In September 2016, FBI agents approached Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to ask about allegations President Donald Trump’s campaign was colluding with the Russian government to influence the election, according to a new report.
Deripaska, who was at his apartment in New York City for the interview, waived the three agents off of the collusion theory, saying there was no coordination between the Trump team and Kremlin, The Hill reported Monday.
The agents, one of whom Deripaska knew from a previous FBI case, said they believed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was involved in the conspiracy, an allegation made in the infamous Steele dossier.
“Deripaska laughed but realized, despite the joviality, that they were serious,” Adam Waldman, a former lawyer for Deripaska, told The Hill. “So he told them in his informed opinion the idea they were proposing was false.”
“You are trying to create something out of nothing,” Deripaska told the agents, according to Waldman.
The dossier, former British spy Christopher Steele wrote and Democrats funded, alleges Manafort used Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, to coordinate with Russian operatives to help influence the election.
The FBI and Justice Department used the unverified dossier to obtain four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against Page, an energy consultant. Page has vehemently denied the allegations in the dossier and says he has never met Manafort.
Deripaska knows Manafort from past business dealings. During the campaign, they were in a dispute over $19 million Deripaska claimed Manafort pilfered from a failed business deal.
The Hill’s report establishes for the first time that the FBI contacted Russian nationals prior to the election about the collusion allegations. It is also an indicator of how they investigated some of the allegations made in the dossier.
The Hill also cites sources who said the FBI approached Deripaska again at some point in 2017.
Deripaska, an aluminum magnate who has close ties to Vladimir Putin, has a long and complicated history with the U.S. government. In 2006, the State Department blocked him from traveling to the U.S. because of suspicions he was linked to Russian organized crime figures. But Deripaska traveled to the U.S. numerous times on a diplomatic visa. That appears to be how he was in New York in September 2016.
The Treasury Department recently sanctioned Deripaska and Rusal, his aluminum company.
But Deripaska has also helped the FBI. Deripaska paid $25 million out of his own pocket to help the FBI track down Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who was apprehended in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA, The Hill also reported.
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller oversaw the operation, which ultimately failed to secure Levinson’s release. Mueller is currently leading the special counsel’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion.
Lawmakers have probed Deripaska in recent months as well. In February, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Waldman, the former Deripaska lawyer, inquiring about any connections to Steele.
Earlier that month, it was revealed Waldman served as a back channel between Steele and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Waldman attempted to negotiate a meeting between Steele and Warner. In one April 25, 2017, text message, Waldman said he wanted to set up a meeting between Steele and Warner “for the sake of the truth and of vindication of the dossier.”
The nature of the relationship between Waldman and Steele remains unclear. It is not known whether Deripaska and Steele have a relationship, though lawmakers have also pressed for answers about those possible links.