Kilimnik.
But even if he didn’t meet with Deripaska during the campaign, Manafort does seem to have deliberately given Russia information from the Trump campaign. And Manafort clearly thought that information had value, as he offered it to Kilimnik in recognition that he still owed millions to Deripaska.
Whatever information was exchanged at the Grand Havana Room, there’s a very good reason to believe that it wasn’t just “a personal meeting.” The attendees of the meeting knew they were doing something wrong at the time the meeting was held — because they all make a point of leaving the building alone, through separate entrances,
There’s also a very good reason why the special counsel’s office might be suspicious about this particular incident, and might have a firm basis to believe that Manafort lied. Rick Gates was there, and Gates has also agreed to provide information in return for a reduced sentence. If the story that Gates is telling disagrees with the story being shopped by Manafort they both could be lying, but one of them certainly is.
Russia timelines have noted that Deripaska’s private jet landed briefly at a New Jersey airport on Aug. 3, just one day after the cigar room meeting. It seems likely that Kilimnik left on this plane to make a swift return to Moscow with the data provided by Manafort. Or maybe Deripaska got his through an in-person briefing from Manafort after all.