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Opinion Russian billionaire attempts to stifle AP scoop

Paul Manafort talks to reporters last year on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

The Associated Press last week landed an exclusive on the timely topic of links between intimates of President Trump and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Long before signing on as Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort proposed to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska “a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse,” reported Jeff Horwitz and Chad Day.

According to the AP, Manafort signed a $10 million contract starting in 2006 and maintained a “business relationship” with Deripaska until at least 2009. A longtime Republican campaign operative, Manafort confirmed to the AP that he had worked for Deripaska, though he “denied his work had been pro-Russian in nature.” A Deripaska rep issued this statement: “There was an agreement between Mr. Deripaska and Mr. Manafort to provide investment consulting services related to business interests of Mr Deripaska which now is a subject to legal claims.”

Such allegations and confirmations couldn’t possibly have landed in a more responsive news environment. There are two congressional investigations and an FBI probe into whether Trump campaign officials coordinated in any way with Russian officials interested in influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign. Thus far, investigators have found no evidence of collusion, as the New York Times has reported.

Perhaps this backdrop explains why Deripaska today took out paid advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and The Post to denounce the AP’s reporting.

Citing the AP’s contention that he contracted with Manafort to “greatly benefit the Putin government,” Deripaska pushes back: “I want to resolutely deny this malicious assertion and lie. I have never made any commitments or contracts with the obligation or purpose to covertly promote or advance ‘Putin’s Government’ interests anywhere in the world,” writes Deripaska. And sounding a bit litigious, Deripaska further states that “misleading stories like this one create a defamatory news flow and generate background information based on complete lies.”

Then comes the real purpose behind Deripaska’s ad: “I demand that any and all further dissemination of these allegations, by the AP or any other media outlet, must cease immediately.”

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Sorry, Mr. Deripaska, but that’s not the way it works here. You cannot demand the cessation of media reporting on these allegations, especially on a day when you yourself took out paid advertisements that itself recycle those very allegations.

The gripe here appears to concern precisely what Manafort did for Deripaska, since there is no dispute that there was a paid business relationship. Deripaska’s rep insists that the work was narrowly aimed at improving the oligarch’s business interests; the AP, based on documents, takes a broader interpretation. “AP Exclusive: Before Trump job, Manafort worked to aid Putin,” reads the story’s headline. To bolster that claim, the AP cites, in part, a memo from Manafort that “proposed extending his existing work in eastern Europe to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Georgia, where he pledged to bolster the legitimacy of governments friendly to Putin and undercut anti-Russian figures through political campaigns, nonprofit front groups and media operations.”

Should Deripaska wish to get into the finer points of Manafort’s undertakings, perhaps he should provide more details on the scope of work. Until then, we’ll just note the rather bulky overlap between the interests of Deripaska and Putin. And one thing: Why can’t a bona fide Russian billionaire/oligarch do a bit better than a quarter-page newspaper ad? Was a full-pager really going to break the budget of this aluminum magnate?

For its part, AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We stand by our reporting.” There has been no retraction or correction request from Deripaska, says Easton in an email.

ean Spicer said using Paul Manafort as an example to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is "ridiculous." (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: Jabin Bostford/The Washington Post)