The federal government has once again released hundreds of pages of previously unseen records from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry.
These documents, interview summaries known within the FBI as 302s, were turned over to BuzzFeed News and CNN in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They reveal what hundreds of people — many of them close to Trump and his campaign — told federal investigators when they were questioned as part of the probe, which began in May 2017.
Since last November, more than 3,000 pages of the interview summaries, excerpts of which are sprinkled throughout Mueller’s final report, have been released to the public. However, many details were never cited in the report. For example, Paul Manafort was still actively advising the Trump campaign three days before Election Day in 2016 — despite having been fired as campaign manager nearly three months earlier. That fact, wrote Trump’s next campaign manager, Steve Bannon, in an email, needed to be kept secret or “they are going to try to say the Russians worked with wiki leaks to give this victory to us.”
The latest cache includes additional interview summaries from Manafort and his associate Rick Gates; Nicholas Panuzio, who ran Manafort's public relations and lobbying firm in the 1980s and 1990s; Trump campaign adviser J.D. Gordon; former spokesperson for the Office of Director of National Intelligence, Timothy Barrett, who now works as a spokesperson for CIA; and Ricky Pinedo, a California man who sold bank account numbers to Russians — some of whom were later indicted by Mueller for interfering in the 2016 election. The identities of dozens of other witnesses were redacted on privacy grounds.
The letter and the law
At 4:51 p.m. on May 9, 2017, an hour before Trump fired James Comey, the White House was getting impatient. It asked the FBI for Comey’s email address. Given the option of classified or unclassified, the reply was, “it doesn’t matter, just give us his email address.” Four minutes later, according to the version of events provided by the FBI agent to Mueller’s team, the bureau’s command center was notified that White House aide and longtime Trump associate Keith Schiller was at the FBI headquarters building with a letter for Comey. FBI staff scrambled to find someone to receive it. At around 5:38 p.m., a person whose name was redacted met with Schiller and accepted the letter, which was delivered to Comey’s office two minutes later.
Comey was not in Washington at the time; he learned about it from a news bulletin while meeting with FBI agents in Los Angeles. Still, the agent told Mueller’s office that one of the FBI staff involved — it’s not clear who, given the many redactions — commented that whoever conveyed the letter “may have just handled history.”
Not Trump’s errand boy
Paul Manafort spoke to Mueller’s office at length about his old business partner, Roger Stone. Manafort described in detail how the two were in touch when Manafort ran Trump’s campaign in the spring and summer of 2016, but Stone was no longer an official part of the operation. Manafort made clear that he believed Stone had some line of communication to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, albeit an indirect one.
On June 12, 2016, Assange announced that WikiLeaks planned to release a cache of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Manafort said he told Trump that Stone had predicted it correctly, and Trump asked if Stone knew what was in them; Manafort said no.
Manafort said he told Stone to stay on top of what WikiLeaks was doing, but did not mention that the request came from Trump, because he didn’t want to be an “errand boy.”
Manafort said Stone claimed to have no control over the October 2016 release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s hacked emails, but said he may have had advance knowledge.
“Manafort was confused as to the various people and hacks,” according to the interview summary, and at one point asked Stone to walk him through it all.
Putin has “bit off more than he can chew”
A person whose name was redacted on privacy grounds was interviewed over the phone by the FBI on Oct. 10, 2017. A portion of the interview was redacted. But the person told the FBI that in their opinion, "Russian President Vladimir Putin has 'bit off more than he can chew' in his government's efforts to interfere in the U.S. election."
"The Russian administration sought to throw a wrench into the U.S. political process for what it perceived was a slight by the Obama administration in which Russia was not taken seriously," the interview summary said.
In another interview, an individual involved in fundraising for Trump whose name was redacted, told investigators in December 2017 that the campaign seemed totally unprepared to raise money or ensure that it complied with federal election laws. The campaign, which the person called “unorthodox,” had no donor lists and was not actively raising money as late as May 2016, when he became the Republican party’s presumptive nominee for president. “The only activity was the campaign merchandise store,” the interview summary said.
Following a fundraiser hosted by Tom Barrack, the private equity baron and close ally of Trump, money began pouring in. But little attention seemed to be paid internally to ensuring that federal election rules were followed, including verifying whether non-US citizens might be contributing. The witness “was asked but was not sure of what controls the campaign had in place for foreign, excessive, or other ineligible contributions,” the interview summary said.
An ongoing investigation
The newest entry in the interview summaries is Timothy Barrett, the former spokesperson for the Office of Director of National Intelligence who now works for CIA in the same capacity. Barrett was interviewed by FBI agents in the Washington field office on Nov. 29, 2017. His connection to the Mueller probe has not been previously reported.
He discussed with agents a phone call he received from Souad Mekhennet, a Washington Post reporter who wrote a book about the Islamic State. Mekhennet had queried Barrett about a story she had been working on and she was seeking confirmation "as well as guidance on if there were reasons she should not publish the story."
"Barrett told her he would ask around about the inquiry. Barrett then informed the ODNI National Intelligence Officer for Russia-Eurasia," the interview summary said.
The details of what she was reporting are redacted because a portion of it relates to an ongoing law enforcement investigation. That’s notable because most of the investigations that came out of Mueller’s inquiry have ended by now. Barrett and Mekhennet were unavailable for comment Tuesday evening.
Although the Mueller investigation ultimately led to 37 indictments and seven convictions, Trump has aggressively sought to discredit it since the time it was launched, repeatedly referring to it as a “witch hunt.” Those efforts have been supported by Attorney General Bill Barr, who has intervened in several cases related to the investigation, including the prosecutions of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and political consultant Roger Stone.
The final 448-page Mueller report, released in April 2019, reflected only a tiny fraction of the information gathered by Mueller’s team of federal prosecutors and FBI and IRS agents amassed over the course of the two-year probe. Much of the contents of the typewritten summaries taken for each and every interview has never before been reviewed publicly. A month after the report was released, BuzzFeed News sued the FBI and the Department of Justice, seeking access to those records. That litigation was subsequently joined by CNN.
The majority of the 302s have been heavily redacted, leaving vast swaths of information about what witnesses told investigators obscured from view. BuzzFeed News has challenged some of those redactions, arguing in court that one category of exemption the government has cited to justify the withholdings was legally unfounded, politically motivated, and implemented solely to protect the president.
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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