Ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort approved ‘black ops’ to help Ukraine president

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Exclusive: Paul Manafort authorised secret media operation that sought to discredit key opponent of then Ukrainian president

Donald Trumps former campaign manager Paul Manafort authorised a secret media operation on behalf of Ukraines former president, featuring black ops, placed articles in the Wall Street Journal and US websites, and anonymous briefings against Hillary Clinton.

The project was designed to boost the reputation of Ukraines then leader, Viktor Yanukovych. It was part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort carried out by Manafort on behalf of Yanukovychs embattled government, emails and documents reveal.

The strategies included:

Proposing to rewrite Wikipedia entries to smear a key opponent of the then Ukrainian president.

Setting up a fake thinktank in Vienna to disseminate viewpoints supporting Yanukovych.

A social media blitz aimed at targeted audiences in Europe and the US.

Briefing journalists from the rightwing website Breitbart to attack Clinton, when she was US secretary of state.

Manaforts Ukraine strategy anticipates later efforts by the Kremlin and its troll factory to use Twitter and Facebook to discredit Clinton and to help Trump win the 2016 US election. The material seen by the Guardian dates from 2011 to 2013.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, has indicted Manafort on multiple counts. Manafort is accused of laundering profits from his lobbying work in Ukraine, carried out over a decade for Yanukovych and his political party.

Viktor Yanukovych greets supporters during a campaign rally in Kiev in 2010. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Mueller also accuses Manafort of hiring retired European politicians to lobby on behalf of Yanukovych, and paying them more than 2m (1.74m or $2.45m) via offshore accounts.

The documents reveal another surreptitious operation to influence international opinion.

In 2010 Yanukovych defeated his rival Yulia Tymoshenko in presidential elections. The following summer Ukrainian prosecutors arrested Tymoshenko and put her on trial. This provoked severe criticism from the Obama administration and the EU, which accused Yanukovych of locking Tymoshenko up for political reasons.

In 2011 Manafort approved a clandestine strategy to discredit Tymoshenko abroad. Alan Friedman, a former Wall Street Journal and Financial Times reporter, based in Italy, masterminded this project. Friedman has previously been accused of concealing his work as a paid lobbyist.

Also involved were Rick Gates, Manaforts then deputy, and Konstantin Kilimnik, another senior Manafort associate who the FBI believes has links to Russian military intelligence.

In July 2011 Friedman sent Manafort a confidential six-page document, titled: Ukraine – A Digital Roadmap. It laid out a plan to deconstruct Tymoshenko, online and via videos, articles and social media. Yanukovych deferred to Manafort, who gave the project the go-ahead, sources in Ukraines former government say.

Friedmans proposed operation was ambitious. It included producing anonymous videos attacking Tymoshenko and comparing the opposition leader to a drunk Boris Yeltsin. The social media space offers great opportunities for guilt by association, Friedman wrote in the document.

He continued: We know that video exists of Tymoshenko uttering some of her outrageous claims in court … The video can be floated into the social space to reinforce the impression that she is at best reckless and unstatesmanlike and at worst malicious, defamatory and antisemitic.

An anonymous video attacking Yulia Tymoshenko, produced by FBC Media. Photograph: Youtube

Twitters users, including those known to us, could retweet hostile content. The roadmap included a website, blogposts, and blast emails, sent out to a targeted audience in Europe and the US. One section was called Black Ops. It said: This could include Wikipedia page modification to highlight [Tymoshenko] corruption and trial and modify the tone of the language being used.

Friedman worked with Eckart Sager, a one-time CNN producer. Emails show they liaised closely with Paul, who in turn briefed Yanukovychs chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin. Lyovochkin declined to comment. He appears in correspondence as SL.

He was under the radar, one source said of Friedman. Alan kept a low profile. Without Pauls authorisation Alan would never have got a contract with the [Yanukovych] government.

Friedmans company FBC Media was retained on a rolling contract. It was paid around 150,000 every three months, sources in Kiev suggest. The money was deposited in an offshore account in Seychelles, they allege. Often the payments were late, prompting Friedman to complain, they add.

Quick guide

Paul Manafort Ukraine connections: who’s who?

Paul Manafort

Lobbyist and Trump campaign manager. Manafort began work in 2005 for Ukraines Party of Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovych. He helped Yanukovych win the countrys 2010 presidential vote and approved a secret media operation to discredit Yanukovychs rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged Trump-Russia collusion, has indicted Manafort on multiple counts. He denies wrongdoing.

Rick Gates

Manaforts righthand man. Gates worked for Yanukovych, and served in 2016 as Trumps deputy campaign manager anddeputy chair of Trumps inaugural committee. Gates took part in the anti-Tymoshenko operation and boasted of success in the US media. In February he admitted lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. He and Manafort are accused of laundering cash from their Ukraine activities, and hiding it in offshore accounts.

Alan Friedman

Journalist, writer and Italy-based lobbyist. Friedman masterminded a social media-led project designed to undermine Tymoshenko in key western countries, including the US, UK, France and Germany. Manafort approved the project. It included conventional outreach to newspapers and black operations. Friedman denies wrongdoing and says his role was that of a PR guy.

Viktor Yanukovych

Ukraines former president and prime minister. After winning his countrys 2010 election, Yanukovych imprisoned his defeated rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Her case prompted criticism from the Obama administration and EU. His government then funded various anti-Tymoshenko strategies, including a VIP lobbying operation with hired EU ex-politicians. Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014 following anti-government protests.

Serhiy Lyovochkin

Yanukovychs chief of staff, referred to in Friedmans documents as SL. Manafort reported to Lyovochkin on sensitive operations. Lyovochkin in turn briefed Yanukovych and handled payments, sources in Kiev say. Lyovochkin declined to comment.

Konstantin Kilimnik

A Russian national who headed Manaforts office in Kiev. According to Muellers latest indictment, the FBI assesses that Kilminik is connected to Russian military intelligence. Kilimnik served as Manaforts translator and worked with him closely.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Ukraines first female prime minister. Tymoshenko co-led the pro-western 2004 Orange Revolution. After two stints as prime minister, she lost the 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych. Tymoshenko was arrested and detained in 2011 on what she and the international community called politically motivated charges. She got out of jail in 2014.

Photograph: Bloomberg

Contacted by the Guardian, Friedman said these earnings were declared. He confirmed his company worked for Ukraine from late summer 2011 on what he called a public relations and country profiling project. He said: It was not a secret or covert plan. We had PR people proposing interviews and features to newspapers very openly.

Journalist Alan Friedman, pictured in Rome.

Photograph: Cosima Scavolini/Splash News

Its goal, he said, was to promote the Ukraine governments then policy of moving closer to a partnership agreement with the EU. Our aim was to keep a steady communication going in favour of dialogue between Brussels and Kiev. That was our message.

We never supported a pro-Moscow stance and had already ended our relationship when the Ukrainian president abandoned closer ties with Europe.

Asked if he had registered with the US Department of Justice, Friedman said he never worked as a lobbyist for Ukraine. He added: I never registered as a foreign agent because I never was one.

I was a communications guy, doing PR media strategy work in Europe for a client, like dozens of London PR companies that work for a variety of governments.

The documents show Friedman reported directly to Kiev. In spring 2012 he told the foreign minister, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, he had generated dozens of positive op-eds/interviews/articles for print and TV and disseminated positive news stories to nearly 2,000 publications.

Key to this strategy was a fake thinktank, the Center for the Studyof Former Soviet Socialist Republics (CXSSR), set up with Manaforts backing. Friedman used it to publish dozens of positive stories about Yanukovych, many of them authored by a Matthew Lina.

Linas comment pieces criticising Tymoshenko and Obamas state department ran on the conservative US website RedState. Friedman told Manafort his editorial team ghostwrote an article by Yanukovych published by the Wall Street Journal.

He claimed credit for a Tymoshenko profile written by the Journals Matthew Kaminski. Kaminski said Friedman was never a source, or even someone that as far as I can remember I had any contact whatsoever with.

In April 2012 Friedman sent another highly confidential two-page document to Manafort. It set out plans to launch a special website entitled The Tymoshenko Files. The site would purport to belong to Inna Bohoslovska, a Ukrainian deputy and Tymoshenko critic.

In fact, Friedman would discreetly prepare, implement and maintain the site, the document said. It would include ghost-penned blogs and a quasi-novella serialisation. Asked about the website, Friedman said he never wrote any content.

Rick Gates attends a court hearing in Washington DC. Photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Emails seen by the Guardian show a regular pattern of interaction between Manafort, Friedman, Gates, Kilimnik, and Ukrainian officials. Gates, who went on to work with Manafort on the 2016 Trump campaign, wrote several messages. In February Gates admitted conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and agreed to cooperate with Mueller.

At the time Kilimnik was the Russian manager of Manaforts Kiev office. Kilminik is understood to be Person A in Muellers latest indictment, filed last week. It says the FBI believes Kilimnik has ties to Moscows GRU spy agency, and adds that Gates was aware of this fact. Kilimnik denies a connection. Friedman confirmed he met Manafort and Gates but said he did so because the client asked me to.

Manaforts media operation included attacks on Clinton. In October 2012 Gates emailed Manafort and Friedman, flagging a piece written by the journalist Ben Shapiro. The Breitbart article criticised Clinton for her public support of Tymoshenko, who had recently made an electoral pact with the far-right Svoboda party.

The article cited a Jewish leader who accused Clinton anonymously of creating a neo-Nazi Frankenstein. Gates wrote: Gentlemen – Here is the first part of a series of articles that will be coming as we continue to build this effort. Alan, you get full credit for the Frankenstein comment.

The alleged use of offshore accounts is likely to interest the FBI. Manafort is accused of concealing more than $75m earned from his work in Ukraine.

Yanukovychs attempts to woo western leaders ended in October 2013, when he accepted a bailout from Moscow. He fled to Russia following anti-government protests. In 2015 Friedman wrote an authorised biography of Silvio Berlusconi. Manafort continued to work for Yanukovychs party, up until he joined Trumps campaign. Manafort denies wrongdoing and has said he will fight Muellers charges.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/05/ex-trump-aide-paul-manafort-approved-black-ops-to-help-ukraine-president

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