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AP Exclusive: Manafort's plan to advance Putin's interests

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FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2014 file-pool photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska while visiting the RusVinyl plant in Kstovo, in Russia\'s Nizhny Novgorod region. President Donald Trump\'s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for Deripaska, a Russian billionaire, to advance the interests of Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President 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 work appears to contradict 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 Manafort 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."

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 investigation and two congressional inquiries. 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. The documents obtained by AP show Manafort's ties to Russia were closer than previously revealed.

In a statement to the AP, Manafort confirmed that 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. "My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia's political interests."

When asked Wednesday about Manafort's work for Deripaska, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "We do not feel it's appropriate to comment on someone who is not an employee at the White House." Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked on Monday about possible campaign contacts with Russia, said Manafort "played a very limited role" in the Trump campaign albeit during the critical run-up period to the Republican National Convention.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, a frequent Trump critic, said of the disclosures about payments to Manafort: If true, "that's basically taking money to stop the spread of democracy, and that would be very disturbing to me."

Democrats on congressional intelligence committees raised more questions. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said that "any financial connections between Russia and Trump associates need to be thoroughly investigated."

And Rep. Adam Schiff of California, top Democrat on the House panel, tweeted, "Manafort worked w/ oligarch to advance Putin's interests and was Trump campaign chair when Russia released stolen docs. Another coincidence?"

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California said on MSNBC that Manafort should appear before the committee, and he raised the specter of a subpoena should Manafort not appear on his own.

Deripaska became one of Russia's wealthiest men under Putin, buying assets abroad in ways widely perceived to benefit the Kremlin's interests. U.S. diplomatic notes 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 when Trump asked Manafort to resign after the AP revealed that Manafort had orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation until 2014 on behalf of Ukraine's ruling pro-Russian political party.

But Manafort told a colleague this year he continues to speak with Trump by telephone. Manafort's former business partner in Eastern Europe, Rick Gates, has been seen inside the White House, helped plan Trump's inauguration and now runs a nonprofit to back the White House's agenda.

Gates, whose name does not appear in the documents, told the AP that he joined Manafort's firm in 2006 and was aware Manafort had a relationship with Deripaska, but he was not aware of the work described in the memos. Gates said he stopped working for Manafort's firm in March 2016 when he joined Trump's presidential campaign.

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Associated Press writers Jack Gillum, Eric Tucker, Julie Pace, Ted Bridis, Stephen Braun and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report in Washington; Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed from Moscow and Kiev, Ukraine; and Jake Pearson contributed from New York.

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Submit reporting tips to The Associated Press: https://www.ap.org/tips

 

 
 

 

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