Paul Manafort, who managed President Donald Trump's victorious 2016 campaign, promised a Russian billionaire that he could "greatly benefit" that country's president's profile in the U.S. and other countries.
On 22 March 2017, the Associated Press reported that Manafort had signed a contract to work for Oleg Deripaska in 2006 for $10 million a year. It is unclear how much work Manafort did while under the contract, which lasted until at least 2009, but according to a memo quoted in the report, Manafort pitched his services to Deripaska in 2005:
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 will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.
U.S. diplomatic cables from 2006 described Deripaska as "a more-or-less permanent fixture" on Russian President Vladimir Putin's travels, and "among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis."
Deripaska responded to the report on 28 March 2017 in a paid advertisement that ran in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Deripaska said in the ad that he would be willing to testify before Congress on the issue, and said that the AP story generated "a massive and aggressive disinformation attack against him."
His statement also read in part: "I want to resolutely deny this malicious assertion and lie. I have never made any commitments or contracts with the obligation or purpose to covertly promote or advance ‘Putin’s Government’ interests anywhere in the world."
Deripaska sued the AP on 15 May, calling it libelous. The suit stated:
The AP had (and has) no basis for reporting that any contract between Mr. Deripaska and Mr. Manafort provided for the undermining of democratic movements. Mr. Deripaska did not make any payments to Mr. Manafort to undermine democratic movements.
AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser responded in a statement, saying:
The Associated Press stands by its story. We will defend the lawsuit vigorously.
Manafort responded to the AP story by releasing two statements. In one, he said that his work for Deripaska "did not involve representing Russia's political interests."
The second statement alluded to the May 2006 referendum that led to Montenegro separating itself from Serbia. Manafort said:
I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal, to advance its interests. For example, one of the projects involved supporting a referendum in Montenegro that allowed that country to choose membership in the (European Union), a measure that Russia opposed. I did not work for the Russian government. Once again, smear and innuendo are being used to paint a false picture. I look forward to meeting with those conducting serious investigations of these issues to discuss the actual facts.
In 2008, a spokesperson for Deripaska said that he had never hired Manafort's consulting firm. That statement was contradicted by a later one, this released on 22 March 2017:
There was an agreement between Mr. Deripaska and Mr. Manafort to provide investment consulting services related to business interests of Mr. Deripaska which now is a subject to legal claims.
Manafort managed Trump's campaign without pay between March 2016 and August 2016, when he resigned after investigators in Ukraine found handwritten ledgers showing $12.7 million in cash payments allocated for him. The money reportedly came from the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych. Manafort's attorney denied that he received "any such cash payments."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing that Trump was not aware of Manafort's former business dealings:
What else don't we know? I mean, where he went to school, what grades he got, who he played with in the sandbox? To suggest that the president knew who clients were from a decade ago is a bit insane. He was not — he is not a government employee. He didn’t fill out any paperwork attesting to something.
The remark came a day after Spicer said Manafort "played a limited role" in Trump's campaign "for a very limited amount of time."