US agents tried to turn Russian oligarch into an informant

Between 2014 and 2016, the FBI and the Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to turn Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, into an informant.
Between 2014 and 2016, the FBI and the Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to turn Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, into an informant. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - In the estimation of US officials, Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, has faced credible accusations of extortion, bribery and even murder.

They also thought he might make a good source.

Between 2014 and 2016, the FBI and the Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to turn Deripaska into an informant. They signalled that they might provide help with his trouble in getting visas for the United States or even explore other steps to address his legal problems.

In exchange, they were hoping for information on Russian organised crime and, later, on possible Russian aid to President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, according to current and former officials and associates of Deripaska.

In one dramatic encounter, FBI agents appeared unannounced and uninvited at a home Deripaska maintains in New York and pressed him on whether Paul Manafort, a former business partner of his who went on to become chairman of Trump's campaign, had served as a link between the campaign and the Kremlin.

The attempt to flip Deripaska was part of a broader, clandestine US effort to gauge the possibility of gaining cooperation from roughly a half-dozen of Russia's richest men, nearly all of whom, like Deripaska, depend on President Vladimir Putin to maintain their wealth, the officials said.

Two of the players in the effort were Bruce Ohr, the Justice Department official who has recently become a target of attacks by Trump, and Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled a dossier of purported links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The systematic effort to win the cooperation of the oligarchs, which has not previously been revealed, does not appear to have scored any successes.

And in Deripaska's case, he told the US investigators that he disagreed with their theories about Russian organised crime and Kremlin collusion in the campaign, a person familiar with the exchanges said. The person added that Deripaska even notified the Kremlin about the US efforts to cultivate him.

But the fallout from the efforts is now rippling through US politics and has helped fuel Trump's campaign to discredit the investigation into whether he coordinated with Russia in its interference in the election.

The contacts between Ohr and Steele were detailed in emails and notes from Ohr that the Justice Department turned over to Republicans in Congress earlier this year.

A number of journalists, including some at conservative news outlets, have reported on elements of those contacts but not on the broader outreach programme to the oligarchs or key aspects of the interactions between Ohr, Steele and Deripaska.

The revelation that Ohr engaged with Steele has provided the president's allies with fresh fodder to attack the investigation led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, casting it as part of a vast, long-running conspiracy by a "deep state" bent on undermining Trump.

In their telling, Ohr and his wife - who worked as a contractor at the same research firm that produced the dossier - are villainous central players in a cabal out to destroy the president.

Trump himself has seized on the reports, threatening to pull Ohr's security clearance and claiming that his family "received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier."

While Steele did discuss the research that resulted in the dossier with Ohr during the final months of the campaign, current and former officials said that Deripaska was the subject of many of the contacts between the two men between 2014 and 2016.

A timeline that Ohr hand-wrote of all his contacts with Steele was among the leaked documents cited by the president and his allies as evidence of an anti-Trump plot.

The contacts between Steele and Ohr started before Trump became a presidential candidate and continued through much of the campaign.

Deripaska's contacts with the FBI took place in September 2015 and the same month a year later.

The latter meeting came two months after the FBI began investigating Russian interference in the election and a month after Manafort left the Trump campaign amid reports about his work for Russia-aligned political parties in Ukraine.

The outreach to Deripaska, who is so close to the Russian president that he has been called "Putin's oligarch," was not as much of a long shot as it might have appeared.

He had worked with the US government in the past, including on a thwarted effort to rescue an FBI agent captured in Iran, on which he reportedly spent as much as US$25 million of his own money.

And he had incentive to cooperate again in the run-up to the 2016 election, as he tried to win permission to travel more easily to the United States, where he has long sought more freedom to do business and greater acceptance as a global power broker.

Steele sought to aid the effort to engage Deripaska, and he noted in an email to Ohr in February 2016 that the Russian had received a visa to travel to the United States.

In the email, Steele said his company had compiled and circulated "sensitive" research suggesting that Deripaska and other oligarchs were under pressure from the Kremlin to toe the Russian government line, leading Steele to conclude that Deripaska was not the "tool" of Putin alleged by the US government.

The timeline sketched out by Ohr shows contacts stretching back to when Ohr first met Steele in 2007. It also shows what officials said was the first date on which the two discussed cultivating Deripaska: a meeting in Washington on Nov 21, 2014, roughly seven months before Trump announced that he was running for president.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an initiative that remains classified. Most expressed deep discomfort, saying they feared that in revealing the attempts to cultivate Deripaska and other oligarchs they were undermining US national security and strengthening the grip that Putin holds over those who surround him.

But they also said they did not want Trump and his allies to use the programme's secrecy as a screen with which they could cherry-pick facts and present them, sheared of context, to undermine the special counsel's investigation. That, too, they said they feared, would damage US security.

The programme was led by the FBI. Ohr, who had long worked on combatting Russian organised crime, was one of the Justice Department officials involved.

Steele served as an intermediary between the Americans and the Russian oligarchs they were seeking to cultivate. He had first met Ohr years earlier while still serving at MI6, Britain's foreign spy agency, where he oversaw Russia operations.

After retiring, he opened a business intelligence firm, and had tracked Russian organised crime and business interests for private clients, including one of Deripaska's lawyers.

To facilitate meetings, the FBI pushed the State Department to allow Deripaska to travel to New York on a Russian diplomatic passport as part of a Russian government delegation to the UN General Assembly.

The State Department had previously rejected some of Deripaska's efforts to secure visas to enter the United States - even as part of prior diplomatic delegations - but it approved diplomatic visa requests in 2015 and 2016.

Steele helped set up a meeting between the Russian and US officials during the 2015 trip. Ohr attended the meeting, during which the Americans pressed Deripaska on the connections between Russian organised crime and Putin's government, as well as other issues, according to a person familiar with the events. The person said that Deripaska told the Americans that their theories were off base and did not reflect how things worked in Russia.

Deripaska would not agree to a second meeting. But one took place the following year, in September 2016, when FBI agents showed up unannounced at his door in New York.

By then, they were already investigating possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and they pressed Deripaska about whether his former business partner, Manafort, had served as a link to the Kremlin during his time as Trump's campaign chairman.

It was not only the FBI that was concerned about Russian interference in the final months of the campaign. US spy agencies were sounding an alarm after months of intelligence reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russians, and Moscow's hacking of Democratic Party emails.

US intelligence agencies would later conclude that the interference was real and that Russia had acted to boost Trump's candidacy.

There was also a growing debate at the highest levels of the Obama administration about how to respond without being seen as trying to tip the presidential election toward Hillary Clinton.

Deripaska, though, told the FBI agents that while he had no love for Manafort, with whom he was in a bitter business dispute, he found their theories about his role on the campaign "preposterous." He also disputed that there were any connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to the person familiar with the exchange.

The Justice Department's efforts to cultivate Deripaska appear to have fizzled soon after, amid worsening relations between the United States and Russia.

This past April, the Treasury Department imposed potentially crippling sanctions against Deripaska and his mammoth aluminum company, saying he had profited from the "malign activities" of Russia around the world.

In announcing the sanctions, the Trump administration cited accusations that Deripaska had been accused of extortion, racketeering, bribery, links to organised crime and even ordering the murder of a businessman.

Deripaska has denied the allegations, and his allies contend that the sanctions are punishment for refusing to play ball with the Americans.

Yet just as it was becoming clear that Deripaska would provide little help to the Americans, Steele was talking to Ohr about an entirely new issue: the dossier.

In summer 2016, Steele first told Ohr about the research that would eventually come to make up the dossier.

Over a breakfast in Washington, Steele said he believed that Russian intelligence had Trump "over a barrel," according to a person familiar with the discussion. But the person said that it was more of a friendly heads-up, and that Steele had separately been in touch with an FBI agent in a bid to get his work to investigators.

The research by that point was being funded by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign, and Steele believed that what he had found was damning enough that he needed to get it to US law enforcement.

FBI agents would later meet with Steele to discuss his work. But former senior officials from the bureau and the Justice Department have said that the investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia was well underway by the time they got the dossier.

Nonetheless, Trump and his allies have seized on the fact that Ohr and Steele were in touch about elements of the dossier to attack the investigation into Russian election interference as a "rigged witch hunt."

Trump and his allies have cast Steele's research - and the serious consideration it was given by Ohr and the FBI - as part of a plot by rogue officials and Clinton's allies to undermine Trump's campaign and his presidency.

The role of Deripaska has gotten less attention, but it similarly offers fodder for the theory being advanced by the president's defenders.

Among the documents produced to Congress by the Justice Department is an undated - and previously unreported - handwritten note handwritten by Ohr indicating that Deripaska and one of his London-based lawyers, Paul Hauser, were "almost ready to talk" to US government officials regarding the money that "Manafort stole."

Even after the concerted effort to cultivate Deripaska appeared to have broken down, and as he was emerging as a subject of increasing interest in inquiries into ties between Trump's circle and Russia, both sides continued sporadic outreach.

Last year, Ohr asked someone who communicated with Deripaska to urge the oligarch to "give up Manafort," according to a person familiar with the exchange.

And Deripaska sought to engage with Congress.

The oligarch took out newspaper advertisements in the United States last year volunteering to testify in any congressional hearings examining his work with Manafort. The ads were in response to an Associated Press report that Manafort had secretly worked for Deripaska on a plan to "greatly benefit the Putin government" in the mid-2000s.

Deripaska deplored that assertion as "malicious" and a "lie," and subsequently sued The AP for libel, though he later dropped his appeal of a judge's ruling dismissing the lawsuit without receiving a settlement or payment.

Soon after the advertisements ran, representatives for the House and Senate Intelligence committees called a Washington-based lawyer for Deripaska, Adam Waldman, inquiring about taking his client up on the offer to testify, Waldman said in an interview.

What happened after that has been in dispute. Waldman, who stopped working for Deripaska after the sanctions were levied, said he told the committee staff that his client would be willing to testify without any grant of immunity, but would not testify about any Russian collusion with the Trump campaign because "he doesn't know anything about that theory and actually doesn't believe it occurred." "I told them that he would be willing to talk about Manafort," Waldman added.

Waldman said he did not hear back from the committee's staff members, but he contends that they played a role in pushing the claim that the talks over Deripaska's potential testimony had fallen apart because he demanded immunity.

"We specifically told them that we did not want immunity," Waldman said. "Clearly, they did not want him to testify. What other conclusion could you possibly draw?"