Trump advisers waged covert influence campaign; Manafort quits
WASHINGTON >> A firm run by Donald Trump's campaign chairman — who resigned early Friday — directly orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine's then-ruling political party, attempting to sway American public opinion in favor of the country's pro-Russian government, emails obtained by The Associated Press show. Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
The lobbying included attempts to gain positive press coverage of Ukrainian officials in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press. Another goal: undercutting American public sympathy for the imprisoned rival of Ukraine's then-president. At the time, European and American leaders were pressuring Ukraine to free her.
Gates personally directed the work of two prominent Washington lobbying firms in the matter, the emails show. He worked for Manafort's political consulting firm at the time.
Trump announced Friday that he had accepted Manafort's resignation as campaign chairman, less than one day after AP revealed the scope of Manafort's firm's secretive role lobbying for Ukraine political leaders. Manafort had used the vital though unpaid position to steer Trump's campaign over the past several months.
Gates did not immediately response to text and email messages inquiring whether he will remain with the campaign. Gates' voicemail was full.
Manafort's and Gates' lobbying activities carry outsized importance as they played a formative role building out Trump's campaign operation after pushing out early rival, Corey Lewandowski. The new disclosures about their work come as Trump faces criticism for his friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump said Thursday night that, if elected, he will ask senior officials in his administration not to accept speaking fees, for five years after leaving office, from corporations that lobby "or from any entity tied to a foreign government." He said it was among his efforts to restore honor to government.
Manafort and Gates previously said they were not doing work that required them to register as foreign agents.
The emails obtained by AP show that Gates directed Washington lobbying firms, Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group Inc., between 2012 and 2014 to set up meetings between a top Ukrainian official and senators and congressman on influential committees involving Ukrainian interests. Gates said in the emails that the official, the foreign minister, did not want to use his own embassy in the United States to help coordinate the visits.
Gates also told the firms to gather information in the U.S. on a rival lobbying operation, including a review of its public lobbying disclosures, to determine who was behind that effort, the emails show.
And Gates pushed the firms to undercut sympathy for Yulia Tymoshenko, an imprisoned rival of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian leader eventually fled the country in February 2014 during a popular revolt prompted in part by his government's crackdown on protesters and close ties to Russia.
The emails do not describe details about the role of Manafort, who was Gates' boss at the firm, DMP International LLC. Current and former employees at Mercury and the Podesta Group, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they are subject to non-disclosure agreements, told the AP that Manafort oversaw the lobbying efforts and spoke by phone about them. Gates was directing actions and seeking information using an email address at DMP International, which he still uses.
Ukraine's anti-corruption body early Friday released entries from once-secret accounting documents that purport to show payments from the pro-Russian political party earmarked for Manafort.
The documents show Manafort's name listed as a recipient of funds totaling $12.7 million in 22 line-item entries. Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau said, however, that it cannot prove that Manafort actually received the money because other people, including a prominent deputy for the Party of the Regions, signed for him in those entries.
Manafort did not return phone and email messages Thursday from the AP to discuss the project. Gates told AP late Thursday he was busy with Trump campaign focus groups and would review the AP's questions in writing then did not respond.
After AP reported earlier this week that Manafort helped the Ukrainian political party secretly route at least $2.2 million to the two Washington lobbying firms, Manafort told Yahoo News that AP's account was wrong. "I was not involved in any payment plans," Manafort said.
Gates previously told the AP, "At no time did our firm or members provide any direct lobbying support." Gates has confirmed previously to AP that he did work for Ukraine's ruling party, the Party of Regions.
Under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the Justice Department. A violation is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
None of the firms, nor Manafort or Gates, disclosed their work to the Justice Department counterespionage division responsible for tracking the lobbying by foreign governments.
Manafort and Gates have said that they did not disclose their activities to the Justice Department because they did not oversee lobbying efforts and merely introduced the Washington firms to a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, which they said ran the project. The center paid Mercury and the Podesta Group a combined $2.2 million over roughly two years.
In papers filed in the U.S. Senate, Mercury and the Podesta Group listed the European nonprofit as an independent, nonpolitical client. The firms said the center stated in writing that it was not aligned with any foreign political entity.
Associated Press writers Maria Danilova, Desmond Butler, Bradley Klapper and researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.
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