US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Associated Press reports.
Manafort wrote a 2005 strategy plan that he said “can greatly benefit the Putin government.” At the time, US-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush were growing worse.
Manafort’s arrangement was with Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally. Manafort signed a $US10 million ($A13 million) annual contract beginning in 2006 and maintained a business relationship until at least 2009.
The work was described in interviews with people familiar with it and confidential business records obtained by the AP.
Manafort confirmed to the AP that he worked for Deripaska but said the work was being unfairly cast as inappropriate.
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 refocus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”
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 disclosure comes as Trump campaign advisers are the subject of an FBI probe and two congressional investigations. Investigators are reviewing whether the Trump campaign and its associates coordinated with Moscow to meddle in the 2016 campaign.
Manafort has dismissed the investigations as politically motivated and misguided, and said he never worked for Russian interests.
“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” Manafort said. “My work for Mr Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests.”
Deripaska became one of Russia’s wealthiest men under Putin, buying assets abroad in ways widely perceived to benefit the Kremlin’s interests. US diplomatic cables from 2006 described Deripaska as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis” and “a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin’s trips abroad.”
In response to questions about Manafort’s consulting firm, a spokesman for Deripaska in 2008 – at least three years after they began working together – said Deripaska had never hired the firm. Another Deripaska spokesman in Moscow last week declined to answer AP’s questions.
Manafort worked as Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman last year from March until August. Trump asked Manafort to resign after AP revealed that Manafort had orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation until 2014 on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling pro-Russian political party .
The newly obtained business records link Manafort more directly to Putin’s interests in the region. According to those records and people with direct knowledge of Manafort’s work for Deripaska, Manafort made plans to open an office in Moscow, and at least some of Manafort’s work in Ukraine was directed by Deripaska, not local political interests there. The Moscow office never opened.
Manafort has been a leading focus of the US intelligence investigation of Trump’s associates and Russia, according to a US official. Meanwhile, federal criminal prosecutors became interested in Manafort’s activities years ago as part of a broad investigation to recover stolen Ukraine assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych there in early 2014. No US criminal charges have ever been filed in the case.
FBI Director James Comey, in confirming to Congress the federal intelligence investigation this week, declined to say whether Manafort was a target. Manafort’s name was mentioned 28 times during the hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, mostly about his work in Ukraine. No one mentioned Deripaska.