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Manafort is gone, but his business associate remains a key part of Trump’s operation

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, is the “subject of rampant media speculation.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House on Wednesday sought to again distance itself from President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who is under increasing scrutiny over his connections to Russian business interests.

But even as Trump officials downplay Manafort’s role, his ­decade-long business associate Rick Gates remains entrenched in the president’s operation. Gates is one of four people leading a Trump-blessed group that defends the president’s agenda. As recently as last week, he was at the White House to meet with officials as part of that work.

Through Manafort, Gates is tied to many of the same business titans from Ukraine and Russia, including Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with strong ties to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Manafort had a multimillion-dollar contract with Deripaska between at least 2005 and 2009 that was aimed at helping the political interests of Putin.

Manafort has acknowledged the contract with Deripaska but denied that it, or any other of their dealings, had anything to do with the Russian government. In a brief interview, Gates described his work as being focused on “supporting the private equity fund started by the firm and democracy building and party building in Ukraine.”

Gates also acknowledged a role in at least two recent, controversial deals involving separate Putin-connected oligarchs, including one other with Deripaska. Both led to lawsuits in which Gates was listed as a partner to Manafort, though Gates said he holds no equity interest in the firm.

As a lobbyist and political consultant in the 1980s, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked with clients that included two dictators. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Potential connections between Trump’s associates and the Russian government gained renewed interest this week after FBI Director James B. Comey publicly confirmed Monday that his agency is actively investigating whether there was collusion between the two sides. Manafort and Gates said they had not been contacted by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.

Gates and Manafort are two of many Trump associates with connections to Russia, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Carter Page, a former Trump foreign policy adviser; and Roger Stone, a Trump ally who claimed to have communicated indirectly with WikiLeaks before emails hacked by Russian agents were published last summer. All have denied any wrongdoing and said their alleged ties to Russia are being exaggerated to undermine the president.

Manafort’s role in potential dealings with Russia gained new attention Wednesday when the AP reported that Manafort proposed in 2005 a plan to influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government. Gates did not join the firm until the following year.

Manafort said Wednesday that his work for Deripaska was designed to benefit the Russian business executive’s company, Rusal, not the Russian government.

“I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company,” Manafort said in a statement Wednesday. “I did not work for the Russian government. Once again, smear and innuendo are being used to paint a false picture.”

Asked about the AP report at his daily briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday, “Nothing in this morning’s report references any actions by the president, the White House or any Trump administration official.”

In the mid-1990s, Manafort and Richard H. Davis, a longtime Republican political consultant, formed Davis Manafort. Gates joined the firm in 2006.

That year, the firm wooed Deripaska as a client, telling him that their goal was to set up a $200 million fund to make a series of private equity investments and acquisitions, primarily in Russia and Ukraine, according to documents in the lawsuit. The partnership making the investments was created in the Cayman Islands in 2007.

By 2014, relations between Manafort and Gates and Derispaska had soured considerably.

That year, Gates and Manafort were sued by Deripaska, who accused them in a Cayman Islands court of taking nearly $19 million intended for investments, then failing to account for the funds, return them or respond to numerous inquiries about exactly how the money was used.

At one point, attorneys for Deripaska claimed that they could not locate Manafort or Gates. The Russian tycoon hired a private investigator to track them down, according to a 2014 petition that Deripaska’s attorneys filed in a Cayman Islands court seeking recovery of the money.

“It appears that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates have simply disappeared,” the petition stated.

A spokeswoman for Deripaska issued a statement Wednesday in Moscow indicating that the suit may still be pending. Vera Kurochkina, the spokeswoman, said that Deripaska did not pay Manafort for Russia-related work but instead paid him for investment consulting that is “the subject of legal claims.”

Manafort’s attorney, Richard Hibey, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the status of the Cayman Islands dispute.

Deripaska's ties to Putin are so close that Russia's foreign minister has asked U.S. secretary of states for more than a decade to help Deripaska secure a visa to enter the United States. According to a 2007 account in the Wall Street Journal, Deripaska had been denied admission by the Justice Department because of alleged ties to organized crime.

As recently as 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry for assistance in getting a visa for the aluminum magnate.

In 2014, Manafort and Gates were also named in a different lawsuit alleging that they were helping a Ukrainian oligarch named Dmitry Firtash, who has ties to Putin. In attempting to put together an $850 million deal to build luxury housing on the site of the Drake Hotel in New York City, the legal complaint alleged, Manafort and Gates were investing ill-gotten gains Firtash received for an energy deal he had done with a Russian firm. That lawsuit was dismissed.

During that same time, Manafort and Gates were active in Washington promoting the policy priorities of the political party of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after violent street protests against him broke out in Kiev in late 2014. Between 2012 and 2014, Gates arranged introductions for two Washington lobbying firms — the Podesta Group and Mercury LLC — to represent the European Center for a Modern Ukraine.

Alice Crites, David Nakamura and Adam Entous contributed to this report.