Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, offered to help Ecuador’s then newly elected president Lenín Moreno hand over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S., sources told The New York Times.
The subject of Assange’s asylum status at Ecuador’s London embassy came up on a trip Manafort made to Quito, Ecuador, in May 2017, three sources told the Times.
Manafort had arranged the meeting to offer a deal to help secure Chinese investment in Ecuador’s power system. During discussions, Moreno and his aides reportedly expressed their desire for Assange to leave the embassy, where he has been holed up since 2012, in exchange for U.S. debt relief, according to the report.
Manafort offered to arrange for Assange to be handed over to the U.S., where he has been investigated for the leak of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010.
In a statement to CNN, a spokesman for Manafort confirmed the discussions about Assange had taken place—but said that Manafort had made no promises.
“When Mr. Manafort met with President Moreno of Ecuador to discuss the China Development Fund, the president raised with Mr. Manafort his desire to remove Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy,” Jason Maloni, a Manafort spokesman, told CNN in a statement.
“Mr. Manafort listened but made no promises as this was ancillary to the purpose of the meeting,” Maloni’s statement added. “There was no mention of Russia at the meeting.”
The talks ultimately came to nothing, as within a few days of the meeting Robert Mueller was appointed the Justice Department’s Special Counsel to probe allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and it soon became clear that Manafort would be a target of the investigation.
There is no suggestion that Manafort was working with the Trump administration or briefing administration officials during the visit, according to the Times.
WikiLeaks has come under scrutiny for its 2016 publication of emails stolen from Democratic servers by Russian intelligence agents containing damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival during the 2016 presidential election.
Manafort has denied a report in the Guardian that he visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy three times between 2013 and 2016.
The Times reported that there is no evidence to suggest that Manafort’s offer regarding Assange was motivated by Assange’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election.
The Mueller probe is considering bringing new charges against Manafort, who it claims has violated the terms of a plea deal he struck with prosecutors by lying. Manafort pleaded guilty earlier in the year to charges of conspiracy and witness tampering, and publicly admitted financial and lobbying crimes.