The federal government on Friday released a special bumper crop of interviews conducted as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged attempts by President Donald Trump to obstruct that inquiry.
Each month, the Justice Department releases hundreds of pages of FBI records to BuzzFeed News and CNN in response to a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act. Collectively, the documents show what hundreds of people told the special counsel’s office behind closed doors during its two-year probe, which began in May 2017.
- Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort said that after BuzzFeed News published the Steele dossier, he spoke to the president about it. The information about Manafort was not true, he told the president, “including the payments in the cash ledger,” referring to secret payments made to him from Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych.
- “Trump told Manafort that the information about Michael Cohen in Prague and Trump in Moscow was similarly not true,” the interview summary said. “Trump was generally upset that his victory was being undermined.”
- Manafort hired Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his close associates, to “research evidence” about the claims leveled against him in the dossier. Kilimnik has since been identified as a Russian intelligence officer in a recently released report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
- In 2018, Manafort got a burner phone to communicate with Kilimnik. Manafort also spoke to his partner Rick Gates on that phone. Kilimnik, Manafort said, sent him documents via his Hushmail account.
- Manafort said that former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who as a prosecutor had once helped send Jared Kushner's father to prison, sought help to “try to repair the relationship” with the president's son-in-law. Christie was in charge of the Trump team's transition, but Kushner “engineered the Transition away,” Manafort said. Despite “four or five telephone calls,” he had “no success in talking with Kushner about these issues.”
- Manafort believed that the June 9 Trump Tower meeting between senior Trump campaign officials and Russian visitors “may have been a setup” designed to “create questions about whether the Trump Campaign was working with the Russian government.” He claimed the meeting may have been engineered by the Kremlin via Emin and Aras Agaralov, billionaire Russian developers close to Trump.
- White House counsel Don McGahn said that on Father’s Day weekend 2017, the president repeatedly asked him to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentstein that Mueller had conflicts of interest and couldn’t be special counsel. McGahn told investigators he “felt stuck and trapped.”
- According to an interview with McGahn’s chief of staff, Anniel Donaldson, after the president made those requests, McGahn packed his office and prepared a resignation letter, saying he’d “had it.” Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, intervened, telling McGahn, “No, you can’t do that.”
- A 16-page summary of the interview with the FBI’s then deputy director, Andrew McCabe, almost entirely redacted for national security and other reasons, discusses whether Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn violated the law against unauthorized negotiations with countries the US is in conflict with.
- McCabe also discussed former FBI Director James Comey’s infamous 2017 meeting with Trump where he said the president demanded his loyalty. “Comey telephoned McCabe after leaving his dinner with Trump and expressed shock over his experience,” the interview summary said, adding that Comey “described the request for loyalty.”
- Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Russia dossier on Trump, was interviewed over two days in September 2017 by the FBI. Investigators described that interview over 26 pages, but all of those pages are completely redacted. Steele’s business partner, Chris Burrows, was interviewed as well.
- A July 12, 2017 interview summary from Mike Rogers, the Navy admiral who headed the NSA, was marked top secret and is heavily redacted, but it reveals new details about a call Trump made to complain about the Russia investigation. It also contains information about a “private conversation” with the president on April 13, 2017 that Rogers described “as President Trump ‘venting,’ and recalled President Trump saying something like the ‘Russia thing has got to go away.’ He also recalled President Trump saying something similar to ‘I have done nothing wrong.’”
- Edward Gistaro, a veteran intelligence official who delivered the presidential daily brief, said that Trump told him, “ ‘you guys know there’s no collusion, can’t you guys put out a press statement’ or words to that effect.”
- Prior to an official Malaysian visit in Fall 2017, an individual close to the country’s prime minister met with Trump to discuss a Justice Department investigation of 1MDB, a corrupt state investment fund. According to lobbyist Rick Gates, the president told the person “that he would take care of it” and that “he absolutely should not” go to then-Attorney General Sessions with the issue.
- Gates later met with the individual and suggested he reach out to two high-ranking Justice Department attorneys, one of whom was known to be loyal to the president. Last week, Goldman Sachs became the latest entity to plead guilty in the sprawling 1MDB scandal, agreeing to pay nearly $3 billion to resolve its role in the case.
A timely element just four days before the presidential election: The FBI interview summary of Trump’s former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates contains some interesting details about how the Trump campaign viewed polling data in 2016.
“As early as March 2016, states were categorized as ‘must hold,’ ‘battleground’ and ‘potential.’ States were put into one of these categories based upon polling data. Manafort was a strong believer in polls,” the interview summary said.
According to what Gates told the FBI, the campaign believed “the best chance for Trump to win traditionally Democrat states was to focus on those states with a large contingency of blue-collar Democrats.”
“Historical data along with earlier polling data was used to whittle the states down. Then Brad Parscale’s digital campaign was used to focus in those states,” the interview summary said, adding that his digital “model” was cheaper and provided the campaign with crucial details about millennial and elderly demographics, which allowed the campaign to “micro-target specific groups.”
Gates said he brought Parscale to New York to work with Trump’s pollster Tony Fabrizio, Kellyanne Conway and Cambridge Analytica, which claimed to be able to conduct “psychological polling.”
Gates said by August 2016, Jared Kushner had “directed campaign resources to concentrate on Florida and Pennsylvania.”
Trump’s pollster identified Wisconsin as a “steal state” early on while Pennsylvania was “fool’s gold,” meaning Trump was unlikely to win in the state. (Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes in 2016 and Wisconsin by 22,748 votes.)
Trump believed he could win Florida because of his “business connections,” the interview summary said.
Gates sent Kilimnik, who the Senate Intelligence Committee identified as a Russian intelligence officer, internal data from Fabrizio’s polls. He told the FBI Manafort instructed him to do so.
Thousands of pages of these documents — witness interview summaries, known as 302s — have been released to date.
Today’s oversize batch has a special provenance: These 302s were sent to 16 other government agencies, from the CIA to the Secret Service to the Internal Revenue Service, for vetting to ensure their release would not interfere with ongoing investigations or threaten national security. Though the documents have been heavily — if not completely — redacted, their release, on the eve of a presidential election, provides further insight into the workings of the Mueller probe, extending far beyond the 448-page final report it produced in 2019.
In addition, a federal judge, ruling in another case brought by BuzzFeed News, found last month that the Justice Department had improperly redacted significant portions of the Mueller report. The judge ordered the government to unredact and publish those portions by Nov. 2.
To date, the Mueller probe has produced 37 indictments and seven convictions; it has also led to numerous other criminal investigations ongoing around the country. Trump has consistently tried to discredit the investigation, with the president frequently dismissing it as a “witch hunt.”
Trump has found significant support in that effort from his attorney general, Bill Barr, who overlooked major findings of the probe when he announced its conclusion in March 2019. Barr has since intervened in cases related to the investigation, among them the prosecutions of political consultant Roger Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Barr also tapped a US attorney in Connecticut, John Durham, to investigate the origins of the Russia inquiry; the results are expected later this fall.
BuzzFeed News sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under FOIA for access to the hundreds of 302s compiled during the course of the Mueller investigation; that litigation was subsequently joined by CNN. While Mueller’s final report drew heavily on those 302s, much of the content of the typewritten summaries for every single interview conducted by the investigators has never before been revealed to the public.
BuzzFeed News has challenged some of those redactions in court and is also pursuing multiple lawsuits asking the government to release a large volume of other documents generated by the special counsel’s office, including memoranda, talking points, financial records, and legal opinions.
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.