Last week, the court published an in-depth and partially redacted transcript of a hearing between Special Counsel Robert Mueller and lawyers for Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair.
This trove of information provided a fresh glimpse inside the workings of Mueller’s team, revealing new details about the case that look increasingly bad for the president. And as reporter Marcy Wheeler noted, it also appears to significantly contradict previous reporting from the New York Times about a major development in the Russia investigation.
That development came when Manafort’s lawyers accidentally filed an improperly redacted document addressing allegations that their client lied to the special counsel about material facts in the investigation. Most strikingly, investigators believe Manafort lied about a meeting with Russian-born political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik, who the government believes has ties to Russian intelligence, where the campaign chair handed over polling data on the 2016 campaign.
When the New York Times first reported on this fact, it contained a stunning revelation: Manafort had given the polling data to Kilimnik to pass it along to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin. This was significant for many reasons. First, of course, it ties the campaign directly to Moscow, which had been working on efforts to help secure Trump’s victory. Second, previous reports of emails from Manafort during the campaign showed that he had offered private briefings to Deripaska to use his position close to Trump to fulfill his debts to the oligarch. And third, it makes the Trump administration’s recent decision to lift sanctions on Deripaska specifically in a particularly generous fashion look even more suspicious.
However, after publication, the Times retracted this specific claim about Deripaska, issuing the following correction:
A previous version of this article misidentified the people to whom Paul Manafort wanted a Russian associate to send polling data. Mr. Manafort wanted the data sent to two Ukrainian oligarchs, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, not to Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.
But a post on Wheeler’s blog reveals that, based on the length of redactions in the transcript, it appears Mueller’s team believes the polling data was indeed intended for Deripaska:
JL notes that neither of the two Ukrainian oligarchs identified by NYT’s leakers, Lyovochkin and Akhmetov, fit the 9-character redaction after “Mr.” in the last screen cap. But “Deripaska” does. And we know this meeting was specifically focused on Kilimnik reporting back to Deripaska. In addition, Deripaska’s plane was in NY just after the meeting.
There also appear to be other significant facts the Times report got wrong or reported in a misleading way.
For example, it reported that Manafort “transferred the data to Mr. Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 as Mr. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, according to a person knowledgeable about the situation.” But the new transcript shows that Mueller’s team appears to believe the transfer happened on Aug. 2, 2016. This is significant in the timeline of the Trump campaign because it comes after Manafort’s emails about potential briefings for Deripaska and after the campaign’s infamous meeting at Trump Tower, which Manafort attended, with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton in June.
Another portion that doesn’t exactly contradict the Times story, but adds much more detail than was initially revealed, is about the polling data itself. The Times said its source claimed, “Most of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign…” But according to the transcript, even Manafort’s lawyers appear to admit (reading between the lines on some narrow redactions) that the polling data was highly detailed, complex, and difficult to comprehend. Judge Amy Berman Jackson noted, in response to arguments from Manafort’s lawyers, that this level of sophistication in the data shows that Manafort’s decision to give it to Kilimnik was “significant and unusual.”
It is, of course, not clear who the Times’ source was on the initial story. But these apparent contradictions or differences with the new transcript suggest that the person conveying the information may have not fully understood what they were discussing or was potentially misleading the reporters on purpose.
But while it’s often assumed by critics of the media that outlets like the New York Times consistently exaggerate developments in the Russia investigation, this incident shows that errors may also be common in the other direction. Mainstream outlets may also be prone to making mistakes that downplay the importance of central facts in the case, despite what their critics say.