By Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Carol D. Leonnig and Adam Entous
WASHINGTON – Less than two weeks before Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Paul J. Manafort made the offer in an email to an overseas intermediary, asking that a message be sent to Oleg V. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with whom Manafort had done business in the past, these people said.
“If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote in the July 7, 2016, email, portions of which were read to the Washington Post along with other Manafort correspondence from that time.
The emails are among tens of thousands of documents that have been turned over to congressional investigators and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team as they probe whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia as part of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
There is no evidence in the documents showing that Deripaska received Manafort’s offer or that any briefings took place. And a spokeswoman for Deripaska dismissed the email exchanges as scheming by “consultants in the notorious ‘beltway bandit’ industry.”
Nonetheless, investigators believe that the exchanges, which reflect Manafort’s willingness to profit from his prominent role alongside Trump, created a potential opening for Russian interests at the highest level of a U.S. presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the probe. Those people, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters under investigation.
Several of the exchanges, which took place between Manafort and a Kiev-based employee of his international political consulting practice, focused on money that Manafort believed he was owed by Eastern European clients.
The notes appear to be written in deliberately vague terms, with Manafort and a longtime employee, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, never explicitly mentioning Deripaska by name.
However, investigators believe that key passages refer to Deripaska, who is referenced in some places by his initials, “OVD,” according to people familiar with the emails. One email uses “black caviar,” a Russian delicacy, in what investigators believe is a veiled reference to payments Manafort hoped to receive from former clients.
In one April exchange days after Trump named Manafort as a campaign strategist, Manafort referred to his positive press and growing reputation and asked, “How do we use to get whole?”
Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni said Wednesday that the email exchanges reflected an “innocuous” effort to collect past debts.
“It’s no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients,” Maloni said.
Maloni said that no briefings with Deripaska ever took place but that, in his email, Manafort was offering what would have been a “routine” briefing on the state of the campaign.
Vera Kurochkina, a spokeswoman for Rusal, the company led by Deripaska, on Wednesday derided inquiries from the Post that she said “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.”
Collectively, the thousands of emails present a complex picture. For example, an email exchange from May shows Manafort rejecting a proposal from an unpaid campaign adviser that Trump travel abroad to meet with top Russian leaders.
“We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips,” Manafort wrote, according to an email read to the Post.
The email exchanges with Kilimnik add to an already perilous legal situation for Manafort, 68, whose real estate dealings and overseas bank accounts are of intense interest for Mueller and congressional investigators as part of their examination of Russia’s 2016 efforts. People close to Manafort believe that Mueller’s goal is to persuade the former campaign chairman to “flip” on his former Trump associates and become a cooperating witness to provide information on them.
In August, Mueller’s office executed a search warrant during an early morning raid of Manafort’s Alexandria, Va., condominium, an unusually aggressive step in a white-collar criminal matter.
Mueller has also summoned Maloni, the Manafort spokesman, and Manafort’s former lawyer to answer questions in front of a grand jury. Last month, Mueller’s team told Manafort and his attorneys that they believed they could pursue criminal charges against him and urged him to cooperate in the probe by providing information about other members of the campaign. The New York Times reported this week that prosecutors had threatened Manafort with indictment.
The emails now under review by investigators and described to the Post could provide prosecutors with additional leverage.
Deripaska, one of Russia’s richest men, is widely seen as an important ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006, published by WikiLeaks, referred to Deripaska as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.”
The billionaire has struggled to get visas to travel to the United States because of concerns he might have ties to organized crime in Russia, according to the Wall Street Journal. He has vigorously denied any criminal ties.
Russian officials have frequently raised the visa matter over the years with U.S. diplomats, according to former U.S. officials familiar with the appeals.
In 2008, one of Manafort’s business partners, Rick Davis, arranged for Deripaska to meet with Arizona Sen. John McCain, then a Republican presidential candidate, at an international economic conference in Switzerland.
At the time, Davis was on leave from Manafort’s firm and was serving as McCain’s campaign manager. The meeting caused a stir, given McCain’s longtime criticism of Putin’s leadership.
The Post reported in 2008 that Deripaska jointly emailed Davis and Manafort after the meeting to thank them for setting it up.
At the time of the McCain meeting, Manafort was working in Ukraine, advising a Russia-friendly political party. He ultimately helped to elect Viktor F. Yanukovych as president in 2010. In 2014, Yanukovych was ousted from office during street protests and fled to Moscow.
Manafort and Deripaska have both confirmed that they had a business relationship in which Manafort was paid as an investment consultant.
In 2014, Deripaska accused Manafort in a Cayman Islands court of taking nearly $19 million intended for investments and then failing to account for the funds, return them or respond to numerous inquiries about exactly how the money was used. There are no signs in court documents that the case has been closed.
The emails under review by investigators also show that Manafort waved off questions within the campaign about his international dealings, according to people familiar with the correspondence.
Meanwhile, the Times reported Wednesday night that Manafort is working for allies of the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region to help administer and promote a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq.
The United States opposes the referendum, but Manafort has carved out a long and lucrative career advising foreign clients whose interests have occasionally diverged from U.S. foreign policy. And he has continued soliciting international business even as his past international work has become a focus of the investigation by Mueller, the Times reported.
While the Kurdish referendum, scheduled for Monday, is nonbinding, the U.S. government and the international community have expressed serious concerns about it.
They fear that, if it passes overwhelmingly, as expected, it could further destabilize Iraq, damage the coalition fighting the Islamic State, and potentially spark violence in disputed areas.