Trump campaign chief linked to Putin interests
President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned.
The White House on Wednesday acknowledged the AP’s revelations had “started to catch a lot of buzz” but brushed them aside, though some members of Congress expressed alarm. Manafort’s activities appeared to contradict previous assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort that he never worked for Russian interests.
Manafort proposed in confidential strategy plans as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse.
Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom he eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP.
Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer indicated Wednesday that President Trump had not been aware of Manafort’s work on behalf of Deripaska. “To suggest that the president knew who his clients were from 10 years ago is a bit insane,” Spicer said. He noted the AP’s reporting “has started to catch a lot of buzz” but said Manafort’s work occurred long before he became Trump’s campaign chairman.
Manafort’s plans were laid out in documents obtained by the AP that included strategy memoranda and records showing international wire transfers for millions of dollars. How much work Manafort performed under the contract was unclear.
The disclosures come as Trump campaign advisers are the subject of an FBI investigation and two congressional inquiries. Investigators are reviewing whether the Trump campaign and its associates coordinated with Moscow to meddle in the 2016 campaign, an allegation that Manafort has dismissed as politically motivated.
Manafort confirmed in a statement to the AP he worked for Deripaska in various countries but said the work was being unfairly cast as “inappropriate or nefarious” as part of a “smear campaign.”
“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” Manafort said.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the disclosures “serious stuff” and more evidence that an independent congressional committee should investigate the Trump administration. “Other shoes will drop,” McCain said.
His Republican colleague, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another frequent Trump critic, said, “I don’t know if he violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act, but it’s something I think we all need to know more about.”
Graham was referring to a U.S. law that requires people who lobby on behalf of foreign political leaders or parties to provide detailed reports about their actions to the government.