Politics

Ex-Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort strongly denies secret meeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after bombshell Guardian report

Key Points
  • Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort strongly denied a report Tuesday that he had secretly met with Julian Assange several times in the WikiLeaks founder's refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in recent years.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly is investigating a meeting last year between  Manafort and the president of Ecuador, and is particularly interested in whether the two men talked about the document disclosure group WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
  • On Monday, Mueller's office told a federal judge that Manafort had violated a plea agreement and broken the law by lying to FBI agents and prosecutors during interviews conducted after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy related to his past work for politicians in Ukraine.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
Peter Nicholls | Reuters

Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort strongly denied a report Tuesday that he had secretly met with Julian Assange several times in the WikiLeaks founder's refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in recent years.

Manafort, in a statement through his spokesman, called the article from The Guardian "totally false and deliberately libelous."

"I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him," said Manafort, who is in jail waiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in September.

"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," Manafort said. "We are considering all legal options against the Guardian who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false."

WikiLeaks later said that Assange has told his lawyers to sue The Guardian for libel, and has created a legal fund to pay for that court action.

The statements capped a headspinng series of stories related to Manafort and Assange in recent days.

On Tuesday, The Guardian newspaper, citing sources, reported that Manafort secretly visited Assange several times inside Ecuador's embassy in London between 2013 and 2016.

Then, CNN reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating a meeting last year between Manafort and the president of Ecuador, and that Mueller was particularly interested in whether the two men talked about the document disclosure group WikiLeaks and Assange.

Ecuador's president, Lenin Moreno, said last November that he met with Manafort in the nation's capital Quito in May 2017. Moreno said the meeting included representatives of a Chinese company who wanted to privatize a state-owned electric company. The meeting occurred before Manafort was indicted by a federal grand jury at the request of Mueller's office.

"Moreno ... didn't say if other issues were discussed," the Associated Press reported in a November 2017 article about the meeting.

The last of those alleged visits came around March 2016, several months before WikiLeaks released a trove of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee by members of Russian intelligence, according to The Guardian.

The newspaper noted that Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, has said that the theft of those email contributed to her defeat in the presidential election. Mueller was already known to be eyeing the WikiLeaks dump of the emails.

On Monday night, Mueller's office told a federal judge in Washington, D.C. in a court filing that Manafort had violated a plea agreement and broken the law by lying to FBI agents and prosecutors during interviews conducted after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy related to his past work for politicians in Ukraine. That work predated his tenure with the Trump campaign.

Both Mueller and Manafort's lawyers, who disputed the special counsel's claim, asked the judge to set a sentencing date for Manafort.

Mueller's spokesman declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.

Manafort's lawyers have not responded to request for comment from NBC News. The Ecuadorean embassy in London declined to comment.

Assange's lawyer in the United Kingdom, Jennifer Robinson, told NBC News in a text messsage, "No such meetings happened. Total fabrication. Wikileaks has put out denial."

WikiLeaks tweeted its denial:

Assange has been holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London under a grant of asylum since August 2012 after jumping bail in the United Kingdom England, where he had unsuccessfully fought an extradition request from Sweden, where he was being investigated for alleged rape.

Two weeks ago, a court filing by U.S. federal prosecutors in an unrelated case in Virginia that mentioned Assange came to light. That filing said"due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged."

That filing was the first time that American authorities had said Assange has been criminally charged, or that they were preparing to charge him.

Prosecutors on Monday objected to an effort to unseal whay made be a sealed criminal complaint against Assange.