Months after the FBI began examining Paul Manafort as part of a probe into ties between President Donald Trump’s team and Russia, Manafort called Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus to push back against the mounting controversy, according to four people familiar with the call.
It was about a week before Trump’s inauguration, and Manafort wanted to brief Trump’s team on the alleged inaccuracies in a recently released dossier of memos written by a former British spy for Trump’s opponents that alleged compromising ties between Russia, Trump and Trump’s associates, including Manafort.
“On the day that the dossier came out in the press, Paul called Reince, as a responsible ally of the president would do, and said this story about me is garbage, and a bunch of the other stuff in there seems implausible,” said a person close to Manafort.
Manafort had been forced to resign as Trump’s campaign chairman five months earlier amid scrutiny of his work for Kremlin-aligned politicians and businessmen in Eastern Europe. But he had continued talking to various members of Trump’s team, and had even had at least two conversations with Trump, according to people close to Manafort or Trump.
While the people say the conversations were mostly of a political or, in some cases, personal nature, the conversation with Priebus, described by four people familiar with it, was related to the scandal now subsuming Manafort and the Trump presidency.
It suggests that Manafort recognized months ago the potentially serious problems posed by the investigation, even as Trump himself continues to publicly dismiss it as a politically motivated witch hunt, while predicting it won’t find anything compromising.
The discussion also could provide fodder for an expanding line of inquiry for both the FBI and congressional investigators. They’ve increasingly focused on the Trump team’s handling of the investigations, including evolving explanations from the White House, and the president’s unsuccessful efforts to get the FBI to drop part of the investigation, followed by his firing of FBI director James Comey. All that has led to claims that the president and his team may have opened themselves to obstruction of justice charges.
According to a GOP operative familiar with Manafort’s conversation with Priebus, Manafort suggested the errors in the dossier discredited it, as well as the FBI investigation, since the bureau had reached a tentative (but later aborted) agreement to pay the former British spy to continue his research, and had briefed both Trump and then-President Obama on the dossier.
Manafort told Priebus that the dossier was tainted by inaccuracies and by the motivations of the people who initiated it, whom he alleged were Democratic activists and donors working in cahoots with Ukrainian government officials, according to the operative.
Manafort discussed with other Trump allies the possibility of launching a countervailing investigation into efforts by Ukrainian government officials, who allegedly worked in conjunction with allies of Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to damage Trump’s campaign, according to the operative. The operative added that Manafort saw such an investigation as a way to distract attention from the parallel FBI and congressional Russia probes.
Priebus and the White House press office declined to comment, as did the Ukrainian presidential administration, though it previously challenged the notion it meddled in the U.S. presidential election.
Priebus did, however, alert Trump to the conversation with Manafort, according to the operative familiar with the conversation and a person close to Trump.
But someone else familiar with the call described it as “a very vague topline discussion” that lasted two or three minutes and was short on details. “The only thing discussed was that the dossier was incorrect, full of lies, and was a joke. They never discussed ways to push back on it,” the person said. “Manafort said if you want any additional details, give me a call, and Reince never called him back.”
There’s no evidence that Trump’s team considered an investigation into Ukrainian meddling, or acted on Manafort’s recommendations, though Trump did blast the dossier as “fake news” gathered by “a group of opponents that got together — sick people — and they put that crap together.”
A Manafort spokesman declined to comment for this story.
But Manafort, a 68-year-old veteran of five U.S. presidential elections and many overseas campaigns, has emerged as a focal point in the escalating investigations. His representatives say he is cooperating with investigators. This month, he voluntarily provided documents to the Senate intelligence committee, while also offering to be interviewed by the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury empaneled as part of the FBI’s investigation reportedly has issued a subpoena for records related to Manafort, as well as Trump’s former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
In addition to Manafort and Flynn, others being scrutinized in the various investigations include occasional Trump confidant (and former Manafort business partner) Roger Stone and former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who had only a fleeting association with the campaign.
Of that quartet, though, Manafort has by far the deepest — and most lucrative — connections to politicians, parties and businessmen associated with Russia whose president, Vladimir Putin, is reported to have personally overseen his country’s efforts to meddle in the U.S. presidential election to boost Trump.
Manafort was paid millions of dollars for work on behalf of oligarchs from Ukraine and Russia, as well as Russia-aligned Ukrainian political parties, including one helmed by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. He fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 amid street protests over government corruption and a pivot away from the European Union.
The New York Times in August revealed that the FBI and Ukrainian investigators were looking into a recently unearthed ledger detailing alleged off-books payments to Manafort by Yanukovych’s party totaling $12.7 million.
Manafort was forced to resign from the campaign less than a week after the story.
He has defended his work for Yanukovych as fully above board and consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives, as well as completely distinct from his work for Trump (though the Times reported Wednesday evening that top Russian officials discussed “leveraging” their ties to Yanukovych to exert influence over Manafort). Manafort also has questioned the authenticity of the ledger.
The dossier, prepared by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, claims that the day after the Times’ report on the ledger, Yanukovych secretly met with Putin near Volgograd, Russia, to discuss the matter.
“Yanukovych had confided in Putin that he did authorise and order substantial kick-back payments to Manafort as alleged but sought to reassure him that there was no documentary trail left behind which could provide clear evidence of this,” one memo in the dossier claims. The memo continues that “Putin and others in the Russian leadership were sceptical [sic] about the ex-Ukrainian president’s reassurances on this.”
After the dossier’s publication by BuzzFeed in January, Manafort in his conversation with Priebus challenged the dossier’s characterization of the payments from Yanukovych, according to the operative familiar with the conversation.
In conversations with other associates, Manafort singled out the dossier’s use of the term “kickback,” explaining “Yanukovych would never use that term,” according to the operative. Additionally, Manafort questioned whether any of Steele’s sources would be in position to know the contents of a meeting between Putin and Yanukovych. “This stuff would never see light of the day,” Manafort told the associates, according to the operative.
In his conversation with Priebus, Manafort also disputed the assertion in the Steele dossier that Manafort managed relations between Trump’s team and the Russian leadership, using Page and others as intermediaries.
Manafort told Priebus that he’d never met Page, according to the operative.
Manafort has said he severed ties with Yanukovych when he fled Ukraine. But Manafort continued advising the successor party to Yanukovych’s through late 2015.
And two operatives familiar with his work in Eastern Europe say he remained in contact during Trump’s presidency with associates in Ukraine, including one who is widely believed to have a background in Russian intelligence.
Trump’s aides now admit privately that the campaign wasn’t fully aware of the extent of Manafort’s connections to Russia-linked figures and entities when he was brought on board.
And White House aides and allies express mounting frustration that Manafort’s past work in Eastern Europe — which they see as entirely unrelated to his work on the Trump campaign — is dogging Trump’s presidency.
“His problems are his problems. They would have existed independent of the campaign,” said someone who worked on the Trump campaign with Manafort.
Trump’s aides and allies have sought to minimize Manafort’s role on the campaign, with White House press secretary Sean Spicer in March describing Manafort as someone “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the effort.
The former Trump campaign worker said “because Paul was initially brought on to secure the delegates and work with the establishment figures that the initial campaign team didn’t have relationships with, he was primarily based in New York, D.C. and then Cleveland setting up the convention. Whereas Mr. Trump and the core campaign team were traveling all over the country campaigning.” As a result, the campaign hand said, “we didn’t really have that much interaction with Paul. He wasn’t part of the core campaign team.”
And the former campaign worker asserted that Trump and Manafort “didn’t have a relationship” before a mutual friend, California real estate investor Tom Barrack, recommended that Trump bring Manafort on board as a volunteer.
In fact, though, Manafort’s lobbying firm worked for Trump in the 1980s and 1990s fighting the expansion of Indian casinos that could compete with his Atlantic City gambling business, and trying to change the flightpath of planes that Trump said disturbed guests at his newly purchased Mar-a-Lago club.
And, while it’s true that Manafort joined the campaign in March 2016 to handle delegate strategy, he quickly exerted his influence over the entire campaign, which was headquartered at Manhattan’s Trump Tower, where he owns an apartment.
Days after Manafort joined the campaign, one of his daughters, in a text message to her sister that was later hacked and posted in an online data tranche, wrote: “Dad and Trump are literally living in the same building and mom says they go up and down all day long hanging and plotting together.”
Manafort eventually forced out his internal rival, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, in June, leaving Manafort with almost complete control over the operation for two months until August, when he was layered over, and then forced to resign.
Even after that, Manafort continued discussing campaign strategy with people on the campaign, including a few calls with Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner and more regular contact with key state directors, according to a Trump campaign consultant.
Manafort was spotted in the part of the Trump Tower lobby that led to Trump’s transition headquarters in the weeks after Trump’s victory, though a source close to Manafort suggested he may have been coming from or going to his apartment, as opposed to meeting with anyone on the transition team.
Likewise, there is some confusion about whether Manafort has spoken to Trump since he was sworn in as president.
Three Manafort associates said he indicated that he spoke to the president periodically until the Russia investigation started heating up about two months ago. But two sources close to Trump said there haven’t been any conversations at all since the inauguration.
One Manafort friend said Manafort had been offering Trump “general political input, just like he still talks to Corey (Lewandowski), and he still talks to Stone occasionally. Guys that he thinks are smart, he talks to.”
The friend said “Paul and Trump are still on good terms,” and suggested that Manafort would be unlikely to turn on Trump to help himself. “If he feels burned, it’s because of the trail of things he’s left behind over time, not because of anything Trump did,” the friend said. “He still pulls for him and wants to help him.”