The London-based Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday that Paul Manafort met privately with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in the same month that Manafort joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, a meeting that could carry vast implications for the investigation of Russia’s election meddling.
The alleged meeting took place in March 2016 inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, where Assange has sought refuge for several years to avoid potential prosecution, the newspaper reported. Four months later, in July 2016, WikiLeaks began releasing a flood of Democratic Party emails that U.S. officials say had been hacked by Russian operatives.
Manafort, who was named Trump’s campaign chairman in June 2016, was convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion in August this year. On Tuesday, he denied any meeting with Assange, calling the Guardian report “totally false and deliberately libelous.”
“I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him,” Manafort, who is in jail awaiting sentencing, said is a statement issued through a spokesman. “I have never been contacted by anyone connected to WikiLeaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or WikiLeaks on any matter.”
A clear connection between Manafort and Assange, if it exists, could be key evidence for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the investigation into whether anyone from Trump’s team illegally conspired with Russians to influence the presidential election.
A dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted in July for stealing tens of thousands of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign and then leaking them to WikiLeaks as part of a covert Moscow effort to boost Trump’s campaign and undermine his Democratic rival.
The alleged Manafort-Assange meetings could not be independently confirmed. WikiLeaks denied the story on Twitter, saying the Guardian report was destined to become “one of the most infamous news disasters.”
The special counsel’s office declined comment. A representative for Ecuador's foreign relations ministry also declined to comment on the Guardian report.
Manafort’s court case has been in turmoil in recent days.
A Republican political operative turned international lobbyist, he was convicted by a federal court in Virginia in August for his role in a massive financial fraud scheme stemming from his work for Ukraine’s former government. He later pleaded guilty to related charges in Washington, D.C., and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors on Mueller’s team.
But the special counsel’s office said late Monday that Manafort had violated his plea agreement by repeatedly lying to federal investigators. Prosecutors said they would file another court document that “sets forth the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies.”
Manafort’s defense lawyers said he “believes he has provided truthful information,” but they agreed to move forward with sentencing. A date has not been set.
Special correspondent Pablo Jaramillo Viteri in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.