Exclusive: Trump ally met WikiLeaks founder months before emails hacked by Russia were published
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, the Guardian has been told.
Sources have said Manafort went to see Assange in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016 – during the period when he was made a key figure in Trump’s push for the White House.
It is unclear why Manafort wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
A well-placed source has told the Guardian that Manafort went to see Assange around March 2016. Months later WikiLeaks released a stash of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers.
Manafort, 69, denies involvement in the hack and says the claim is “100% false”. His lawyers declined to answer the Guardian’s questions about the visits.
Manafort was jailed this year and was thought to have become a star cooperator in the Mueller inquiry. But on Monday Mueller said Manafort had repeatedly lied to the FBI, despite agreeing to cooperate two months ago in a plea deal. According to a court document, Manafort had committed “crimes and lies” on a “variety of subject matters”.
His defence team says he believes what he has told Mueller to be truthful and has not violated his deal.
Manafort’s first visit to the embassy took place a year after Assange sought asylum inside, two sources said.
A separate internal document written by Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency and seen by the Guardian lists “Paul Manaford [sic]” as one of several well-known guests. It also mentions “Russians”.
According to two sources, Manafort returned to the embassy in 2015. He paid another visit in spring 2016, turning up alone, around the time Trump named him as his convention manager. The visit is tentatively dated to March.
Manafort’s 2016 visit to Assange lasted about 40 minutes, one source said, adding that the American was casually dressed when he exited the embassy, wearing sandy-coloured chinos, a cardigan and a light-coloured shirt.
Visitors normally register with embassy security guards and show their passports. Sources in Ecuador, however, say Manafort was not logged.
Embassy staff were aware only later of the potential significance of Manafort’s visit and his political role with Trump, it is understood.
The revelation could shed new light on the sequence of events in the run-up to summer 2016, when WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails hacked by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Hillary Clinton has said the hack contributed to her defeat.
The previously unreported Manafort-Assange connection is likely to be of interest to Mueller, who has been investigating possible contacts between WikiLeaks and associates of Trump including the political lobbyist Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr.
One key question is when the Trump campaign was aware of the Kremlin’s hacking operation – and what, if anything, it did to encourage it. Trump has repeatedly denied collusion.
Earlier this year Mueller indicted 12 GRU intelligence officers for carrying out the hack, which began in March 2016.
In June of that year WikiLeaks emailed the GRU via an intermediary seeking the DNC material. After failed attempts, Vladimir Putin’s spies sent the documents in mid-July to WikiLeaks as an encrypted attachment.
According to sources, Manafort’s acquaintance with Assange goes back at least five years, to late 2012 or 2013, when the American was working in Ukraine and advising its Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Why Manafort sought out Assange in 2013 is unclear. During this period the veteran consultant was involved in black operations against Yanukovych’s chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych had jailed. Manafort ran an extensive lobbying operation featuring European former politicians.