White House officials are trying to distance themselves from former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose financial ties to Russia are being probed by federal investigators, but his longtime associate remains active in the president's operations.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined Wednesday to discuss revelations that Manafort been paid to promote Russian interests 12 years ago in the U.S., saying it would be "inappropriate" to comment on someone who wasn't a White House employee -- but his former deputy Rick Gates was there just last week for a meeting with the president, reported the Washington Post.
Gates, who also worked with the same Russian oligarch who reportedly paid Manafort $10 million to promote Russian interests, leads the outside group America First Policies to push Trump's agenda.
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America First Policies was announced Jan. 31, and Kellyanne Conway promoted its importance, but little work has been done besides an initial press release and some social media activity after reporters began poking around its operations.
He started working with Manafort in 2006, a year after the Republican strategist struck a deal with Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and Vladimir Putin ally.
Gates told the Post that he also worked with Deripaska, who has been denied entry to the U.S. over his alleged ties to organized crime, to support a private equity fund started by Manafort's firm and "democracy building and party building in Ukraine.”
He also took part in at least two other recent deals involving Putin-connected oligarchs, including one that ended with Deripaska suing both Gates and Manafort.
The firm pitched Deripaska on a $200 million private equity partnership focused on Russia and Ukraine, and the arrangement was set up in 2007 in the Cayman Islands, but the relationship had disintegrated by 2014, when Deripaska sued Manafort and Gates over $19 million in unaccounted funds intended for the purchase of a Ukrainian cable provider.
The pair eventually stopped answering Deripaska's requests to show how the money had been used or return it to the investor, according to the lawsuit.
“It appears that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates have simply disappeared,” claimed the lawsuit, which a Deripaska spokeswoman said might still be pending.
Manafort and Gates were also named in a 2014 racketeering lawsuit involving Ukrainian oligarch named Dmitry Firtash, who also has ties to Putin.
That suit, which was later dismissed, claimed Manafort and Gates helped Firtash launder ill-gotten gains as part of an $850 million deal to build luxury housing at the site of the Drake Hotel in New York City.
Firtash was indicted with five others in 2013 with paying $18.5 million in bribes to Indian officials so they could mine titanium and sell it to Boeing Corporation to build the 787 Dreamliner jet, and he's currently fighting extradition to the U.S.
Manafort and Gates promoted the pro-Russian Party of Regions on behalf of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and introduced the pro-Yanukovych European Center for a Modern Ukraine to the lobbying firms Mercury LLC and the Podesta Group.
Both of those Washington-based lobbying firms hired outside investigators to determine whether they'd been misled by Gates.
Gates was named the Trump campaign’s liaison to the Republican National Committee just hours after Manafort quit his unpaid chairmanship in August over his alleged financial ties to Russia.
He left that role, in which he maintained offices at both the RNC and Trump Tower, two weeks later after former Citizens United head David Bossie -- who is putting together a potential rival group to America First Policies -- was named deputy campaign manager.
Gates was blamed by campaign sources for Melania Trump's RNC speech that included a plagiarized portion of a speech given by former first lady Michelle Obama, although he denies the claims.