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Trump's ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort 'tried to strike deal with Ecuador to hand Julian Assange over to US'

Trump ally allegedly offered to help negotiate handover of Wikileaks founder in exchange for debt relief from US

Kenneth P. Vogel,Nicholas Casey
Tuesday 04 December 2018 17:52 GMT
•	Paul Manafort met with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno at least twice in 2017, according to the New York Times
• Paul Manafort met with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno at least twice in 2017, according to the New York Times (EPA)

Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort allegedly tried to strike a deal with Washington and the government of Ecuador over Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the New York Times has revealed.

Mr Manafort made the trip to Ecaudor in May 2017 mainly to see if he could negotiate a deal under which China would invest in the South American country's power system, possibly yielding a large commission for Mr Manafort.

But the talks with President Lenín Moreno turned to a diplomatic sticking point between the United States and Ecuador: the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

In at least two meetings with Mr Manafort, Mr Moreno and his aides discussed their desire to rid themselves of Mr Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, in exchange for concessions like debt relief from the United States, according to three people familiar with the talks.

They said Mr Manafort suggested he could help negotiate a deal for the handover of Mr Assange to the United States, which has long investigated him for the disclosure of secret documents and which later filed charges against him that have not yet been made public.

Within a couple of days of Mr Manafort’s final meeting in Quito, Robert Mueller was appointed as the special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters, and it quickly became clear that Mr Manafort was a primary target. His talks with Ecuador ended without any deals.

There is no evidence that Mr Manafort was working with - or even briefing - Donald Trump or other administration officials on his discussions with the Ecuadoreans about Mr Assange.

Nor is there any evidence that his brief involvement in the talks was motivated by concerns about the role that Mr Assange and WikiLeaks played in facilitating the Russian effort to help Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Likewise there is no evidence he was motivated by the investigation into possible coordination between Mr Assange and Mr Trump’s associates, which has become a focus for Mr Mueller’s team.

Mr Manafort and WikiLeaks have both denied a recent report in The Guardian that Mr Manafort visited Mr Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

But the revelations about Manafort’s discussions in 2017 about Mr Assange in Quito underscore again how his self-styled role as an international influence broker intersected with the questions surrounding the Trump campaign.

And the episode shows how after Mr Trump’s election, Mr Manafort sought to cash in on his brief tenure as Mr Trump’s campaign chairman even as investigators were closing in.

Late last year, Mr Mueller’s team charged Mr Manafort with a host of lobbying, money laundering and tax violations in connection with his consulting work for Russia-aligned interests in Ukraine before the 2016 election.

Mr Manafort was convicted of some of the crimes and pleaded guilty to others as part of an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors. But prosecutors said last week that he violated the deal by repeatedly lying to them.

Mr Manafort remains in solitary confinement in a federal detention centre in Alexandria, Virginia, waiting for a judge to set a sentencing date.

All along, Mr Manafort and his allies have maintained that his foreign consulting work was aligned with US interests, though his clients and their initiatives often provoked Washington’s ire.

The trip to Ecuador was part of a whirlwind world tour that represented the last gasps of Mr Manafort’s once lucrative career.

In those final months, Mr Manafort pitched officials from a range of governments facing a variety of challenges, from Puerto Rico to Ecuador to Iraqi Kurdistan to the United Arab Emirates. Mr Manafort, who served on the board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in the Reagan administration, presented himself as a liaison to the new Trump administration and, in some cases, as a broker for arranging investments from a fund associated with the state-owned China Development Bank.

In Quito, he told Mr Moreno’s team that he could arrange a major cash infusion from the Chinese fund in the Ecuadorean electric utility, and could ease any potential concerns from the Trump administration about such an investment, according to people involved in arranging the meetings.

The week after the Quito trip, Mr Manafort traveled to Hong Kong to meet with representatives from the China Development Bank’s fund to discuss the possible investment in Ecuador, as well as a proposal being pushed by Mr Manafort to buy Puerto Rico’s bond debt, possibly in exchange for ownership of the island’s electric utility.

In both cases, Mr Manafort assured the Chinese, he could win support from Washington, despite Mr Trump’s oft-expressed qualms about China.

Brokering a deal to bring Mr Assange to the United States could have been even more complicated. Not only had Mr Assange not been charged at the time of Mr Manafort’s trip, but Mr Assange’s work was - and remains - a particularly fraught matter for Mr Trump and his team.

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Trump and his allies had cheered on WikiLeaks during the campaign, when it released troves of embarrassing internal emails and documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Since then, though, the US intelligence agencies and Mr Mueller’s team have made the case that the documents were stolen by Russian government agents, 12 of whom were charged by Mr Mueller.

The New York Times

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