WASHINGTON (TheBlaze/AP) — A firm run by Donald Trump's campaign chairman directly orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine's then-ruling political party, attempting to sway American public opinion in favor of the country's pro-Russian government, emails obtained by The Associated Press show. Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
Campaign chairman Paul Manafort checks the podium before Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an event at Trump SoHo Hotel, June 22, 2016 in New York City. Trump's remarks focused on criticisms of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The lobbying included attempts to gain positive press coverage of Ukrainian officials by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and AP. Another goal: undercutting American public sympathy for the imprisoned rival of Ukraine's then-president. At the time, European and American leaders were pressuring Ukraine to free her.
Gates, who worked for Manafort's political consulting firm at the time, personally directed the work of two prominent Washington lobbying firms in the matter, the emails show.
However, as the New York Times pointed out in an article published late Thursday night, Vitaly A. Kalyuzhny, who was once chairman of the Ukraine Parliament’s International Relations Committee, signed receipts for payments to Manafort from 2007-2012.
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Mr. Kalyuzhny was also a founding board member of a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, that hired the Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm that received $1.02 million to promote an agenda generally aligned with the Party of Regions.
Because the payment was made through a nongovernmental organization, the Podesta Group did not register as a lobbyist for a foreign entity. A co-founder of the Podesta Group, John D. Podesta, is chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and his brother, Tony Podesta, runs the firm now.
Manafort has denied reports that he accepted covert payments, calling those claims "unfounded, silly and nonsensical."
On Friday, however, Manafort resigned from his position on the Trump campaign, citing the distractions. The move came just days after a campaign shake-up that brought in Breitbart editor Steve Bannon and conservative operative KellyAnn Conway.
In this Jan. 24, 2013 file photo, Executive Producer Stephen Bannon poses at the premiere of "Sweetwater" during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Republican Donald Trump is overhauling his campaign again, bringing in Breitbart News' Bannon as campaign CEO and promoting pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager. Trump told The Associated Press in a phone interview early Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, that he has known both individuals for a long time. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)
Manafort's and Gates' activities carry outsized importance, since they have steered Trump's campaign since April. The pair also played a formative role building out Trump's campaign operation after pushing out an early rival. Trump shook up his campaign's organization again this week, but Manafort and Gates retain their titles and much of their influence. The new disclosures about their work come as Trump faces criticism for his friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Neither Gates nor Manafort commented when reached by the AP on Thursday. The two men have previously said they were not doing work that required them to register as foreign agents.
The emails show Gates directed Washington lobbying firms, Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group Inc., between 2012 and 2014 to set up meetings between a top Ukrainian official and senators and congressman on influential committees involving Ukrainian interests. Gates noted in the emails that the official, the foreign minister, did not want to use his own embassy in the United States to help coordinate the visits.
Gates also told the firms to gather information in the U.S. on a rival lobbying operation, including a review of its public lobbying disclosures, to determine who was behind that effort, the emails show.
And Gates pushed the firms to undercut sympathy for Yulia Tymoshenko, an imprisoned rival of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian leader eventually fled the country in February 2014 during a popular revolt prompted in part by his government's crackdown on protesters and close ties to Russia.
The emails do not describe details about the role of Manafort, who was Gates' boss at the firm, DMP International LLC. Current and former employees at Mercury and the Podesta Group, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they are subject to non-disclosure agreements, told the AP that Manafort oversaw the lobbying efforts and spoke by phone about them. Gates was directing actions and seeking information using an email address at DMP International, which he still uses.
Ukraine's anti-corruption body, meantime, has released entries from once-secret accounting documents that purport to show payments from the pro-Russian political party earmarked for Manafort.
The documents now released show Manafort's name listed as a recipient of funds totaling $12.7 million in 22 line-item entries. Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau said, however, that it cannot prove that Manafort actually received the money because other people including a prominent Party of the Regions deputy signed for him in those entries.
Manafort did not return phone and email messages Thursday from the AP to discuss the project. Gates said he was busy with Trump campaign focus groups and would review the AP's questions in writing then did not respond.
After AP reported earlier this week that Manafort helped the Ukrainian political party secretly route at least $2.2 million to the two Washington lobbying firms, Manafort told Yahoo News that AP's account was wrong. "I was not involved in any payment plans," Manafort said.
Gates previously told the AP, "At no time did our firm or members provide any direct lobbying support." Gates has confirmed previously to AP that he did work for Ukraine's ruling party, the Party of Regions.
Under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the Justice Department. A violation is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
None of the firms, nor Manafort or Gates, disclosed their work to the Justice Department counterespionage division responsible for tracking the lobbying by foreign governments.
Manafort and Gates have said that they did not disclose their activities to the Justice Department because they did not oversee lobbying efforts and merely introduced the Washington firms to a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, which they said ran the project. The center paid Mercury and the Podesta Group a combined $2.2 million over roughly two years.
In papers filed in the U.S. Senate, Mercury and the Podesta Group listed the European nonprofit as an independent, nonpolitical client. The firms said the center stated in writing that it was not aligned with any foreign political entity.