- Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort has come under renewed scrutiny for his connections to a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. Manafort reportedly offered to give the oligarch briefings on the state of the campaign. Manafort’s offers coincides with several momentous events during the Trump campaign.
Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a top ally of President Vladimir Putin, reportedly stopped trying to recover money he said had been taken from him in 2014 by Paul Manafort after President Donald Trump won the GOP nomination last year.
The detail, first reported by The Associated Press in March, may shed light on an email Manafort – then Trump’s campaign chairman – sent last July from his campaign email address. In the email, he asked his longtime employee Konstantin Kilimnik to offer Deripaska “private briefings” about the campaign.
“If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote.
Manafort had written a cryptic note to Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian operative with suspected ties to Russian intelligence, shortly after being named a campaign strategist in April.
“How do we use to get whole?” he said.
The New York Times reported in July that Manafort was in debt to pro-Russian interests by as much as $17 million by the time he joined the Trump campaign. His emails are being examined as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign played any part.
Jason Maloni, a representative for Manafort, told The Washington Post that Manafort had simply been trying to leverage his high-level role on the campaign to collect past debts.
But it was Manafort who, according to Deripaska, owed him money – not vice versa.
Legal complaints filed by Deripaska’s representatives in the Cayman Islands in 2014 said he gave Manafort $19 million that year to invest in a Ukrainian TV company called Black Sea Cable. The project fell through, and Manafort all but disappeared without paying Deripaska back, the filings claimed.
In early 2016, Deripaska’s representatives “openly accused Manafort of fraud and pledged to recover the money from him,” according to The Associated Press. “After Trump earned the nomination [in May], Deripaska’s representatives said they would no longer discuss the case.”
A spokesperson for Deripaska’s company, Rusal, did not respond to a request for comment.
Deripaska and Manafort had worked together before. Deripaska signed a $10 million annual contract with Manafort in 2006, according to the AP, for a lobbying project in the US that Manafort said would “greatly benefit the Putin Government.”
Deripaska took out quarter-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post in March, after his payments to Manafort were revealed, announcing that he was “ready to take part in any hearings conducted in the US Congress on this subject in order to defend my reputation and name.”
In 2008, Manafort and Deripaska looked into buying New York City’s Drake Hotel and turning it into a luxury apartment building, The Daily Beast reported in August. The $850 million project would have been funded by an offshore private equity fund Manafort and Deripaska founded in 2006, but the deal ultimately fell through, according to the report.
Reports that Manafort continued reaching out to Deripaska after their falling out in 2014, however, indicate that Manafort was still trying to make things right by the Russian oligarch as of 2016 – including after he was brought on to the Trump campaign.
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ukraine, hacked emails, a trip to Moscow, and a resignation
It is unclear what Manafort offered to Deripaska beyond the private briefings, which both parties have insisted never actually materialized. It is also unclear whether Manafort ever cashed in from his role on the campaign.
But the contact between Manafort and Deripaska – Manafort’s email, “if he needs private briefings we can accomodate,” suggests it was not the first time the subject had been raised – had all of the hallmarks of a “classic intelligence operation being run by the Russians,” said former CIA operative Glenn Carle.
“This is how it is done,” said Carle, who served 23 years in the CIA as the deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats.
“Approach someone with access and influence [like Manafort], propose benign-seeming justifications, offer an enticement, get benign-seeming favors done by the target in exchange (e.g., a meeting, a briefing, information that seems non-alarming), and use the meeting to entice down the primrose path – either without informing the target or directly with his knowledge.”
Manafort’s accession to campaign chairman coincided with some of the more brazen Russia-related episodes during the campaign. That included a change in the GOP’s Ukraine platform at the Republican National Convention, the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, and an early foreign policy adviser’s trip to Moscow.
As Politico’s Michael Crowley has reported, Trump’s tone on Ukraine and Crimea appeared to shift after he hired Manafort to manage his campaign.
Approximately 10 days after Manafort emailed Kilimnik with his offer to Deripaska, an amendment to the Republican Party’s draft policy on Ukraine proposing that the GOP commit to sending “lethal weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression was changed to “provide appropriate assistance.”
Politico reported last year that Kilimnik had suggested upon returning to Kiev from the US that he he played a role in altering the amendment.
The original amendment seemed consistent with language used by a group of Republican senators as early as 2014, when many in the GOP were actively pressuring the Obama administration to send “anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression. A bipartisan coalition in Congress ramped up that pressure in June 2015, and again 18 months later.
“We renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic, and military support for Ukraine,”a bipartisan group of high-profile senators wrote in December 2016. “This includes defensive lethal assistance as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians better defend themselves, deter future aggression, and implement key structural reforms.”
But the original language – proposed by GOP delegate Diana Denman at a meeting of the party’s national-security subcommittee in Cleveland just before the convention – was watered down after two Trump campaign representatives asked the chairs of the committee to table the amendment and delay deliberations.
One of the representatives, JD Gordon, has disputed Denman’s version of events.
“As the Trump campaign’s national-security policy representative for the GOP convention, I never left my assigned side table, nor spoke publicly at the meeting of delegates during GOP platform hearing,” Gordon told Business Insider in January. “So yes, Ms. Denham’s [sic] memory of events is inaccurate.”
Gordon told CNN two months later that he pushed to alter the amendment to further align it with Trump’s views.
The change aligns with an assertion made in an unverified dossier alleging ties between Trump and Moscow that the campaign agreed to soften US support for Ukraine in exchange for the Kremlin releasing damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
- Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
The altered Ukraine policy amendment, with the softer language, ultimately was included in the new GOP platform. A few days later, WikiLeaks began publishing the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. The timing coincided with the start of the Democratic National Convention the following week.
It was around the time that Manafort wrote to Deripaska offering private briefings that Carter Page, an early foreign policy adviser to the campaign, was in Moscow giving a speech at Russia’s New Economic School.
The dossier, which was presented by top intelligence officials to Trump in January and was reportedly used to bolster the FBI’s case to surveil Page late last year, alleged that Page served as an intermediary for the communication between Russia and the campaign that Manafort oversaw.
Page and Manafort, for their part, have said they never met each other.
A month after the Republican convention, on August 14, The New York Times reported new details about Manafort’s involvement with Ukraine. The paper reported that Ukraine leader Yanukovych’s pro-Russia political party had earmarked $12.7 million for Manafort for his work between 2007 and 2012. Manafort has said he never collected the payments.
The New York Times story thrust the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia into the international spotlight. Five days later, on August 19, Manafort resigned as Trump’s campaign manager amid a broader campaign shakeup that brought on Steve Bannon as the head of the campaign.
The dossier further alleges that Putin became concerned when Yanukovych informed him on August 16 – two days after the Times report was published – of “kickback payments” being funneled to Manafort. Three days later, Manafort resigned.
Carle said the events make it “overwhelmingly clear” that Manafort was “one element of a coherent intelligence operation.”
“Even if Manafort is unaware of the implications of his actions, he nonetheless engaged in espionage-related activities with the Russians,” Carle said. “I have known many ‘targets,’ or sources, to be destroyed for such associations once they came to light. Because every counter-intelligence service in the world will recognize these classic intelligence, cooptation, exploitation, collusion activities.”