A flurry of news stories on Tuesday suggest Ecuador may play a role in the investigation by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Three news sources, including financial tv network CNBC, claim that Mueller is investigating a 2017 meeting in Quito involving former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, President Lenin Moreno and Chinese businessmen.
Moreno’s press secretary said the meeting concerned a proposal to privatize Ecuador’s national electricity company and that Manafort was representing the businessmen. According to the official, Moreno rejected the proposal and there were no follow-up meetings on the matter.
“Mueller’s interest probably does not concern the privatization proposal but possible conversations with Manafort and Moreno concerning Julian Assange,” says George Ellis, a Georgetown University adjunct political science professor.
On Tuesday, the British newspaper the Guardian reported that Manafort met with Wikilleaks founder Assange on three occasions, in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016. The 2016 visit came at a time when Manafort was part of the Trump presidential campaign.
Manafort strongly denies the Guardian report that he met Assange and the official embassy visitor log does not include Manafort’s name. The newspaper claims, however, that a separate internal embassy document produced by Ecuador’s intelligence agency lists “Paul Manaford [sic]” as one of several well-known guests. The intelligence document also references “the Russians.”
“The problem with Manafort’s denial is that he was indicted for telling lies in the first place,” says Ellis. “No one would mistake the guy for a fount of truth.”
Manafort was jailed early this year in the Russia probe and was believed to be cooperating with the Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling. That cooperation apparently broke down, news sources say. On Monday, members of Mueller’s team said Manafort had lied repeatedly to the FBI despite his plea deal.
According to a court document filed by the Mueller investigation, Manafort had committed “crimes and lies” on a “variety of subject matters”.
According to Ellis, one of the lies may be Manafort’s denial that he met with Assange. “We’ll see how the drama plays out.”