During the 2016 election, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort pushed the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hack of Democratic National Committee servers, Manafort’s deputy told investigators during the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The unsubstantiated theory, advanced by Donald Trump even after he took office, would later help trigger the impeachment inquiry now consuming the White House.
Notes from an FBI interview were released on Saturday after lawsuits by BuzzFeed News and CNN led to public access to hundreds of pages of documents from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The documents included summaries of interviews with other figures from the Mueller investigation, including Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Information related to Ukraine took on renewed interest after calls for impeachment based on efforts by the president and his administration to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Democrat Joe Biden. Speaking with Ukraine’s new president in July, Trump asked about the DNC servers in the same phone call in which he pushed for an investigation into Biden.
On Sunday, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway was asked on CNN’s State of the Union if Trump accepted the intelligence community’s belief that Russia hacked the DNC, or if he thought Ukraine did.
Conway prevaricated, saying: “He’s said it many times. It could be Russia. It could be Ukraine. It could be a guy in New Jersey.”
Asked again, Conway said: “The president has great faith in the US intelligence community. The emails don’t matter.”
Manafort speculated about Ukraine’s responsibility as the campaign sought to capitalize on the DNC email disclosures and as Trump associates discussed how they could get hold of the material themselves, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates told investigators, according to a summary of one of his interviews.
Gates said Manafort’s assertion that Ukraine might have done it echoed the position of Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort business associate who had also speculated that the hack could have been carried out by Russian operatives in Ukraine.
US authorities have assessed that Kilimnik, who was also charged in Mueller’s investigation, has ties to Russian intelligence. Mueller’s team indicted 12 Russian agents in connection with the intrusion.
Gates also said the campaign believed that Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s first national security adviser, would be in the best position to obtain Hillary Clinton’s missing emails because of his Russia connections.
Flynn said he could use his intelligence sources to obtain the emails and was “adamant that Russians did not carry out the hack” because he believed the US intelligence community couldn’t have figured out the source, according to the agent’s notes. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Mueller’s investigation concluded in March with a report that found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The report also examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to seize control of the Russia investigation but did not conclude one way or the other about whether the president obstructed justice. Attorney general William Barr, appointed by Trump, concluded that the president had not committed a crime.
Gates worked with Manafort in a lucrative consulting business that included Ukraine and later testified against him. Gates pleaded guilty last year and has been one of the government’s key cooperators. He has yet to be sentenced as he continues working with investigators. Manafort was sentenced to more than seven years in prison, in part for financial crimes arising from his Ukraine work.
During his interviews with investigators, Gates said Donald Trump Jr would ask where the hacked emails were during family meetings in summer 2016. Gates recalled that other key campaign aides, including future attorney general Jeff Sessions, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Flynn, also “expressed interest in obtaining the emails as well”, according to an agent’s written summary of one interview.
The identity of one person who expressed interest in the emails is blanked out.
One time on the campaign aircraft, Gates told the FBI, Donald Trump said “get the emails”. Gates also said that another point, Trump told him more leaks were coming, though the heavily redacted documents do not indicate how Trump knew that.
Gates also described conversations with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who entered the White House as chief of staff. Gates described the RNC as energized by the emails and said that though Trump and Kushner were initially skeptical about cooperating with the RNC, “the WikiLeaks issue was a turning point”, the FBI notes show. WikiLeaks was the website that published the stolen emails in the weeks before the election.
The campaign was very pleased by the releases, though Trump was advised not to react but rather to let it all play out, according to the interview summaries.
The RNC would put out press releases to amplify the emails’ release, Gates told the FBI.
“The RNC also indicated they knew the timing of the upcoming releases,” though Gates didn’t specify who had that information. “Gates said the only non-public information the RNC had was related to the timing of the releases.”
Manafort, meanwhile, was trying to advise the Trump campaign even after severing ties, causing alarm among some senior advisers.
Manafort emailed Kushner on 5 November 2016, days before the election, saying he was feeling good about a Trump presidency, was “focusing on preserving the victory” and had sent a memo to Priebus and briefed Gates and Fox News host Sean Hannity, a close Trump ally.
Kushner sent the email to Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who replied: “We need to avoid this guy like the plague.”
“They are going to try and say the Russians worked with wiki leaks sic to give this victory to us,” Bannon wrote to Kushner and David Bossie, another Trump associate. “Paul is nice guy but can’t let word get out he is advising us.”