Back during the Thanksgiving break, Ed looked at a report which suggested that Paul Manafort might have held a series of meetings with Julian Assange over a period of a few years. This was a story that Manafort labeled as being “totally false and deliberately libelous” when asked to comment on it. But just how false was it?
Reporters have been digging into the background of this story and the New York Times claims to have come up with assertions which suggest that Manafort had a keen interest in the status of the Wikileaks founder right up until he was first charged in the Mueller probe last year. Keeping in mind that this is yet another story based entirely on anonymous sources, the Times asserts that Manafort had been in negotiations with Ecuador to give up Assange to the United States in exchange for some other considerations involving a deal with China.
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.
Assuming this report is credible (take that as you will), it ties a few different stories together in an interesting fashion. First, let’s keep the timeline of Manafort’s rise and fall in mind. These meetings in Ecuador supposedly took place in the late spring of 2017. Manafort was part of Trump’s campaign team in a couple of different positions from March through August of 2016, so this was all well after he was out the door.
Still, if Manafort was shopping for clients and saw the possibility of a deal with Ecuador in the spring of 2017, this isn’t exactly a crazy sounding story. He could easily have been trying to trade on his reputation as a Trump insider who may have been officially uninvolved with the administration but could still put a bug in Trump’s ear and perhaps cut a deal.
This doesn’t mean that the White House was in on these supposed talks. The Times report goes on to admit that 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.”
But if the US government was really already preparing arrest warrants for Assange, Manafort would have known this was a hot topic and an area where a deal could be made. He was allegedly trying to leverage his contacts and get China to invest in Ecuador as part of the deal, complicating it further. But we saw rumors last year that Assange was “considering” going to Washington to testify, provided he was given immunity. It does make you wonder who all was involved in these negotiations and how close they came to getting Ecuador to shove Assange out the embassy door and perhaps into the waiting hands of some combination of British and American agents.
As soon as it became apparent that Manafort was going down in the Mueller probe, Ecuador allegedly cut him out of the negotiations, but Ecuador went on to continue talking to the US Justice Department about these matters. That would have left Manfort without a client or a paycheck. Again, these are all allegations at this point, but none of it is particularly tough to believe.