President Trump's former campaign chairman has continued soliciting international business even as his past international work is under investigation.
The Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, and his allies, who are the driving force behind the referendum, hope it will put their semiautonomous oil-rich region on a path toward full independence, which they contend is their right. Independence could also allow the Kurdistan Regional Government, for which Mr. Barzani serves as president, to have uncontested control over its lucrative oil exports.
The Kurdistan Regional Government had paid millions to Washington lobbying firms with deep connections to both Democrats and Republicans, including more than $1.5 million over the last three years, according to Justice Department records. But it has also worked to build support for independence from think tanks and scholars who might be willing to vouch for the referendum’s fairness, and use it to win bipartisan support in Washington for Kurdish independence, according to people familiar with the outreach.
Mr. Manafort agreed to assist with the referendum, including a planned push for Western recognition, after he was approached several months ago by an intermediary for Mr. Barzani’s son, Masrour Barzani, according to two people familiar with the arrangement.
Mr. Manafort has traveled to the region since then to advise the Barzanis’ allies on the referendum, according to Kurdish independence advocates. One of Mr. Manafort’s lieutenants is in Erbil preparing for the referendum, and Mr. Manafort himself may return to the region in the coming days for the vote, according to the advocates.
A spokesman for Masrour Barzani, who serves as the head of the security council in his father’s government, confirmed that Mr. Manafort was hired “to assist in the referendum and in the aftermath of the referendum.” But the spokesman, who asked that he not be named, declined to specify what Mr. Manafort’s role entailed.
The spokesman said Mr. Manafort was part of a team of international experts involved in holding the referendum. Asked if Mr. Manafort was hired because of his ties to Mr. Trump, the spokesman said he had been chosen because of his experience in referendums and global affairs.
The spokesman would not provide information about who is paying Mr. Manafort or how much he is being paid.
Paul J. Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, is at the center of the special counsel investigation by Robert S. Mueller III. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesJason Maloni, a spokesman for Mr. Manafort, said his client “does not discuss his current or future clients.” Mr. Maloni would not say whether Mr. Manafort intended to disclose his Kurdish work and source of income to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which would be required if he lobbied the American government on behalf of a foreign client. “If his work requires registration with FARA, Mr. Manafort will comply with the law,” Mr. Maloni said.
The White House and Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions about whether Mr. Manafort had contacted them about the Kurdish referendum.
Mr. Manafort’s associates say he has come under increasing financial strain from mounting legal bills as his lawyers have responded to inquiries from congressional committees and the special counsel related to the Russia inquiries. The associates said the scrutiny had made it difficult for Mr. Manafort to maintain his consulting business.
Nonetheless, he has continued traveling the world pitching potential business deals, with a particular focus on China. He met in April with a Shanghai construction billionaire whom Mr. Manafort is advising on how to pursue infrastructure contracts around the world.
Mr. Manafort participated in a May meeting in New York about a plan under which an investment fund linked to the Chinese government-owned China Development Bank would invest $30 billion in Puerto Rico through the bond debt owed by the island’s government, and possibly through investments in its critical infrastructure.
And a spokesman for the Ecuadorean government, which has accepted billions of dollars in loans from the China Development Bank, said that Mr. Manafort met earlier this year with Lenín Moreno, who subsequently was elected president, to discuss possible investment opportunities.
But supporters of the Kurdish independence referendum are concerned that Mr. Manafort’s legal problems may hurt their cause.
“Someone at the center of a controversy about Russian subversion of a U.S. presidential election and who has been warned that he will be indicted is not without handicaps as an advocate,” said Peter W. Galbraith, a former American diplomat and longtime advocate for Kurdish independence. Mr. Galbraith, who is in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, as an unpaid adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, was unaware of Mr. Manafort’s involvement before being informed by The New York Times, and suggested he would have advised against it.
“But, look, on the other hand, they’re a foreign country who wants to get international recognition, and if you can get somebody who is close to the president of the United States to be your advocate, then that could help,” Mr. Galbraith said.
Mr. Manafort is working on the Kurdish referendum with Philip M. Griffin, a longtime associate, who is in Erbil ahead of the vote, according to the spokesman for Mr. Barzani.
Mr. Griffin is based in Kiev, and worked for Mr. Manafort until 2011, primarily on behalf of the Russia-aligned president of Ukraine at the time, Viktor Yanukovych.
He also helped run a program for foreign ambassadors at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July, through which the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, met with Jeff Sessions, then an Alabama senator and now Mr. Trump’s attorney general.
Mr. Manafort’s work for Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Sessions’s meetings with Mr. Kislyak are now subjects of interest for congressional investigators and Mr. Mueller’s team.
Mr. Griffin did not respond to requests for comment.
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