Mueller Memos Part 4: FBI Documents That Congress Had To Fight To Get
BuzzFeed News sued the US government under the Freedom of Information Act for the right to see all the work that Robert Mueller’s team kept secret. Today we are publishing the fourth installment of the FBI’s summaries of interviews with key witnesses.
BuzzFeed News has obtained another set of secret FBI documents from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe that reveals what key Trump administration officials and other witnesses told investigators about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the president’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry.
Here are some of the key takeaways in the files released on Friday:
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, said he had his lawyer speak with Fox News host Sean Hannity in January 2018 because he saw Hannity as an “outlet to the public and the White House.” Hannity has been all over the Mueller Memos.
- The FBI wanted to "discuss future opportunities” with George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Specifically, the FBI sought his help obtaining more information about Maltese professor Jospeh Mifsud, who allegedly had information about Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails. On Friday, Papadopoulos tweeted in response, “Pretty wild to think I was being asked to ‘spy’ on an asset that is now under criminal investigation (Mifsud) for working with the CIA and British intelligence abroad when interacting with me.”
- Denis Klimentov, who is associated with the New Economic School in Russia, said that when Russians learned that Carter Page, whose ties with Russia became a subject of the investigation, was involved “in the Trump campaign in July 2016, the excitement was palpable.”
- Andrej Krickovic, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said that he was embarrassed by a lecture Page gave on Iraq and energy policy, which was “not based on fact.”
Interviewing Anatoli Samochornov, the Russian translator at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, an FBI agent asked "if he noticed anything odd with the Russian linguists working at” the United Nations or US State Department. Samochornov “mentioned a few individuals.” Their names are redacted.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by BuzzFeed News and CNN, the FBI and Justice Department released 169 pages of interview summaries known as FBI 302s on the following individuals who were interviewed by Mueller's team: White House political adviser Stephen Miller; Petr Aven, chairman of the board of Alfa Bank, Russia's largest commercial bank; Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney; Robert Foresman, vice chairman of UBS Investment Bank; Denis Klimentov of the New Economic School in Moscow; Andrej Krickovic, a professor of the Higher School of Economics in Russia; former deputy national security adviser KT McFarland; political consultant Sam Patten; Anatoli Samochornov, a translator at the infamous June 6, 2016, Trump Tower meeting; Shlomo Weber, an economics professor at the New Economics School in Russia; former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort; former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, and former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Redactions were made to the records by the agencies citing numerous FOIA exemptions, such as national security, ongoing investigations and the threat to an individual's life or safety.
The documents were the subject last year of a protracted legal dispute between the House Judiciary Committee, which sought them as part of its impeachment inquiry, and the Department of Justice, which maintained that the committee was not entitled to the documents. The FBI and federal prosecutors conducted more than 500 interviews, but the committee focused on the summaries of interviews with 33 current and former top officials, including Jared Kushner, former White House counsel Don McGahn, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, and former chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Portions of some of the interview summaries are sprinkled throughout Mueller’s 448-page report, but many details were omitted. A set of documents released to BuzzFeed News earlier this month included the news that after the FBI raided Manafort's home, he sought to use Fox News host Sean Hannity as a “back channel” to the White House. Those documents also included what might be the earliest reference yet, from the summer of 2016, to the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, rather than Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails. That theory is now at the heart of the impeachment trial.
The Mueller report was the most hotly anticipated prosecutorial document in a generation, laying out the evidence of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and how Trump tried to obstruct the investigation. But it reflected only a tiny fraction of the primary-source documents that Mueller's team amassed over the course of its investigation.
Last May, BuzzFeed News, and later CNN, filed FOIA lawsuits against the FBI and Justice Department to gain access to the thousands of pages of interview summaries of all the witnesses who spoke to FBI agents and investigators. A judge directed the agencies to turn over 500 pages of interview summaries every month. The first batch of documents from Mueller’s cache was produced in November 2019 and another batch last month. Earlier this month, the agencies were supposed to begin turning over the summaries that were shared with the Judiciary Committee, but turned over only part, citing an “internal misunderstanding.”
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Although heavily redacted, the documents are still enlightening. Previous portions have revealed White House political adviser Stephen Miller’s role in the firing of then–FBI director James Comey; how Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen used Google to search for a phone number for the Kremlin, as part of his quest to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin at Trump Tower; that Hope Hicks called Papadopoulos a “problem child”; and that Trump asked McFarland to write an email saying that "the President never directed [former National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn to call the Russians about sanctions,” but a lawyer at the National Security Council advised her not to “because it was awkward and looked like a quid pro quo situation."
Prying loose the records has been a battle. For months, government lawyers had claimed in court that the interview summaries were tens of thousands of pages in total and would take as long as eight years to declassify. BuzzFeed News argued that the public interest in these documents, especially during an election year and a historic impeachment trial, justified releasing them on an expedited basis. But lawyers for the Department of Justice said the department’s resources were stretched too thin to turn over anything more than 500 pages per month. Two weeks ago, the FBI disclosed for the first time to BuzzFeed News and CNN that the interview summaries were in fact only 5,373 typewritten pages in total, and that the identities of 644 of the witnesses remain secret. The FBI agents’ handwritten notes, as well as emails, letters, and other evidence from the individual files of the witnesses, will be processed and released at a later time.
The FBI and the Justice Department have redacted vast portions of the more than 800 pages of documents it has so far released — including details that were already publicly disclosed in Mueller's report — citing exemptions under the FOIA to protect national security, attorney–client privilege, and ongoing investigations. BuzzFeed News and CNN are challenging those exemptions.
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 the 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.