U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is acknowledging that he worked for a Russian aluminum magnate under a multi-million-dollar contract a decade ago, but is pushing back on claims that his efforts were aimed at advancing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Manafort, Trump's campaign chief from March until August last year, told U.S. news outlets on Wednesday that he worked for Oleg Deripaska "almost a decade ago, representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments." But Manafort said that his work for Deripaska "did not involve representing Russia's political interests" supporting Putin.
Manafort's work for Deripaska was disclosed by the Associated Press, which said Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract with the Russian in 2006 and maintained a business relationship with him until at least 2009.
The former Trump aide, according to the news service's report, proposed a political strategy to thwart anti-Russian opposition in the former Soviet republics.
In a 2005 memo to Deripaska, Manafort was quoted as saying, "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 said he "will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."
After disclosure of his previously unknown ties to Deripaska, Manafort said his work was being unfairly cast as "inappropriate or nefarious" and was part of a "smear campaign."
Manafort's link to Deripaska came to light two days after James Comey, the director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country's top criminal investigative agency, told a congressional hearing that it is conducting a probe into whether Trump campaign aides criminally colluded with Russian interests during last year's presidential election. Manafort's name was mentioned 28 times at the hearing, but Comey declined to say whether Manafort was a target of the investigation. No one mentioned Deripaska.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, spelled out at the hearing several links between Trump aides and Russia both before and after the election, asking whether they all were a mere coincidence.
On Wednesday, Schiff said in a Twitter comment, "Manafort worked w/oligarch to advance Putin's interests and was Trump's campaign chair when Russia released stolen docs. Another coincidence?"
The White House has repeatedly rejected any contention that Trump campaign officials colluded with Moscow to help Trump defeat his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating the details of the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia, on orders from Putin, meddled in the election to help Trump win.
Russia hacked into the computer of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks subsequently released thousands of his emails in the weeks before the November election that showed embarrassing, behind-the-scenes efforts by Democratic operatives to help Clinton secure the party's presidential nomination.
Manafort ran Trump's campaign during the crucial months leading up to the Republican National Convention, where the billionaire real estate mogul claimed the party's presidential nomination.
But on Monday, after Comey disclosed the FBI's probe of possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow, White House spokesman Sean Spicer addressed Manafort's role in the campaign.
Spicer said the 67-year-old Manafort played a "limited role for a very limited amount of time" in the campaign.
Manafort left the Trump campaign last August after it was revealed he had worked for the pro-Russian party of ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia as his government was toppled in 2014 by pro-Western interests.