The New York Times released a report on September 1 about how the DOJ and FBI tried to flip Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to retrieve information regarding collusion between Russia and then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign.

Deripaska’s name has come up during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, but it looks like the ties between the two men run deep and may present a conflict of interest.

DOJ, FBI, and Deripaska

The NYT article detailed how DOJ official Bruce G. Ohr and dossier author Christopher Steele confronted Deripaska. Back in 2015, the two men met with Deripaska to discuss “connections between Russian organized crime and Mr. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s government, as well as other issues, according to a person familiar with the events.”

Deripaska laughed them off and did not agree to a second meeting.

I guess it didn’t matter he didn’t agree to another meeting because FBI agents ambushed Deripaska in September 2016 at his home in New York City. Remember, the agency had already begun an investigation into possible collusion:

Mr. Deripaska, though, told the F.B.I. agents that while he had no love for Mr. 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 Mr. Deripaska appear to have fizzled soon after, amid worsening relations between the United States and Russia.

The Hill had a little more about this meeting:

Two months before Trump was elected president, Deripaska was in New York as part of Russia’s United Nations delegation when three FBI agents awakened him in his home; at least one agent had worked with Deripaska on the aborted effort to rescue Levinson. During an hour-long visit, the agents posited a theory that Trump’s campaign was secretly colluding with Russia to hijack the U.S. election.

“Deripaska laughed but realized, despite the joviality, that they were serious,” the lawyer said. “So he told them in his informed opinion the idea they were proposing was false. ‘You are trying to create something out of nothing,’ he told them.” The agents left though the FBI sought more information in 2017 from the Russian, sources tell me. Waldman declined to say if Deripaska has been in contact with the FBI since Sept, 2016.

The Deripaska angle has not received much attention:

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

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

Last year, Mr. Ohr asked someone who communicated with Mr. Deripaska to urge the oligarch to “give up Manafort,” according to a person familiar with the exchange. And Mr. 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 Mr. Manafort. The ads were in response to an Associated Press report that Mr. Manafort had secretly worked for Mr. Deripaska on a plan to “greatly benefit the Putin government” in the mid-2000s.

Mr. Deripaska deplored that assertion as “malicious” and a “lie,” and subsequently sued The A.P. for libel, though he later dropped his appeal of a judge’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit without receiving a settlement or payment.

Those advertisements led to those on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to contact Deripaska’s lawyer Adam Waldman. He no longer represents the oligarch since the Treasury Department levied sanctions against Deripaska.

Waldman insists that he told the representatives that Deripaska would testify for their committees even without 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.’” Basically, Deripaska was only “willing to talk about Manafort.”

Reports came out that a guarantee for immunity is the reason why talks with Deripaska fell apart, but Waldman again stresses that his client never asked for that. He said that the committees “did not want him to testify.”

Connections Between Deripaska, Mueller

The NYT glosses over a huge chunk of Deripaska’s previous connections with the US government, including those with the FBI when Mueller ran the agency.

Back in 2009, Mueller’s FBI reached out to Deripaska and asked him to use millions of his own money to help fund an “operation to rescue a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, captured in Iran while working for the CIA in 2007.” From The Hill:

They said FBI agents courted Deripaska in 2009 in a series of secret hotel meetings in Paris; Vienna; Budapest, Hungary, and Washington. Agents persuaded the aluminum industry magnate to underwrite the mission. The Russian billionaire insisted the operation neither involve nor harm his homeland.

“We knew he was paying for his team helping us, and that probably ran into the millions,” a U.S. official involved in the operation confirmed.

One agent who helped court Deripaska was Andrew McCabe, the recently fired FBI deputy director who played a seminal role starting the Trump-Russia case, multiple sources confirmed.

Deripaska’s lawyer said the Russian ultimately spent $25 million assembling a private search and rescue team that worked with Iranian contacts under the FBI’s watchful eye. Photos and videos indicating Levinson was alive were uncovered.

Then in fall 2010, the operation secured an offer to free Levinson. The deal was scuttled, however, when the State Department become uncomfortable with Iran’s terms, according to Deripaska’s lawyer and the Levinson family.

The operation came to an end in 2011 and no one has found Levinson. David McGee, “a former federal prosecutor who represents Levinson’s family,” said: “We were told at one point that the terms of Levinson’s release had been agreed to by Iran and the U.S. and included a statement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointing a finger away from Iran. At the last minute, Secretary Clinton decided not to make the agreed-on statement.”

Despite nothing coming to fruition, Mueller’s FBI thanked Deripaska:

The FBI rewarded Deripaska for his help. In fall 2009, according to U.S. entry records, Deripaska visited Washington on a rare law enforcement parole visa. And since 2011, he has been granted entry at least eight times on a diplomatic passport, even though he doesn’t work for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Former FBI officials confirm they arranged the access.

Deripaska said in a statement through Adam Waldman, his American lawyer, that FBI agents told him State’s reasons for blocking his U.S. visa were “merely a pretext.”

“The FBI said they had undertaken a careful background check, and if there was any validity to the State Department smears, they would not have reached out to me for assistance,” the Russian said.

John Soloman, the author of the piece at The Hill, said that US officials came to him and wondered if Deripaska did not appear in any of Mueller’s indictments due to his previous work with the oligarch. Others agreed:

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told me he believes Mueller has a conflict of interest because his FBI previously accepted financial help from a Russian that is, at the very least, a witness in the current probe.

“The real question becomes whether it was proper to leave [Deripaska] out of the Manafort indictment, and whether that omission was to avoid the kind of transparency that is really required by the law,” Dershowitz said.

Melanie Sloan, a former Clinton Justice Department lawyer and longtime ethics watchdog, told me a “far more significant issue” is whether the earlier FBI operation was even legal: “It’s possible the bureau’s arrangement with Mr. Deripaska violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from accepting voluntary services.”

George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley agreed: “If the operation with Deripaska contravened federal law, this figure could be viewed as a potential embarrassment for Mueller. The question is whether he could implicate Mueller in an impropriety.”

[Featured image via YouTube]