Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort denied Tuesday that he met secretly with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, including weeks before the organization's 2016 publication of Democratic Party secrets hacked by Russian intelligence.
Manafort rejected a report in The Guardian newspaper that he met three times with Assange over 2013-2016, an explosive claim that if true could support allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to tilt the 2016 election in their favor.
"This story is totally false and deliberately libelous. I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to WikiLeaks, either directly or indirectly," Manafort said in a statement.
"We are considering all legal options against The Guardian who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false."
According to The Guardian, citing unnamed sources, Manafort went to the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Assange has been living under diplomatic protection in 2013, 2015 and then "around March 2016," the same month the veteran Republican operative joined Trump's election campaign.
In July 2016 WikiLeaks began publishing thousands of Democratic National Committee emails, embarrassing Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton. US intelligence later alleged that the emails were hacked by Russian spies and handed over to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks also denied the report, tweeting that it was "willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor's head that Manafort never met Assange."
Manafort chaired the Trump election campaign from March until August 2016, when he was forced to resign under the cloud of a mounting investigation into his business dealings years earlier in Ukraine.
The Guardian report fed into rising speculation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the election, has accumulated evidence of collusion by members of the Trump campaign.
On Monday Mueller's team abruptly announced in a court filing that Manafort, who has already been convicted on financial charges relating to Ukraine, had violated the terms of a plea bargain deal with prosecutors by lying to them.
Meanwhile lawyers for Assange are pressuring a US court to reveal the details of a sealed indictment against him and WikiLeaks, which could involve the organization's publishing of US secrets dating back to 2010.
Assange has remained in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, fearing that British authorities might arrest him and extradite him to the United States if he steps foot outside.