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Republican Ben Sasse Slams Paul Manafort for Working for 'Scum Sucker' Russian Oligarch

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska grilled Attorney General William Barr on whether it was legal or illegal for Paul Manafort to volunteer as the Trump campaign’s chairman at the same time he was working with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Citing the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, a redacted copy of which was released to the public last week, Sasse asked Barr about who Deripaska is and what his objectives are. When Barr declined to go into detail in an open setting, Sasse began reading from a Department of Treasury report that describes the oligarch.

“Oleg Deripaska is a designated individual, he possesses a Russian diplomatic passport, he regularly claims to represent the Russian government, he is an aluminum and other metals billionaire, and he’s been investigated by the U.S. government and by other of our allies for money laundering,” Sasse read. “He’s been accused of threatening the lives of his business rivals, he’s been charged with illegal wiretapping, taking part in extortion and racketeering schemes, he bribed government officials, he ordered the murder of a Russian businessman, and he has many links to organized crime,” he added.

“So I think we can in an open setting at least agree that he’s a bad dude,” Sasse said to Barr. “This is a bottom-feeding scum sucker, and he has absolutely no alignment with the interest of the U.S. people and our public.”

Sasse then went on to quote the Mueller report, which details Manafort’s ties to Deripaska. The report claims that, while Manafort was working for the Trump campaign, he maintained contact with a man named Konstatin Kilimnik who the U.S. intelligence community has determined has ties to Russian intelligence agents. 

“Manafort instructed Rick Gates, his deputy on the Campaign and a longtime employee, to provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump Campaign-including internal polling data, although Manafort claims not to recall that specific instruction,” the Mueller report reads. “Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and with Deripaska. Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.”

The special counsel’s team could not determine what was done with the polling data. Manafort, however, had allegedly offered to provide Deripaska with briefings about the Trump campaign in order to repay some of the millions of dollars in debt he owed Deripaska from past business ventures. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sasse expressed concern that Manafort’s activities could set a precedent that would see foreign agents interfering directly in U.S. political campaigns.

“So, Paul Manafort is hired by Deripaska for things ostensibly related to the Ukraine, they have a bunch of failed business ventures it looks like, over time. But he is on the payroll of a Russian oligarch that has interests completely misaligned with the American government, the American people, and the interests of NATO,” Sasse noted. “Is it permissible for somebody to be paid by someone who is basically an enemy of the United States, and then could that individual just volunteer and start to donate their time and talent and expertise to a campaign in the U.S.?” Sasse asked Barr.

It is unclear whether Manafort was, as Sasse said, on Deripaska’s payroll. But Manafort did work with Deripaska before joining the Trump campaign and was in debt to him. The Mueller report notes that Manafort may have been using Kilimnik to communicate with Deripaska and share information with him while he worked for the Trump campaign.

Sasse argued that the report shows how vulnerable the U.S. political process is to foreign influence campaigns and interference from countries like Russia and China. He noted that foreign governments could, in the future, recruit Americans and send them to volunteer on political campaigns like Manafort did on the Trump campaign.

Barr responded that it would not be legal for a person to volunteer on a political campaign if a foreign government was paying him or her for the express purpose of interfering in that campaign. But that response did not appear to satisfy Sasse.

“Given how sleazy so much of this city is and a whole bunch of people live on retainers of [$15,000] and [$20,000] and $30,000 a month, is it always obvious what you’re paid for versus what you do?” Sasse asked. “So some Russian oligarch just decides to start putting American campaign personnel on retainer payments and say ‘we may need you to lobby for something somewhere in the future.’”

“In a digital, cyber era, you don’t need a bar and a hooker anymore, you can surround people digitally much easier,” Sasse noted.

Deripaska remains sanctioned by the U.S. government, but in January his companies were removed from the U.S. sanctions list after they agreed to restructure their ownership so the oligarch no longer owns a majority share. The deal with the Treasury Department was struck after months of lobbying. One of the companies, Rusal, recently announced plans to invest in a new aluminum plant in the state of Kentucky.

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