WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, a key figure in investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, has volunteered to be questioned by lawmakers as part of a House probe of the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House intelligence committee, told reporters on Friday that Paul Manafort’s lawyer contacted the panel on Thursday to offer lawmakers the opportunity to interview him. It was not clear if Manafort had offered to testify under oath or in a public hearing, and Nunes said those details had not been determined.
Manafort volunteered to be interviewed by the committee the same week that The Associated Press reported that a decade ago he worked for a Russian billionaire. Manafort wrote in a strategy memo obtained by the AP that he would work to “benefit the Putin Government.”
Nunes also announced that a previously scheduled public hearing with former Obama administration officials would not take place Tuesday as planned.
Nunes’ focus for people to interview as part of the committee’s investigation has primarily been current and former government officials with insight into the investigation. When asked about whether he would call Trump associates, he has said people can volunteer to be interviewed if they want to.
“We’re not going to get into a neo-McCarthyism era here where we just start bringing in Americans because they were mentioned in a press story,” Nunes said. “I’m highly concerned about that. Now, if people want to come in freely, we will do that.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, said he disagreed with the chairman’s decision to cancel the public hearing. The former directors of national intelligence and the CIA and the former acting attorney general had agreed to testify publicly on March 28.
“I think this is a serious mistake,” Schiff said Friday.
He said the committee’s hearing on Monday demonstrates how important it is that these inquiries be conducted publicly. During that hearing, FBI Director James Comey confirmed there was an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump associates co-ordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 election.
“That, of course, is very significant information for the public,” Schiff said.
In a statement released Friday, Manafort’s spokesman, Jason Maloni, said the former Trump campaign chairman had agreed to specifically “provide information voluntarily regarding recent allegations about Russian interference in the election.”
When asked whether Manafort would agree to be interviewed about his past work as a political consultant in eastern Europe, Maloni said that the interview would be about Russian interference in the election.
Manafort, who was working as a political consultant for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine at the time, pitched a wide-ranging political influence campaign to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract with Deripaska beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP.
In a statement to the AP earlier this week, Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska, but denied that the work had been to advance Russia’s interests.
The AP also reported Thursday that Treasury Department agents have recently obtained information about offshore financial transactions involving Manafort. The records were sought as part of a federal anti-corruption probe into his work in Eastern Europe.
Manafort also said his offshore banking transactions were a normal practice at his business. “Like many companies doing business internationally, my company was paid via wire transfer, typically using clients’ preferred financial institutions and instructions,” he said.
The latest development that Manafort has offered himself for questioning moves the spotlight off the House chairman himself.
Democrats expressed anger earlier this week after Nunes told reporters and briefed Trump he had seen new information showing that the communications of Trump transition officials were scooped up through monitoring of other targets and improperly spread through intelligence agencies during the final days of the Obama administration. Democrats expressed outrage that Nunes would meet with Trump before talking to committee members and cited the incident as another reason to question the panel’s independence.
Nunes would not disclose the source of the information. But he specifically stated that the new information he received did not support Trump’s allegations that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap at Trump Tower.
Nunes, who was a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team, later apologized to Democrats, saying that the presidential briefing was a judgment call. “Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong decision,” he said.
Nonetheless, White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed that Nunes was “vindicating” the president following his unproven assertion about a wiretap, and Republican groups moved quickly to raise money as a result of Nunes’ revelations.
The National Republican Campaign Committee blasted out an email with the subject “Confirmed: Obama spied on Trump.” The Republican National Committee made a pitch with the subject line “Vindicated” and went on to say, “President Trump has fought back and been vindicated time and time again.”
It’s common for Americans to get caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreigners, such as foreign diplomats in the U.S. talking to an American. Typically, the American’s name would not be revealed in a report about the intercepted communications. However, if there is foreign intelligence value to revealing the American’s name, it is “unmasked” and shared with other intelligence analysts who are working on related foreign intelligence surveillance.
Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.