WASHINGTON -- The White House has said that President Donald Trump did not know his former campaign chairman had worked for a Kremlin-connected Russian billionaire and had proposed a political strategy to benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer on March 22 insisted the work that Paul Manafort did for Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska had taken place a decade ago and was irrelevant to Manafort's job with Trump's election campaign last year.
Spicer's remarks followed an explosive Associated Press (AP) report that said Manafort's proposed plan was aimed at influencing politics, business dealings, and news coverage across the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet Union in ways that would favor Putin.
His comments also came as Trump's administration continues to be dogged by allegations that his aides were in contact with Russian officials during the election campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies released a report in January assessing that Russia conducted a hacking-and-influence campaign aimed at denigrating Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
FBI Director James Comey on March 22 confirmed that the agency began investigating possible links between Trump aides and Russian officials in July, a month before Manafort left the campaign.
Manafort proposed the plan to Deripaska as early as June 2005, AP said, and eventually signed a contract worth $10 million with the tycoon. The two men had a business relationship until at least 2009.
The AP report appears to contradict earlier statements by the Trump administration, and Manafort himself, that he had never worked for Russian interests.
Manafort resigned as chairman of Trump's presidential campaign in August 2016 following reports of illicit payments related to his previous work for the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was ousted in February 2014.
Manafort confirmed to AP that he worked for Deripaska. But he said that the work "did not involve representing Russian political interests" and was being unfairly depicted as "inappropriate or nefarious" as part of a "smear campaign."
Manafort did not immediately respond to phone calls and text messages from RFE/RL seeking comment.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Spicer said that the work Manafort did for Deripaska happened long before his tenure with the Trump campaign. And he said the Trump campaign did not have the ability to vet all of its employees' clienteles.
Spicer: Suggestion 'A Bit Insane'
"The report is entirely focused on actions that Paul took a decade ago," Spicer said. "To suggest that the president knew who [Manafort's] clients were from 10 years ago is a bit insane."
In addition to contributing to his resignation as campaign chairman, Manafort's work for Ukrainian clients has drawn scrutiny in Ukraine itself. A Ukrainian lawmaker on March 21 released documents that he said showed that Manafort went to great lengths to hide $750,000 tied to his work for Yanukovych.
Deripaska, meanwhile, is one of Russia's wealthiest businessman, whose company, Basic Element, is a massive industrial conglomerate employing thousands of people. The holding includes Russia's largest aluminum company, UC Rusal.
Like many of Russia's tycoons, he built his fortune in the 1990s, when the business environment in Russia was characterized by bare-knuckled and often violent practices.
He has faced persistent allegations of ties to organized crime that has prompted the U.S. State Department to refuse him an entry visa since the early 2000s. In 2005, he was granted a limited-entry visa, but it was later revoked after doubts were raised about statements he made to U.S. officials.
Deripaska has repeatedly denied he has any connections to organized crime.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that Deripaska received another limited entry visa at the behest of the FBI, and that he visited the country twice that year.
One U.S. government official has told RFE/RL that Deripaska has continued to visit the United States despite not having a valid visa, using a diplomatic passport issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
An e-mail sent by RFE/RL to Basic Element's press office was not immediately returned. AP said that a spokesman for Deripaska declined to answer questions about Manafort.
Deripaska has hired some of Washington's top lobbying firms to advocate on his behalf, including former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in the mid-2000s, and in 2009, another lobbying company, Endeavor Group.
A year later, Endeavor Group filed paperwork showing it was also working on behalf of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with the aim of "gathering information and providing advice and analysis as it relates to the U.S. policy towards the visa status of Oleg Deripaska."
Deripaska's company has retained other powerful lobbying groups as well, including Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, headed by the former chairman of the Republican Party, Haley Barbour.
AP cited a U.S. official as saying on condition of anonymity that Manafort has been a leading focus of the U.S. intelligence investigation.
With reporting by AP