New York: Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman who awaits sentencing for lying to federal investigators in breach of a plea agreement, flew to Ecuador to help negotiate a deal for the handover of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Washington, a media report said.
The New York Times report on Monday said that Manafort made the trip mainly to see if he could broker a deal under which China would invest in Ecuador’s power system.
But the talks instead turned to a diplomatic point between the US and Ecuador: the fate of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
In at least two meetings with Manafort, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno and his aides discussed their desire to rid themselves of Assange, who has been holed up in the country’s Embassy in London since 2012, in exchange for concessions like debt relief from the US, informed sources told The Times.
They said Manafort suggested he could help negotiate a deal for the handover of Assange to the US, which has long investigated him for the disclosure of secret documents.
Within a couple of days of Manafort’s final meeting in Quito, Robert Mueller was appointed as the Special Counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters, and it quickly became clear that Manafort was a primary target.
His talks with Ecuador ended without any deals.
According to the sources, there was no evidence that Manafort was working with or even briefing Trump or other administration officials on his discussions with the Ecuadoreans about Assange.
Manafort and WikiLeaks have both denied a recent report in The Guardian that the former campaign chairman visited Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
In response to the development, Jason Maloni, a spokesman for Manafort, said that it was Moreno who broached the issue of Assange and “his desire to remove Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy”.
Manafort “listened but made no promises as this was ancillary to the purpose of the meeting”, said Maloni.
Manafort will tentatively face sentencing on March 5, a federal judge ruled last week.
The ruling came days after Mueller accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to federal investigators, breaching his plea deal he signed in September.
He is currently in jail in Alexandria, Virginia.