WASHINGTON - In the middle of Donald Trump's presidential run, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort said he was willing to provide "private briefings" about the campaign to a Russian billionaire the U.S. government considers close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Manafort's offer was memorialized in an email exchange with a former employee of his political consulting firm in July 2016. It was first reported by The Washington Post, which said portions of Manafort's emails were read to reporters.
Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni confirmed to The Associated Press that the email exchanges were legitimate but said no briefings ever occurred. The email involved an offer for Oleg Deripaska, a wealthy Russian who made his money in the aluminum business.
The July 7, 2016, email came a little over a week before the Republican National Convention, while Manafort was leading the Trump campaign's day-to-day operations. It also occurred about a month after Manafort attended a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. That meeting was brokered by Donald Trump Jr., who was told in emails that the meeting was part of a Russian government effort to help his father's campaign.
The Manafort email exchange regarding Deripaska is one of thousands of pages of material turned over to congressional committees by the Trump campaign. It is also in the possession of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether there was any coordination between Trump associates and Russians looking to interfere in the presidential campaign. Mueller is also probing Manafort's taxes and his foreign banking as part of an investigation related to his consulting work in Ukraine.
Manafort has denied any wrongdoing, saying his work in Ukraine was open and appropriate. He has also denied any involvement in any efforts to undermine the U.S. election on behalf of Russia. Deripaska has denied any involvement with the Trump campaign and said he is willing to testify before congressional committees investigating Russian election interference to defend his reputation and his name.
According to the Post, Manafort wrote the email to a former employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, who had worked for years with him on political consulting in Ukraine. Manafort asked Kilimnik to pass the offer to Deripaska.
"If he needs private briefings we can accommodate," Manafort wrote — referring to Deripaska — in the email, according to the Post.
In a statement, Maloni dismissed the correspondence as "innocuous." He said the exchange was part of an effort on Manafort's part to collect money from clients who owed him money. The Post reported that several email exchanges between Manafort and Kilimnik discussed money that Manafort said he was owed by former clients in Eastern Europe.
"It is no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients after his work ended in 2014," Maloni said in the statement.
The email is the first to indicate that Manafort was attempting to reach Deripaska while he was working on the Trump campaign, but it's unclear whether the offer ever reached Deripaska or his representatives. The Post reported that according to documents detailed to its reporters, there was no evidence Deripaska received the offer.
Attorneys for Deripaska in New York and Washington did not respond to phone messages or emails Wednesday evening. Kilimnik did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday evening. A phone number previously used by him was not accepting calls.
The Post quoted Vera Kurochkina, a spokeswoman for one of Deripaska's companies, who said inquiries about the emails "veer into manufactured questions so grossly false and insinuating that I am concerned even responding to these fake connotations provides them the patina of reality." She also dismissed the email exchanges, the Post said, as scheming by "consultants in the notorious 'Beltway bandit' industry."
The Associated Press reported in March that before signing with Trump's campaign, Manafort secretly worked for Deripaska and proposed plans for political consulting work in Eastern Europe that he said could "greatly benefit the Putin Government."
In a 2005 memo to Deripaska, Manafort laid out the details of the proposal that were subsequently spelled out the following year as part of a $10 million contract, according to interviews with people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. It's unclear how much of the work was carried out. The AP previously reported that Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009. The two later had a falling-out laid bare in 2014 in a Cayman Islands court.
The AP cited U.S. diplomatic cables from 2006 describing 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." Deripaska has also sworn in a New York state court document that he has been granted "a diplomatic passport from Russia, and on occasion I have represented the government in countries outside Russia."
Deripaska sued the AP for defamation over the story in May in U.S. District Court in Washington, alleging the story was inaccurate and hurt his career by falsely accusing him of criminal activity. Deripaska's lawyers complained to the AP at the time that the article "suggests that Mr. Deripaska has been involved with Mr. Manafort more recently," and the lawsuit said, "Mr. Deripaska severed relations with Mr. Manafort many years ago." The AP has said it stands by the accuracy of its story, and has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Manafort has previously said he worked for Deripaska to advance his business interests but denied his work was meant to advance Russia's interests.
The Post reported that Kilimnik and Manafort at times referred to Deripaska as "OVD" in the emails. That shorthand is consistent with how Manafort and other employees at his former consulting business referred to the billionaire in other documents obtained by the AP, including the 2005 proposal that referred to a plan to "greatly benefit the Putin Government."
According to other emails obtained by the AP that are in the hands of Mueller and congressional committees, Manafort had previously shut down efforts to have Trump meet with Russians during the campaign.
In mid-May 2016, a Trump campaign aide wrote to Manafort that "Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite some time," noting that representatives from the country had been reaching out to him.
Manafort responded to his deputy, Rick Gates, that the meetings were a nonstarter. "We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips," he wrote, referring to Trump. The two decided that the communication should come from a person in the campaign who responds to "all mail of non-importance" so as not to send a message.