Manafort Tried to Broker Deal With Ecuador to Hand Assange Over to U.S.



In mid-May 2017, Paul Manafort, facing intensifying pressure to settle debts and pay mounting legal bills, flew to Ecuador to offer his services to a potentially lucrative new client — the country’s incoming president, Lenín Moreno.

Mr. Manafort made the trip mainly to see if he could broker a deal under which China would invest in Ecuador’s power system, possibly yielding a fat commission for Mr. Manafort.

But the talks turned to a diplomatic sticking point between the United States and Ecuador: the fate of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

In at least two meetings with Mr. Manafort, Mr. Moreno and his aides discussed their desire to rid themselves of Mr. Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, in exchange for concessions like debt relief from the United States, according to three people familiar with the talks, the details of which have not been previously reported.

They said Mr. Manafort suggested he could help negotiate a deal for the handover of Mr. Assange to the United States, which has long investigated Mr. Assange for the disclosure of secret documents and which later filed charges against him that have not yet been made public.

Within a couple of days of Mr. Manafort’s final meeting in Quito, Robert S. Mueller III was appointed as the special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters, and it quickly became clear that Mr. Manafort was a primary target. His talks with Ecuador ended without any deals.

There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort was working with — or even briefing — President Trump or other administration officials on his discussions with the Ecuadoreans about Mr. Assange. Nor is there any evidence that his brief involvement in the talks was motivated by concerns about the role that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks played in facilitating the Russian effort to help Mr. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, or the investigation into possible coordination between Mr. Assange and Mr. Trump’s associates, which has become a focus for Mr. Mueller.

Mr. Manafort and WikiLeaks have both denied a recent report in The Guardian that Mr. Manafort visited Mr. Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

But the revelations about Mr. Manafort’s discussions in 2017 about Mr. Assange in Quito underscore how his self-styled role as an international influence broker intersected with the questions surrounding the Trump campaign.

And the episode shows how after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Manafort sought to cash in on his brief tenure as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman even as investigators were closing in.

The Ecuadoreans continued to explore the possibility of Chinese investment, but with the United States Justice Department and intelligence agencies stepping up their pursuit of Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks, Mr. Moreno’s team increasingly looked to resolve their Assange problem by turning to Russia.

In the months after Mr. Moreno took office, the Ecuadorean government granted citizenship to Mr. Assange and secretly pursued a plan to provide him a diplomatic post in Russia as a way to free him from confinement in the embassy in London. (That plan was ultimately dropped in the face of opposition from British authorities, who have said they will arrest Mr. Assange if he leaves the embassy.)

Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Mr. Manafort, said that it was Mr. Moreno — not Mr. Manafort — who broached the issue of Mr. Assange and “his desire to remove Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy.” Mr. Manafort “listened but made no promises as this was ancillary to the purpose of the meeting,” said Mr. Maloni, adding, “There was no mention of Russia at the meeting.”

Late last year, Mr. Mueller’s team charged Mr. Manafort with a host of lobbying, money laundering and tax violations in connection with his consulting work for Russia-aligned interests in Ukraine before the 2016 election. Mr. Manafort was convicted of some of the crimes and pleaded guilty to others as part of an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors. But prosecutors said last week that he violated the deal by repeatedly lying to them. Mr. Manafort remains in solitary confinement in a federal detention center in Alexandria, Va., waiting for a judge to set a sentencing date.

The trip to Ecuador was part of a whirlwind world tour that represented the last gasps of Mr. Manafort’s once lucrative career.

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