The Metals Magnate And Manafort: A Kremlin Confidant Is Drawn Into The Trump Investigation

A composite photo of Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman (right), and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.

WASHINGTON -- Paul Manafort was looking for an investor, and Oleg Deripaska was his man.

It was 2008, and a famed Manhattan building known as the Drake Hotel was being eyed by the American lobbyist and political adviser Manafort for purchase and development. On June 30, Manafort met with Deripaska, a Russian who had earned his fortune and reputation as a hard-knuckled, take-no-prisoners businessman in the 1990s consolidating control over Russia's metals industry.

According to a memo generated by Manafort's then-partner Rick Gates to two Deripaska associates, the Russian billionaire was definitely interested in investing, telling Manafort "to lock the other financing elements and then come back to him for the final piece of investment."

"Based on the interest in this opportunity expressed by Mr. D during his meeting with Paul, we would like to discuss the parameters of this deal with you further and as soon as possible," said the memo, which was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court on an unrelated dispute.

The Drake deal, which ultimately fell through, is one of many illustrating Manafort's dealings with Deripaska, whom U.S. officials consider to be a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller (file photo)

Those and other dealings are now under the glaring scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the U.S. special counsel investigating alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and contacts between Russian officials and associates of U.S. President Donald Trump. Three different congressional committees are also investigating.

In e-mails handed over to U.S. investigators, Manafort sought through "an overseas intermediary" of Deripaska to initiate "private briefings" in 2016, when Manafort was Trump's campaign chairman, The Washington Post reported on September 20.

U.S. media reports noted that there is no evidence that Deripaska took Manafort up on the alleged offer.

A spokesman for Manafort, Jason Maloni, said on September 21 that the investigations into Manafort's actions are "entirely politically motivated."

An official with Deripaska’s press office denied any interactions between the businessman and Manafort for years prior to 2016.

“Mr. Deripaska had no communications, meetings, briefings, or other interactions with Mr. Manafort during, after, or in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election. And in fact, Mr. Deripaska had not communicated with Mr. Manafort for years prior to 2016. Thus, any publication suggesting or implying that Mr. Deripaska directly or indirectly communicated with Mr. Manafort in 2016 would be a false statement of fact,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL.

Aluminum Fortunes

Deripaska has routinely figured on Kremlin invite lists for years, most recently at a gathering of key business leaders announced on September 21 that Russian media suggests was aimed at gauging the economic climate ahead of a presidential election in 2018.

Deripaska's net worth has been estimated at $5.3 billion by Forbes magazine, a fortune he built largely in the 1990s during a period some Russian media have dubbed the "aluminum wars."

Now 49, Deripaska was trained in physics at Moscow State University and later in economics at the Plekhanov Academy of Economics. Amid the often-haphazard mass privatization of state enterprises undertaken by then-President Boris Yeltsin, he founded a metals-trading operation, and in 1994 took control of a Siberian aluminum smelter. That was the seed for a company that became Basic Element, Deripaska's main investment vehicle.

The Moscow offices of United Company Rusal, one of the world's largest aluminum producers. (file photo)

In 2000, he became director general of Russian Aluminum, which later became United Company Rusal, one of the world's largest aluminum manufacturers. United Company Rusal and Basic Element oversee businesses ranging from aviation to agriculture, as well as metals smelters.

Deripaska has been dogged for years by reports of connections to suspected organized crime groups, including Semyon Mogilevich, a Russian businessman formerly on the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted List. Mogilevich was among those named in a lawsuit filed by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in which Manafort and Deripaska's possible business venture was detailed. Deripaska has repeatedly denied any criminal ties.

But, beginning in 2006, the State Department denied Deripaska a visa to enter the United States. The visa difficulties reportedly led him to enlist the lobbying influence of former Republican presidential candidate and Senate leader Bob Dole and, later, the work of one of Washington's well-known lobbying firms, BGR, run by a former chairman of the Republican Party.

Deripaska reportedly traveled to the United States in 2009 under what The Wall Street Journal said was a secret arrangement with the FBI.

In fact, one U.S. government official and court documents filed in another U.S. lawsuit assert that Deripaska managed to travel to the United States more than a half dozen times between 2011 and 2014 using a Russian government-issued diplomatic passport, underscoring Deripaska's political connections.

Kyiv Link

Sometime in the mid-2000s, Deripaska connected with a Russian named Konstantin Kilimnik, whose education at Russia's Military University for Foreign Languages has led to speculation that he is employed by intelligence agencies, something he has denied.

Kilimnik began working for Manafort in 2005, when Manafort was representing Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian oligarch who was said to be a financier of the Party of Regions of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's president from 2010 until mass unrest forced him from office in February 2014.

Reports from a "black ledger" in Ukraine indicating millions of dollars in payments were directed from Yanukovych's party to Manafort contributed to his exit from the Trump election campaign in August 2016.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov (file photo)

The Associated Press (AP) reported that Manafort proposed a plan in June 2005 to Deripaska that 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. The AP report, published in March, said Manafort eventually signed a contract worth $10 million with Deripaska. He had a business relationship with him until at least 2009.

Deripaska, who denied the report, later said he would sue AP for libel.

After Yanukovych's election in 2010, Kilimnik told RFE/RL that he spent 90 percent of his time inside the presidential administration, where he assisted Manafort.

In an interview earlier this year, Kilimnik told RFE/RL that, during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, he briefed Manafort on Ukraine issues. But he said he had been on Manafort's payroll since 2014.

The Washington Post said Manafort's offers to Deripaska were made via e-mails sent to Kilimnik. "If he needs private briefings we can accommodate," the July 7, 2016, e-mail, portions of which were read to the Post along with other Manafort correspondence, reportedly said.

Asked about his conversations with Manafort, Kilimnik told RFE/RL on September 21 that they discussed the U.S. election campaign, but he declined to describe the e-mail in detail or to say whether there was an effort to reach out to Deripaska.

"There were millions of emails. [...] we worked for 11 years. And we discussed a lot of issues, from Putin to women," Kilimnik said via text message.

"Of course we discussed trump and everything," he said in another message. "A lot of things. Our clients owe us money. Is there any violation of the law or proof of my work for KGB or whoever in those discussions?"

"On the political side there is no case that can be made about my involvement in the US elections," Kilimnik wrote in another September 21 message. "They are tough investigators and probably will get manafort for some financial crap. With that many years of international clients no one can be 100% clean."

CMZ And Pericles

Sometime around late 2006 or early 2007, Manafort and Rick Davis established a Cayman Islands-based private-equity fund called Pericles into which, according to U.S. court papers, Deripaska later invested $56 million as part of the abortive effort to buy the Drake Hotel. One of Manafort's business associates in New York was Brad Zackson, who worked in the 1990s as an exclusive broker for Donald Trump's now-deceased father, Fred.

Pericles, along with the Deripaska investment, also played a part in a bid to purchase a Ukrainian cable and Internet company. That effort later collapsed, and a lawsuit filed in a U.S. court in Virginia in 2015 by Deripaska's lawyers accused Manafort of a failure to pay Deripaska $19 million related to the failed investment.

The Drake Hotel real estate is not the only investment Manafort has undertaken that has come under scrutiny. Several townhouses and condominiums in New York and elsewhere are reportedly being examined by U.S. investigators and New York Attorney General's offices, including the loans that Manafort used to buy the properties.

With contributions by RFE/RL correspondent Christopher Miller in Kyiv