Trump administration holds off on new Russia sanctions, despite law

The Trump administration said on Monday it would not immediately impose additional sanctions on Russia, despite a new law designed to punish Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, insisting the measure was already hitting Russian companies.

“Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “Since the enactment of the … legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

Seeking to press President Donald Trump to clamp down on Russia, the U.S. Congress voted nearly unanimously last year to pass a law setting sweeping new sanctions on Moscow.

Trump, who wanted warmer ties with Moscow and had opposed the legislation as it worked its way through Congress, signed it reluctantly in August, just six months into his presidency.

Under the measure, the administration faced a deadline on Monday to impose sanctions on anyone determined to conduct significant business with Russian defense and intelligence sectors, already sanctioned for their alleged role in the election.

But citing long time frames associated with major defense deals, Nauert said it was better to wait to impose those sanctions.

“From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” she said in a statement.

The measure, known as the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” or CAATSA, required the administration to list “oligarchs” close to President Vladimir Putin’s government and issue a report detailing possible consequences of penalizing Russia’s sovereign debt.

[Reuters]

Trump says he trusts Putin’s denials of election meddling

U.S. President Donald Trump said he believed President Vladimir Putin when he denied accusations Russia meddled in last year’s U.S. election despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.

Trump made the comment after he and Putin met briefly at a summit in Vietnam on Saturday and agreed on a statement supporting a political solution for Syria.

It was their first encounter since July and came during a low in U.S.-Russia relations and at a time Trump is haunted by an investigation into accusations that Putin influenced the election that brought him to the White House.

Putin reiterated the denials of interference, Trump said.

“Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the resort of Danang.

“I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump said.

Trump, who has called allegations of campaign collusion with Moscow a hoax, has faced questions from Democrats about the matter since he took office. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is conducting a probe that has led to charges against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates.

U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded Russians interfered to tip the election in Trump’s favor through hacking and releasing emails to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and spreading social media propaganda.

Russia has repeatedly denied meddling.

The top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, which is investigating the issue, harshly criticized Trump’s comments and accused him of siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies.

“The President fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail,” Adam Schiff said in a statement.

“He understands all this and more. He just doesn’t understand how to put country over self. Or to put it in terms he is more familiar with – Mr. Trump simply can’t bring himself to put America first,” the Democrat said.

[Reuters]

Leaks Show Wilbur Ross Hid Ties to Putin Cronies

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary in the Trump administration, shares business interests with Vladimir Putin’s immediate family, and he failed to clearly disclose those interests when he was being confirmed for his cabinet position.

Ross — a billionaire industrialist — retains an interest in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that was partially owned by his former investment company. One of Navigator’s most important business relationships is with a Russian energy firm controlled, in turn, by Putin’s son-in-law and other members of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Some of the details of Ross’s continuing financial holdings — much of which were not disclosed during his confirmation process — are revealed in a trove of more than 7 million internal documents of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm, that was leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The documents consist of emails, presentations and other electronic data. These were then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — a global network that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its work on the Panama Papers — and its international media partners. NBC News was given access to some of the leaked documents, which the ICIJ calls the “Paradise Papers.”

Overall, the document leak provides a rare insight into the workings of the global offshore financial world, which is used by many of the world’s most powerful companies and government officials to legally avoid paying taxes and to conduct business away from public scrutiny. More than 120 politicians and royal rulers around the world are identified in the leak as having ties to offshore finance.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the documents also contain references to offshore interests held by Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is no evidence of illegality in their dealings.

Ross’ widespread financial interests

In Ross’s case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.

That explanation was vital to his confirmation, because Ross held financial interests in hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors, many of which could be affected by his decisions as commerce secretary. Any one of them could represent a potential conflict of interest, which is why the disclosures, by law, are supposed to be thorough.

“The information that he provided on that form is just a start. It is incomplete,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I have no reason to believe that he violated the law of disclosure, but in order … for the Commerce Department to understand, you’d have to have more information than what is listed on that form.”

Ross, through a Commerce Department spokesperson, issued a statement saying that he recuses himself as secretary from any matters regarding transoceanic shipping, and said he works closely with ethics officials in the department “to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

The statement said Ross “has been generally supportive of the Administration’s sanctions of Russian” business entities. But the statement did not address the question of whether he informed Congress or the Commerce Department that he was retaining an interest in companies that have close Russian ties.

In his submission letter to the government, Ross pledged to cut ties with more than 80 financial entities in which he has interests.

Ross’s apparent ethical probity won praise, even before he signed the divestment agreement, from both sides of the political aisle.

‘Our Committee Was Misled’

The documents seen by NBC News, however, along with a careful examination of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, tell a different story than the one Ross told at his confirmation. Ross divested most of his holdings, but did not reveal to the government the full details of the holdings he kept.

In his letter to the ethics official of the Commerce Department, Ross created two lists: those entities and interests he planned to get rid of and those he intended to keep. The second list consisted of nine entities, four of which were Cayman Islands companies represented and managed by the Appleby law firm, which specializes in creating complex offshore holdings for wealthy clients and businesses. The Wilbur Ross Group is one of the firm’s biggest clients, according to the leaked documents, connected to more than 60 offshore holdings.

The four holdings on the list of assets that Ross held onto were valued by him on the form as between $2.05 million and $10.1 million. These four, in turn, are linked through ownership chains to two other entities, WLR Recovery Fund IV DSS AIV L.P. and WLR Recovery Fund V DSS AIV L.P., which were listed in Ross’ financial disclosure prior to confirmation, but were not among the assets he declared he would retain. According to an SEC filing, those entities hold 17.5 million shares in Navigator, which constitutes control of nearly one-third of the shipping firm.

“You look at all of these names,” Clark said, referring to the financial entities, “and they actually look like a code. And what we actually have to do is find — in a sense — a code that decrypts what these names mean and what these companies actually do.”

She said the way the companies were listed was deliberately vague. “I would say this gives the appearance of transparency,” she said, referring to Ross’s disclosure documents. “It’s sort of fake transparency in a sense.”

The Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for executive branch oversight, approved Ross’s arrangement, and it was left almost entirely unchallenged by the Senate.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said members of Congress who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings were under the impression that Ross had divested all of his interests in Navigator. Furthermore, he said, they were unaware of Navigator’s close ties to Russia.

“I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” said Blumenthal. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Blumenthal said he will call for the inspector general of the Commerce Department to launch an investigation.

And a cursory look at Navigator’s annual reports reveal an apparent conflict of interest. Navigator’s second-largest client is SIBUR, the Russian petrochemical giant. According to Navigator’s 2017 SEC filing, SIBUR was listed among its top five clients, based on total revenue for the previous two years. In 2016, Navigator’s annual reports show SIBUR brought in $23.2 million in revenue and another $28.7 million the following year.

The business relationship has been so profitable that in January, around the time Ross was being vetted for his Cabinet position, Navigator held a naming ceremony for two state-of-the-art tankers on long-term leases to SIBUR.

The Kremlin’s inner circle

One of the owners of SIBUR is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list. He has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 because authorities consider him a Specially Designated National, or SDN, who is considered by Treasury to be a member “of the Russian leadership’s inner circle.”

The Treasury Department statement said that Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector “have been directly linked to Putin” and that Putin had investments with a company previously owned by Timchenko, as well as access to the company’s funds.

Daniel Fried, who was the State Department sanctions coordinator under President Barack Obama, said the connection to Timchenko’s interests should have raised alarm bells.

“I would think that any reputable American businessman, much less a Cabinet-level official, would want to have absolutely no relationship — direct, indirect — … with anybody of the character and reputation of Gennady Timchenko,” Fried said. “I just don’t get it.”

Another major SIBUR shareholder is Leonid Mikhelson, who, like Timchenko, has close ties to the Kremlin. One of his companies, Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, was placed on the Treasury’s sanctions list in 2014.

Included in the Appleby documents are details of an internal discussion that resulted in the law firm dropping Mikhelson as a client in 2014, over concerns regarding his financial affiliations.

“I would say to anybody who asked,” said Fried, “treat SDNs as radioactive. Stay away from them.”

A third shareholder of SIBUR – and deputy chairman of the board – is Kirill Shamalov, husband of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. After the wedding, Shamalov’s meteoric rise to wealth led him to own as much as 21.3 percent of SIBUR’s stock until April, when he sold off around 17 percent for a reported $2 billion.

“It’s a new generation which is currently being prepared and groomed… to inherit whatever power and wealth Putin’s team has accumulated over the past years,” said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister in Putin’s government who is now working with the opposition.

Milov also said companies like SIBUR are often the way sanctioned Kremlin insiders have to keep doing business despite restrictions.

The Commerce Department statement said Ross never met Timchenko, Mikhelson, or Shamalov. It said he was not on the board of Navigator in March 2011 when the ships in question were acquired, or the following February when the charter agreement with Sibur was signed. It said Sibur was not under U.S. sanctions now or in 2012. The statement said Ross was on the board of Navigator from March 30, 2012 to 2014, and that no funds managed by his company ever owned a majority of Navigator’s shares.

But as The Guardian reported Sunday, other public documents suggest a different story. A Navigator news release on March 2, 2012, said that Ross was already on the board at that point, and Sibur’s annual report for 2012 said the deal with Navigator was signed in March. In addition, Ross’ company issued a news release on Aug. 10, 2012, saying that the company had agreed to acquire a majority stake in Navigator.

Fried said he has no doubt of the connections between SIBUR and the Kremlin.

“If any senior official of the U.S. government, much less a Cabinet secretary … had any business dealings with sanctioned individuals, direct or indirect,” he said, “I would be appalled.”

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said there needs to a close examination of whether Ross’ testimony to the Senate violated perjury laws. Painter also said Ross must recuse himself from all Russia-related matters because of the SIBUR connection.

“Secretary Ross cannot participate in any discussion or decision-making or recommendation about sanctions imposed on Russia or on Russian nationals when he owns a company that is doing business with Russian nationals who are either under sanctions or who could come under sanctions in any future sanctions regime,” Painter said. “That would be a criminal offense for him to participate in any such matter.”

[NBC News]

Trump Associate Boasted That Moscow Business Deal ‘Will Get Donald Elected’

A business associate of President Trump promised in 2015 to engineer a real estate deal with the aid of the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, that he said would help Mr. Trump win the presidency.

The business associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin and predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would be a political boon to Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

The emails show that, from the earliest months of Mr. Trump’s campaign, some of his associates viewed close ties with Moscow as a political advantage. Those ties are now under investigation by the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees.

There is no evidence in the emails that Mr. Sater delivered on his promises. Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, was a broker for the Trump Organization at the time, which means he was paid to deliver real estate deals.

In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting in Moscow. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

Mr. Cohen suggested that Mr. Sater’s comments were puffery. “He has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,’ ” Mr. Cohen said in a statement. “I ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia.”

Mr. Sater presented himself as so influential in Russia that he helped arrange a 2006 trip that Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, took to Moscow. “I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” he said.

Ms. Trump said she had no involvement in the discussions about the Moscow deal. In a statement, she said she that during the 2006 trip, she took “a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin but I have never met President Vladimir Putin.” She did not say whether she sat in his chair.

The Times reported earlier this year on the plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow, which never materialized. On Sunday, The Washington Post reported the existence of the correspondence between Mr. Sater and Mr. Cohen but not its content.

The Trump Organization on Monday turned over emails to the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election and whether anyone in Mr. Trump’s campaign was involved. Some of the emails were obtained by The Times.

The Trump Organization issued a statement Monday saying: “To be clear, the Trump Organization has never had any real estate holdings or interests in Russia.”

[New York Times]

Trump Thanks Putin for Expelling U.S. Diplomats to Dismay of State Department

President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats from Russia on the grounds that “we’re going to save a lot of money,” prompting dismay among some of the rank-and-file at the State Department.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to a pool report.

“There’s no real reason for them to go back,” he added. “I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”

Russia recently announced that it would expel hundreds of American diplomats from Russia in retaliation for new sanctions the U.S. put on the Kremlin. Those sanctions are in response to Russia’s suspected attempts to meddle in last year’s U.S. presidential election through a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks on Democratic Party officials.

Trump, whose campaign’s relationship with Russia is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had pushed back against the sanctions bill, but signed it into law after it passed Congress with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

The State Department has not yet released the details of how it will handle the drawdown. But many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers, though the local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments. Cost savings are possible in the long run.

The U.S. diplomats forced to leave Moscow will in most cases be sent to other posts, sources said.

Trump’s remarks did not go down well among the rank-and-file at the State Department, some of whom noted that the people who would be most affected are locally hired staff crucial to American diplomats’ work overseas.

A senior U.S. diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks “outrageous” and said it could lead more State Department staffers to head for the exits.

“This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” the diplomat said.

“I kid you not, I have heard from three different people in the last five minutes,” one State Department official told POLITICO shortly after Trump’s comments. “Everyone seems pretty amazed. This statement is naive and shortsighted. It sends a terrible signal to local employees everywhere.”

“THANK Putin?” another bewildered State Department official responded. “I don’t have words that are printable to describe my reaction.”

The reaction to Trump’s comments on social media was equally as withering, with many suggesting he simply didn’t understand how the U.S. Foreign Service is structured and others shocked by his gesture to Putin.

Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the second Bush administration, called Trump’s statement “shameful.”

“He justifies mistreatment of U.S. diplomats by Putin,” Burns wrote on Twitter.

Ever since Trump won the election, the State Department has felt sidelined by the president and his aides. Trump largely ignored U.S. diplomats who were ready and willing to offer him briefings when he talked to foreign leaders during the transition period. Since taking office, Trump has proposed cutting the State Department’s budget by a third, and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is considered isolated and aloof from many of the diplomats he oversees.

[Politico]

Trump Sides With Putin on Election Hacking, Repeating His Claims

Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Trump that Russian hackers wouldn’t have gotten caught if they did hack Democratic groups because they’re too skilled at spying, The New York Times reported Monday.

Trump has since repeated the claim, according to White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

Scaramucci told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that someone told him that if Moscow hacked the Democratic National Committee, “you would have never seen it. You would have never had any evidence of them, meaning that they’re super-confident in their deception skills and hacking.”

Pressed by host Jake Tapper on who told him that, Scaramucci said it was Trump himself.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russia hacked the DNC and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton‘s campaign chairman as part of an effort to help Trump win the presidential election.

The Justice Department, FBI and House and Senate Intelligence committees are investigating Russian interference as well as links between Trump’s team and the Kremlin, which Trump has denied.

“As the phony Russian Witch Hunt continues, two groups are laughing at this excuse for a lost election taking hold, Democrats and Russians!” Trump tweeted Sunday.

Trump met with Putin multiple times at the Group of 20 summit in Germany earlier this month, with each of the meetings lasting more than an hour.

The first was a planned, formal talk while the other was an informal meeting that was not immediately reported. The second meeting was not confirmed until last week, when it was announced that they talked for more than an hour at a dinner for heads of state.

[The Hill]

Trump Rages at Media for Reporting Previously Undisclosed Meeting with Putin

President Donald Trump scolded the media Tuesday night in a pair of tweets defending his apparently hourlong, previously undisclosed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.

The meeting took place at the G-20 economic summit in Hamburg, Germany, hours after the two leaders met in a highly publicized formal meeting that lasted for more than two hours.

News of the second conversation, which occurred at a private dinner at the G-20 Couples’ Dinner, reignited concerns over Trump’s relationship with Russia.

“Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” Trump said on Twitter.

“The Fake News is becoming more and more dishonest! Even a dinner arranged for top 20 leaders in Germany is made to look sinister!” he tweeted seven minutes later.

However, as several journalists pointed out, the existence of the private dinner was never in question. Coverage of the conversation focused on its unusual length and the fact that there is no government record of it. Trump did not use an American translator during the interaction, instead relying on Putin’s translator.

Ian Bremmer, president of geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group, said other attendees were shocked by the conversation.

“Pretty much everyone at the dinner thought this was really weird, that here is the president of the United States, who clearly wants to display that he has a better relationship personally with President Putin than any of us, or simply doesn’t care,” Bremmer told the New York Times. “They were flummoxed, they were confused and they were startled.”

The White House released a statement saying “all the leaders circulated throughout the room and spoke with one another freely.”

“There was no ‘second meeting’ between President Trump and President Putin, just a brief conversation at the end of a dinner,” the statement continued. “The insinuation that the White House has tried to ‘hide’ a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd.”

[Business Insider]

Reality

The specter of an inexperienced president, engaged alone in a lengthy, private exchange with the cunning and seasoned leader of an adversarial nation defies every rule of diplomacy and good sense. Such scenarios play to the advantage of the other side — leaving ours prone to manipulation.

And it is highly unusual for a president to have such a conversation without, at a minimum, his own translator to avoid any misinterpretation on either side.

Vladimir Putin praises Trump as ‘straightforward’ and ‘frank’

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised President Trump on Thursday as a “straightforward” and “frank person” who looks at issues with a “fresh set of eyes.”

Speaking to foreign reporters at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin denied that the Russian state had ever engaged in election hacking, but conceded it is theoretically possible some individual “patriotic” Russians could have mounted some cyberattacks.

He rejected charges by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked into Democratic Party emails, helping Trump’s election victory and railed against “Russo-phobic hysteria” that he said makes it “somewhat inconvenient to work with one another or even to talk.”

“It’s having an impact, and I’m afraid this is one of the goals of those who organize it are pursuing and they can fine-tune the public sentiments to their liking, trying to establish an atmosphere that is going to prevent us from addressing common issues, say with regard to terrorism,” Putin said.

He indicated, however, that Trump is an American leader he could work with.
Putin praised Trump as “a straightforward person, a frank person,” adding that some view Trump’s lack of political experience as a disadvantage, while the Russian leader considers it a plus.

“He can’t be put in the same category as normal politicians,” Putin said. “I see that as an advantage. He has a fresh set of eyes.’’

Putin noted that the two leaders have only talked by phone and it is difficult to form an opinion from a distance. They plan to meet for the first time at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.

“How can you be friends with someone you don’t know?’’ Putin said. “I don’t think he can call me a friend. We have never seen each other in person.’’

As for the strains between Russia and the West, Putin predicted “this will end, sooner or later,” adding that “we are patient, we know how to wait and we will wait.”

[USA Today]

 

Russian Bank Directly Linked to Putin Helped Finance a Trump Hotel

A partner of President Trump’s financed Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto using hundreds of millions of dollars received from the Russian bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB, The Wall Street Journal reports. At the time of the deal, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat on VEB’s supervisory board; Russian experts say the bank is a “vehicle for the Russian government to fund politically important projects,” The Wall Street Journal writes.

Trump’s partner, Russian-Canadian developer Alexander Shnaider, helped finance the hotel after selling his company’s share in a Ukrainian steelmaker for $850 million. The unknown buyer, financed by VEB, was reportedly “an entity acting for the Russian government.”

After Mr. Shnaider and his partner sold their stake in the steelmaker, Mr. Shnaider injected more money into the Trump Toronto project, which was financially troubled. Mr. Shnaider’s lawyer, Symon Zucker, said in an April interview that about $15 million from the asset sale went into the Trump Toronto project. A day later, he wrote in an email: “I am not able to confirm that any funds” from the deal “went into the Toronto project.”

A spokesman for the Trump Organization, the family’s real-estate firm, said Mr. Trump had no involvement in any financial dealings with VEB and that the Trump company “merely licensed its brand and manages the hotel and residences.” VEB didn’t respond to requests for comment. [The Wall Street Journal]

In February, Trump claimed: “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with [has dealings with Russia].” Trump also directed his lawyers to review his tax returns and release a letter showing limited income from Russian sources over the past decade.

[The Week]

Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort ‘Offered to Help Putin’

Paul Manafort is said to have proposed a strategy to nullify anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics a decade ago.

AP says documents and interviews support its claims about Mr Manafort.

Mr Manafort has insisted that he never worked for Russian interests.

He worked as Mr Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, including the period during which the flamboyant New York billionaire clinched the Republican nomination.

He resigned after AP revealed that he had co-ordinated a secret Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling pro-Russian political party until 2014.

Newly obtained business records link Mr Manafort more directly to Mr Putin’s interests in the region, AP says.

It comes as Trump campaign advisers are the subject of an FBI investigation and two congressional inquiries.

Investigators are reviewing whether the Trump campaign and its associates co-ordinated with Moscow to interfere in the 2016 presidential election campaign to damage Mr Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, a stern critic of Mr Putin.

Mr Manafort is said to have pitched the plans to aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Putin.

In a confidential strategy plan in 2005, AP reports, Mr Manafort proposed to influence politics, business dealings and news coverage in the US, Europe and the ex-Soviet republics to advance the interests of the Putin government.

At this time, US-Russia relations were deteriorating.

“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,” Mr Manafort is said to have written, adding that it would be offering “a great service that can refocus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government”.

Mr Manafort signed a $10m-a-year contract beginning in 2006, AP reports. How much work he did under this contract was unclear.

Mr Manafort and Mr Deripaska reportedly maintained a business relationship until at least 2009.

When Donald Trump picked Paul Manafort to be his campaign chair last March, the political operative was a relatively minor player in Washington, consigned to working for deep-pocketed foreign benefactors. That those benefactors have turned out to include Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian politicians with ties to Vladimir Putin is sure to cause growing concern in the Trump White House.

Now it appears increasingly likely that Mr Manafort is one of the “individuals associated with the Trump campaign”, in Director James Comey’s words, at the heart of an ongoing FBI investigation.

This would explain why White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently downplayed Mr Manafort’s connections to the Trump team, saying he “played a very limited role” in the campaign for “a very limited amount of time”.

Mr Manafort could face legal consequences if the FBI concludes that he did not properly disclose his work for foreign leaders. That would at the very least prove embarrassing for Mr Trump, given the power he delegated to Mr Manafort last summer.

If it turns out that Mr Manafort’s contacts with foreign interests continued during his time at the top of the Trump campaign, the situation for the White House could go from embarrassing to full-blown scandal.

In a statement to AP, Mr Manafort confirmed that he had worked for Mr Deripaska in several countries but insisted the work was being unfairly cast as “inappropriate or nefarious” as part of a “smear campaign”.

“I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” Mr Manafort said in the statement.

“My work for Mr Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests.”

A spokesman for Mr Deripaska in Moscow declined to answer questions from AP.

Further allegations have been made in Ukraine about secret funds said to have been paid to Mr Manafort.

Lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko said he had evidence that Mr Manafort had tried to hide a payment of $750,000 (£600,800) by a pro-Russian party in 2009.

Mr Manafort’s spokesman said the claim was “baseless”.

Mr Manafort was an adviser to Ukraine’s ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, but denies receiving any cash payments.

(h/t BBC)

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