Donald Trump faces yet another Russian controversy. An explosive investigation by AP Wednesday revealed that the president's former campaign manager Paul Manafort secretly worked for a Russian oligarch to help advance the interests of Vladimir Putin. Manafort, who has strenuously denied ever working for the Kremlin, has labelled the latest allegations against him "a smear campaign" saying they have been unfairly cast as "inappropriate or nefarious."
The investigation says Manafort signed a $10 million dollar annual contract with billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Putin, to help influence politicians, the media and business relationships in the U.S. and Europe. Leaked documents show Manafort proposed this strategy in 2005, working with aluminium magnate Deripaska until at least 2009.
"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 a 2005 memo to Deripaska, adding that he "will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."
The document also shows Manafort told Deripaska that he was pushing policies "at the highest levels of the U.S. government — the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department." As part of his plan, Manafort said he had hired a "leading international law firm with close ties to President Bush to support our client's interests," as well as legal experts from Duke University, New York University, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The AP reported that Manafort did not disclose this work. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must declare it to the Justice Department.
The revelations appear to directly contradict Manafort's previous assertions that he never had any contact with the Kremlin. "I have never had any involvement with Putin or the Russian government on any matter," Manafort told the Financial Times in February after several reports alleged he had been in frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials during Trump's 2016 campaign.
In response to the latest allegations, Manafort said: "I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments," He told AP. "My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests."
Manafort worked as Trump's unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, when he was forced to resign after it emerged that he had received millions of dollars in payments from a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. On Monday White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to play down Manafort's role in the campaign, saying he "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time." However he was in charge during the critical run-up to the Republican National Convention.
There were further allegations made about Manafort's business dealings in the Ukraine on Monday, when a member of parliament released documents claiming to show the businessman tried to hide payments which were linked to work carried out for former President Viktor Yanukovych. One invoice appeared to show $750,000 was funneled through an offshore account and disguised as payment for computers. Manafort denied the allegations, and said that the signature on the documents was not his.
The new claims come just days after the FBI confirmed it was investigating whether or not there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, as the Kremlin was allegedly interfering in the U.S. election. According to one U.S. official speaking to AP, Manafort is a leading focus of this investigation.
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