American and Ukrainian officials are pushing to question President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in separate investigations related to his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine once headed by that country’s disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told POLITICO that Manafort “would certainly be at the top of my list to testify” before the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election.
The panel held its first public hearing Monday, featuring hours of testimony from FBI director James Comey, who publicly acknowledged for the first time that his agency is investigating the possibility of Russian coordination with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign team. “Of all of the characters in and around the Trump campaign and administration, Paul Manafort’s relationships with Russians are by far the longest-standing and the deepest,” said Himes, who is a member of the committee. “And he has some pretty unsavory contacts.”
At the same time, an investigative department within a top Ukrainian law enforcement agency intends to ask the U.S. Department of Justice for help questioning Manafort about his possible relationship to Yanukovych during the 2014 riots that drove Yanukovych from power, according to Serhiy Gorbatyuk, the head of the department for special investigations within the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine.
Gorbatyuk’s section of the office had previously sought the Justice Department’s assistance with an ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal government spending during Yanukovych’s time in office, including payments to a Washington law firm that assisted Yanukovych in a legal battle with an imprisoned political foe.
But Gorbatyuk said the Justice Department did not respond to seven previous requests for assistance from the prosecutor’s office — two formal requests followed by five “reminders.”
One missive was sent directly to Comey, whose agency is an arm of the Justice Department, CNN reported on Sunday.
Gorbatyuk acknowledged that the office was at least somewhat confused by the lack of cooperation from the FBI, which has an evidence-sharing agreement with the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office. “I would call it a lack of understanding why it’s taking so long to fulfill our requests,” he said.
The Ukrainian inquiries would be hampered without the Justice Department’s cooperation, Gorbatyuk added. “For our investigations, it is important to receive the materials that fulfill our requests and these include interviews with [the Washington law firm] and Paul Manafort,” he said.
Manafort said he had not been contacted by the FBI or anyone in the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office, and he cast the scrutiny of him as “a blatant attempt to discredit me and the legitimacy of the election of President Trump.”
In a statement distributed by a public relations consultant he hired recently to deal with a rising number of media inquiries, Manafort declared that he had “no role or involvement” in the theft and public dissemination of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the personal email account of John Podesta, the campaign chairman for Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. intelligence community has attributed the hacks to Russia.
Manafort said “I have never spoken with any Russian government officials or anyone who claimed to have been involved in the attack.”
He added that “despite the constant scrutiny and innuendo, there are no facts or evidence supporting these allegations, nor will there be.”
As the focus on Manafort intensified Monday, the White House sought to distance Trump from the veteran GOP operative. Manafort took control of Trump’s campaign during a pivotal stretch last spring, when the candidate was working to clinch the GOP nomination and unite the party, remaining at the helm until mid-August, when he was forced to resign amid scrutiny over his work in Ukraine.
Press secretary Sean Spicer declared from the White House briefing room podium that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
At Monday’s intelligence committee hearing, Comey said that his agency is investigating Russia’s interference in the U.S. election to benefit Trump, as well as “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
But the handling of the inquiries as they relate to Manafort could fuel questions about whether investigators are putting their full weight into investigations related to ties between Trump, his team and Russia.
Democrats on the intelligence committee have accused Comey of being less than forthcoming with information about the investigation. And some Democrats are grumbling that the FBI has assigned fewer agents to the Trump Russia case than it had working on a case involving the mishandling of classified information by Clinton when she was Secretary of State.
It’s not clear whether the committee’s Republicans, whose control over the panel gives them more sway over witness lists, will allow Manafor or other witnesses connected to the president to be called.
During Monday’s proceedings, Himes drew attention to questions about the FBI’s participation in the Ukraine investigation, asking Comey why his agency hadn’t responded to earlier requests for assistance from the Ukrainian prosecutor general.
“That’s not something I can comment on,” Comey said. “I can say generally we have a very strong relationship and cooperation in the criminal and national security areas with our Ukrainian partners. But I can’t talk about the particular matter.”
An FBI spokeswoman would not comment on the requests or even confirm that they had been received.
A different federal law enforcement official urged caution in reading into a delayed response from the Justice Department to the requests from Gorbatyuk, the Ukrainian prosecutor.
Requests under such so-called mutual legal assistance treaties often precipitate prolonged negotiations, and usually involve government-to-government assistance as opposed to help in interviewing a private citizen. “This stuff just takes time,” the official said.
Gorbatyuk’s office can only investigate foreigners who are charged with committing crimes on Ukrainian soil, and it can’t approach foreigners outside the country for questioning without assistance from their country of citizenship.
Manafort is not a suspect in the investigation by Gorbatyuk’s office, he stressed.
“This is part of an investigation into the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, on suspicion of creating a ‘criminal organization,’” said Gorbatyuk.
The office’s most recent line of inquiry — into Manafort’s possible relationship with Yanukovych during the months-long Euromaidan protests that began in late 2013 — stems from texts apparently hacked from the cell phone of Manafort’s daughter Andrea Manafort.
In one March 2015 exchange of text messages that appears to be between Andrea Manafort and her sister, Andrea Manafort seems to suggest that their father bore some responsibility for the deaths of protesters at the hands of police loyal to Yanukovych during the protests.
“Don’t fool yourself,” Andrea Manafort wrote. “That money we have is blood money.”
Manafort has acknowledged that Andrea Manafort was hacked, and he corroborated the authenticity of at least some of the text messages, which were posted in a data file on a so-called darknet website affiliated with a hacktivist collective.
He has said that he wasn’t in Ukraine during Euromaiden, and he asserted that his work in Ukraine was “open, transparent and focused on doing all that I could to promote policies that were pro-Western” and focused on “moving Ukraine into the [European Union].”
Another revelation about Manafort’s work in Ukraine surfaced Monday night, when The New York Times reported on documents that it said appeared to show that the Party of Regions tried to hide a $750,000 payment to Manafort by funneling through an offshore account and disguising it as a payment for 501 computers.
A Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, who has alleged that Manafort was paid millions of dollars illegally by the Party of Regions, released the documents to the Times, and announced a Tuesday news conference in Kiev ostensibly to highlight them. Before the Times story posted, Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the documents would reveal “how Manafort legalized money paid by ousted President Yanukovych.”
A spokesman for Manafort told POLITICO that Leshchenko’s claims were “baseless.”