Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno and his aides discussed the ways they could get rid of Julian Assange with Donald Trump’s campaign chief Paul Manafort in 2017, The New York Times reports, citing three people familiar with the talks. According to the outlet, Trump’s former manager, who is reported to have presented himself as a liaison for the new US administration, travelled to Quito to facilitate a deal between Chinese investors and the Latin American country’s power sector. However, during the meeting, the topic of the WikiLeaks’ founder’s extradition came up.
Moreno and his officials reportedly voiced their readiness to assist Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, whose asylum has been a point of contention for the new administration in Quito, in exchange for concessions from the US. According to the NYT, Manafort suggested he could broker the deal.
The outlet cites Manafort’s spokesman, Jason Maloni as saying that Moreno brought up the Assange issue and expressed 'his desire to remove Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy', while Manafort 'listened but made no promises as this was ancillary to the purpose of the meeting'.
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However, the talks ended with nothing as several days later Robert S. Mueller was appointed special counsel to probe alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Manafort, who is currently serving a jail term after pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud the US and conspiring to obstruct justice, was reported to be a prime target of Mueller’s investigation immediately after it began.
The NYT points out that there’s no evidence that Manafort briefed the Trump administration on the Assange talks, or that it had anything to do with WikiLeaks' publication of a raft of Democratic Party emails allegedly stolen by 'Russian spies' amid the US presidential race. Manafort’s spokesperson also specified that 'there was no mention of Russia at the meeting' with the Ecuadorian president.
The new revelation came a week after an article appeared in Tuesday’s issue of The Guardian, which claimed that Manafort had visited Assange in the Ecuadorian mission in 2013, 2015, and the spring of 2016 when Manafort joined Trump’s campaign. The story was branded 'totally false and deliberately libellous' by Manafort, while Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange is threatening to sue the British outlet over a ‘fabricated’ report.
Julian Assange asked for asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 after Britain requested his extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual offences. Sweden dropped its investigation in May 2017, but Assange fears he will be extradited to the United States to face prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked US military and diplomatic documents.
Since the former Ecuadorian president, who let Assange stay in the Embassy in the first place, was replaced by Lenin Moreno, the terms of Assange’s stay have been restricted. This year, after a series of public comments, the whistleblower was forbidden from using social media, granting interviews, or communicating with anybody but his legal team.
Moreno has touched upon the issue of expelling Assange from the embassy several times but has also noted that the UK must first guarantee the activist's safety. On 26 September, he revealed that Ecuador and the UK were working on legal grounds to let Assange leave the Embassy in 'the medium term'.