BuzzFeed News has obtained some of the most important and highly sought-after documents from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: summaries of FBI interviews with key White House officials.
[Read the documents here. Some key takeaways are below.]
The 356 pages of documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, were the subject of a protracted legal dispute between the Justice Department and the House Judiciary Committee, which sought them over the summer as part of its impeachment inquiry. The committee had requested access to an unredacted copy of the Mueller report, grand jury testimony from the investigation, and the FBI’s summaries of 33 interviews. Justice Department officials resisted, claiming the impeachment inquiry does not entitle the panel to see those records. A federal judge disagreed, ruling in October that “DOJ is wrong” and that the White House and the Justice Department were “openly stonewalling” the committee.
In the documents released Thursday, the FBI and Justice Department withheld vast swaths of information under a number of FOIA exemptions — including one that says the disclosure of information would interfere with ongoing investigations. They also withheld information from these records claiming disclosure would threaten national security.
The documents also include a 31-page interview that is completely redacted — including the name of the person who was interviewed.
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Snippets of some of the interview summaries, known as 302s, are sprinkled throughout the Mueller report, including the disclosure that Sanders admitted to FBI agents that she lied to the media when she said during a May 2017 press briefing that "countless members of the FBI" had lost faith in former FBI director James Comey.
Mueller’s 448-page report was the most hotly anticipated prosecutorial document in a generation, laying out the evidence of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s efforts to obstruct the inquiry. But it reflected only a tiny fraction of the primary-source documents that the government amassed over the course of its two-year investigation.
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Last May BuzzFeed News, and later CNN, sued the FBI and Justice Department to gain access to the tens of thousands of pages of summaries of the roughly 800 or so interviews FBI agents conducted during the course of Mueller’s two-year probe.
The Justice Department turned over the first batch of documents from Mueller’s cache in November 2019 and another batch last month. It is under court order to produce at least 500 pages every month.
In an effort to speed up the release of the documents, Judge Reggie Walton ordered the government, with this third installment, to turn over only the typewritten portions of the interview summaries, leaving the FBI agents’ handwritten notes as well as emails, letters, and other evidence from the individual files of the witnesses to be processed and released to us at a later time.
The interview summaries are just the beginning. BuzzFeed News is pursuing five separate lawsuits to pry loose all the subpoenas and search warrants that Mueller’s team executed, as well as all emails, memos, letters, talking points, legal opinions, and financial records it generated. In short, we asked for all communications of any kind that passed through the special counsel’s office. We also requested all the documents that would reveal the discussions among Attorney General Bill Barr, former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, and other high-ranking officials about whether to charge Trump with obstruction.
In response, Justice Department lawyers claimed the volume of records requested could total 18 billion pages and take centuries to produce.
Some takeaways from the documents:
New details about Stephen Miller's involvement in drafting a letter firing Comey
Stephen Miller's FBI interview summary offers considerable narrative detail about an eventful visit at the Trump country club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Miller was at dinner with Trump on Friday night, May 5, 2017. Jared Kushner was there. According to Miller's recollections, Trump told people at the table that he wanted to fire James Comey, one of the key events during the FBI's Russia investigation that Mueller investigated as part of the obstruction portion of his probe. Trump said he needed a “well honed” letter to explain it — and that he already had a “great concept” to make the announcement. The reasons are redacted.
Trump dictated some thoughts to Miller, who then went to the room where he was staying and began doing his own research on the matter. He put “his own best thoughts” together. When FBI agents later showed Miller a copy of the letter, he told them that it appeared that Trump had left handwritten edits on the document — although the agents pointed to particular notes that appeared to be Miller’s writing.
“Miller could not specifically recall the details of the editing process,” he said.
Trump said the letter should open by stating that he himself was not under investigation, in order to “disqualify” the firing being related to the inquiry. The letter said that the investigation was “fabricated.” The president wanted to say that Comey was in a “review period.”
Trump met with Miller, chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House lawyer Don McGahn, and one or two other officials on May 7, 2017. Miller recalled that Trump announced: “I’m going to read you a letter. Don’t talk me out of this. I’ve made my decision.”
McGahn said the Department of Justice was already doing a review of Comey and that the next step would be for him to meet with Justice officials. The next day, Miller was told to use a letter by then–Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein rather than the one crafted at Bedminster. McGahn preferred that the president strike the references to his not being under investigation, but Trump overruled him.
Relevant documents on pages 28–34. From page 29:
K.T. McFarland talked to the FBI under an agreement generally given to people under criminal investigation
A summary of a December 2017 interview with K.T. McFarland, who served as deputy national security adviser under Michael Flynn earlier that year, reveals that she provided information to the special counsel's office under a proffer agreement. Generally, prosecutors offer proffer agreements to people who are under investigation to allow them to speak without fear that what they say will be used against them later. McFarland was first interviewed by the FBI that summer but reportedly revised her statement after it was contradicted by Flynn's guilty plea.
Later in her December interview, McFarland recounted events from February 2017, when she was told to resign but offered a job as ambassador to Singapore. There was something the president wanted her to do, though: write an email saying that "the President never directed Flynn to call the Russians about sanctions." However, a lawyer at the National Security Council told her "it was a bad idea...because it was awkward and looked like a quid pro quo situation." Instead, she wrote "a contemporaneous 'Memorandum for the Record' [...] because she was concerned by the President's request," according to the Mueller report.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to McFarland for comment.
Relevant documents begin on page 86:
Conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi told the FBI "he had been lying to himself to believe his own cover story"
The conspiracy theorist and Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi told investigators that his interviews as part of the Mueller investigation made him realize he had been lying to himself “to protect his own cover story.”
Corsi came under investigation for his communications with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks and, specifically, the release of stolen documents from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“The Special Counsel’s office interview was the first time he came to terms with the truth,” his 302 says. “He had been lying to himself to believe his own cover story. Corsi apologized it had taken him so long to come to terms with the truth. He needed to admit to himself that he was lying.”
The redacted interview summary does not give a clear answer as to what Corsi meant when he said he was “lying.”
Following these interviews, Corsi leaked what he claimed was a proposed plea agreement prepared by the special counsel in which he would plead guilty to one count of perjury. He claimed that he did not mean to perjure himself, but misremembered details because of his age.
However, according to the FBI interview summary, Corsi told agents he “did not remember a lot of what he had been shown to him the previous day and realized the way he wanted to remember things was not actually how things happened.”
Corsi is best known for advancing the false “birther” conspiracy theory against former president Barack Obama and, according to the summaries of his FBI interviews, he “often” talked with Trump about these theories before Obama released his birth certificate in 2011. Corsi worked for Infowars, run by Alex Jones, for a period of time as the head of its DC bureau.
Corsi did not immediately return a request for comment.
Relevant document on page 328:
Michael Cohen googled the number to the Kremlin — then tried to set up a Putin–Trump meeting
In an interview with FBI agents and investigators from Mueller’s team on Nov. 12, 2018, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen described in detail how he had tried to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin at Trump Tower in New York following the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, according to his interview summary with the FBI.
“Cohen recalled that in 2015, the news reported that [former President Barack] Obama refused to meet with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]. Trump said it was stupid of Obama to say that,” the interview summary said, noting that Trump had said many times he thought he would get along with Putin. “After Trump's comment, Cohen told him that if Trump wanted, Cohen could reach out to Putin's office and try to arrange a meeting between the two of them. Cohen suggested it would be funny for the two men to meet at Trump Tower and have a burger. Trump agreed it was a good idea, and would be funny, and to go ahead and reach out.”
Cohen then went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and said Trump might meet Putin. Trump asked Cohen “a handful of times for updates” about it. But it appears Cohen had no idea how to reach anyone at the Kremlin. He told the FBI he conducted a Google search for a phone number there.
“Cohen called the Kremlin and spoke to a woman about the idea of Putin and Trump meeting. The woman that answered said she would speak to a supervisor and get back to him She mentioned the name Sergei Ivanov and said he should reach out to Ambassador [Sergey] Kislyak,” the interview summary said. “Cohen asked for the woman's email address and sent his contact information to her by sending her an email with his signature block.”
But Cohen never heard back. So he dialed the number and spoke to the same woman again, about two or three days before Putin was due to arrive in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
“The woman told him it would not follow protocol for Putin to meet with Trump, and Cohen relayed that message to Trump.”
Relevant documents on pages 124–125. From page 125:
Cohen said Putin sent Trump a letter about the 2013 Miss Universe pageant near Moscow — Trump was unhappy about the ratings
Cohen told the FBI that he thought Putin would attend the 2013 pageant because it took place in a Moscow suburb and Trump wondered out loud if the Russian leader would attend. He said Trump had no intention to meet with officials from the Russian government while at the pageant.
“Cohen recalled Putin sent Trump a nice letter, but Cohen had never seen it. He had heard general mentions of the letter in conversations in Trump’s office,” the FBI wrote.
"Trump was unhappy with the ratings the Miss Universe pageant got that year. Because of the time zone difference, the winner was announced in the United States before people woke up, and no one wanted to watch the pageant on TV,” the FBI wrote.
Relevant document on page 126:
Cohen recounted a mind-blowing meeting in Kazakhstan where someone mistook him for a relative of Sacha Baron Cohen
Cohen discussed with the FBI his role following Trump’s surprise win in November 2016, as well as a number of business opportunities that followed. Cohen told the FBI that he was not a lobbyist — Trump had made him pledge not to lobby for three to five years — but he was approached as a consultant nonetheless.
“Cohen had insight into Trump that nobody else had,” the interview summary stated, “other than maybe Trump’s adult children. Cohen did not tell Trump what he was doing as a consultant. Cohen also thought Trump did not care what Cohen was doing."
He described a possible plan to help with an infrastructure fund for Columbus Nova, an investment firm whose chief executive was related to a Russian oligarch. Cohen figured that Trump was serious about fixing American infrastructure and that there were two things “you could not build without concrete and rebar: airports and roads.”
Cohen also told the FBI he received “talkers” — or talking points — from the pharmaceutical company Novartis that he was supposed to deliver to Trump, although he did not recall the topic actually coming up. In addition, he mentioned discussions about an autism drug from someone who was investing in Yamo Pharmaceuticals, the possibility of helping Korea Aerospace Industries develop a footprint in the Middle East, and talks about a company called FrutaPOP that sells alcohol-infused ice pops.
The agents also showed Cohen an email from someone at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs seeking an introduction to Trump, but he did not recall whether that introduction took place.
In one mind-bending anecdote, Cohen recalled a meeting in Kazakhstan in which he handed over his business card to someone — only to watch that person storm out of the room. A few moments later, the person returned, “really angry,” and demanded to know whether Cohen was related to the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose alter ego, the imaginary Kazakh journalist Borat, an a has infuriated some Kazakhs. Trump’s lawyer is of no relation.
Relevant documents on pages 131–133. From page 133:
Manafort believed Trump was sending him messages through Sean Hannity
In the months before Mueller revealed a host of charges against Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair used popular Fox News personality Sean Hannity as a "back channel" to the White House, according to a 2018 interview summary.
Manafort told the special counsel's office that after FBI agents raided his home in July 2017, he spoke with Hannity, whom he understood to be passing along messages from Trump.
"Manafort knew Hannity was speaking to Trump around then because Hannity would tell Manafort to hang in there, that he had been talking to Trump, that Trump had his back, and things like that," the October 2018 summary reads.
Manafort didn't remember speaking directly or indirectly with anyone at the White House during that time, but told investigators that Hannity was "certainly a back channel," as well as "a personal friend."
"The frequency was dependent on what was going on at the time; sometimes they spoke twice a week, some weeks not at all," the summary says.
Manafort, for his part, didn't send any messages to Trump, he told investigators. "If Manafort wanted to send a message to Trump, he would have gone through a mutual friend of theirs, like Chris Christie, [redacted], Tom Barrack, or [redacted] but he never did so," according to the summary.
Separately, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter told the FBI and investigators for Mueller’s team during a May 5, 2018, interview that Trump said he “never liked Manafort” and wondered whether Manafort was “cooperating” with investigators.
The charges against Manafort and his associate Rick Gates were revealed in October 2017.
Relevant documents on pages 21–22 and page 76.
Another witness to the Trump Tower meeting said Trump Jr. asked about dirt on Clinton
Ike Kaveladze, a business executive who lives in California, said his boss, Aras Agalarov, called him on June 6, 2016, and asked him to attend a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Kaveladze told the FBI he was “puzzled” why he would be meeting with top campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner.
He was told two different reasons. At first, Agalarov explained that they would be discussing the Magnitsky Act, far-reaching sanctions that the Kremlin wanted to be overturned. But a second man, business partner Roman Beniaminov, told him that a lawyer would be at the meeting who had negative information about Hillary Clinton.
In the heavily redacted FBI interview summary, Kaveladze said that at one point during the meeting Kushner appeared “aggravated and stressed.” “What are we doing here?” Kushner reportedly asked.
Trump Jr. later asked: “Is there anything you have on Hillary?”
Kaveladze later called his boss, Agalarov, and told him the meeting was a “complete waste of time” and that the group was “preaching to the wrong crowd.”
Relevant documents on page 207:
A senior official said Hope Hicks thought George Papadopoulos was a "problem child"
Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos who served two weeks in jail for lying to the FBI was described as a “problem child” by then–White House communications director Hope Hicks, according to a summary of an interview an FBI agent and prosecutors from Mueller's team conducted with Trump campaign official John Mashburn on June 25, 2018.
Mashburn, who later went on to work as a senior official in the Department of Energy and the Department of Veterans Affairs, also entered into a proffer agreement with special counsel’s team.
In his interview, he was asked about an email he had received from Papadopoulos before the 2016 Republican National Convention alleging Russia had damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Mashburn told the FBI he did not discuss Papadopoulos’s email with other members of the Trump campaign. “Mashburn thought Papadopoulos was merely trying to use headlines to make himself relevant. When Mashburn received the email he thought, ’I’m not dealing with this,’” said the notes from his FBI interview.
Mashburn also told the FBI that he recalled discussions with campaign officials about Clinton’s missing and/or deleted emails, according to the notes of the summary of his interview.
“Everyone was looking for them and Trump wanted them,” the interview summary said.
“Mashburn thought it would be great to find them so they could better understand several issues, like the Clinton Foundation, donations, etc. Mashburn relayed the campaign however, was not scouring the Internet to try and find them. The emails they were searching for were related to Clinton’s private server, and not related to the emails that Wikileaks released.”
A second interview Mueller’s team conducted with Mashburn on Aug. 2, 2018, was completely redacted.
Relevant documents on pages 229–230:
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Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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Anthony Cormier is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. While working for the Tampa Bay Times, Cormier won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
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