U.S. President Donald Trump, Ukrainian hackers, the Israeli Mossad and Kyrgyz realtors — they’re not exactly people you would expect to find in one room together.
But they all make appearances in newly released interview notes from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The 274-page file includes Mueller team notes from interviews with former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, former top campaign official Steve Bannon and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen; emails and other documents shedding light on the inner workings of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Published by U.S. media CNN and BuzzFeed News on Nov. 3, the interview notes show how Trump’s team attempted to defend then-Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort after news broke about his shady connections to Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
On Aug. 14, 2016, the New York Times published a story revealing that Manafort’s name appeared in the so-called “black ledger,” a record of off-the-books payments made by Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. According to the ledger, Manafort received $12.7 million dollars for his consultancy work in Ukraine, the Times reported.
According to the interview notes, Manafort had known that the black ledger story was “coming out for approximately 2 months and had not gotten involved in it.”
It is unclear how Manafort could have known about the story so far in advance. In the book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” veteran journalist Bob Woodward also recounts Manafort telling Bannon that he had known about the story for two months.
However, Andrew Kramer, a Times journalist and one of the authors of the black ledger story, said that he had only been working on that piece for around two weeks.
“He could probably know that we were working on stories about him in general and his work in Ukraine because we did a story…in July 2016,” Kramer told the Kyiv Post.
According to the Mueller interview notes, Bannon would go on to instruct Trump to keep Manafort and “to not fire him, and to keep him around for a couple of weeks.”
That wasn’t the end of the Trump campaign’s efforts to defend Manafort. Bannon called Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law, who currently serves as his senior advisor and was then digital media strategist on the campaign — and asked him “to do something publicity wise to counteract the negative press surrounding the story.”
One of the strategies to defend Manafort, according to former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, was to attack John Podesta, the then-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
“The idea was that Podesta had baggage as well,” the document reads. Eventually, 20,000 pages of Podesta’s emails, many of which were work-related, would be hacked and published by the international anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks in October and November 2016. But Gates said, “It was unfortunate the information did not come out in time to defend Manafort from his ultimate departure from the campaign.”
On Aug. 19, 2016, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign. He was later convicted of tax and bank fraud and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.
After Manafort stepped down from the campaign, the Trump team’s approach to its former chairman pivoted. They now tried to distance themselves from him to the point that they stopped replying to his emails.
“Bannon advised not to respond to emails from Manafort because he didn’t want the campaign to be linked to Manafort,” the document reads. Bannon thought if they responded to any emails from him, “Manafort would be telling that to everyone.”
Bannon wanted to avoid Manafort because he believed that if people could link them to Manafort, they could then try to link them to Russia.
According to the interview notes, Trump didn’t get overly involved in Manafort’s case and had “asked Bannon at one time about ‘what was this thing with Manafort out of the Ukraine (sic).’” They talked about it for approximately 15 minutes, the interview notes state.
The document also says that “Trump was never linked with other Russian news stories at the time, and he believed Manafort was a ‘promoter.’ Trump was more worried about how the story made them look,” it reads.
Hillary’s emails, hackers from Ukraine
The notes also show Manafort and his associates pushing a narrative that it was Ukrainians — and not Russians — who hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers and Podesta’s email account.
The document indicates that the Trump campaign team knew from an unknown source that someone had these emails, and they tried to obtain them to help Trump’s campaign. Trump’s deputy campaign chair Gates recalled a time on the campaign aircraft when candidate Trump said “get the emails.”
Gates said the priority focus of the Trump campaign opposition research team was Clinton’s emails — which they believed were in someone’s possession — and contributions to the Clinton Foundation. The interest in the emails was particularly ratcheting up in April–May 2016.
The problem was that they had no idea who had them. That is likely because Clinton’s personal email server was not hacked. The then-presidential candidate faced extensive criticism for using a private email account — rather than an official U.S. government one — for official business while serving as Secretary of State in the administration of Barack Obama. However, no breach of her account was ever proven, and a State Department investigation into the emails scandal found that, while 38 employees had broken security regulations, there was no “persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information,” the Washington Post reported on Oct. 19, 2019.
But the Trump campaign was committed to finding the emails. The team discussed several possible holders of the emails: Ukrainian hackers as well as the Russian, Chinese and the Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency. There was even “a group of realtors from Kyrgyzstan claiming to have information that may be of use to the campaign.”
However, Gates recalled that Manafort, who “primarily had contacts with Ukrainians,” said “the hack was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians.” According to the notes, Manafort’s position parroted one pushed by Konstantin Kilimnik, a political consultant who worked for Manafort and was reputed to have ties to Russian intelligence. “Kilimnik also opined the hack could have been perpetrated by Russian operatives in Ukraine,” the interview notes read. Trump’s advisor at the time, General Michael Flynn, was also “adamant” the Russians did not carry out the hack.
Trump would later advocate the idea that Ukraine had hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers — effectively a conspiracy theory — in his notorious July 25, 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“(O)ur country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” Trump said, according to a memorandum reconstructing the call. “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
Crowdstrike is the private cybersecurity firm that investigated the hack. There is no evidence that there is a missing DNC server or that it is in Ukraine.
In June 2016, WikiLeaks published the hacked Democratic Party emails. According to Gates, Trump’s team was “euphoric” about the publication, which appeared to become a “turning point” in the election campaign. Gates also indicated that, based on a conversation with Manafort, he knew that the Republican National Committee “was going to run the Wikileaks issue to ground.”
He “recalled a conversation” with someone before the leak in which that person told him that WikiLeaks would be releasing information.
Later, the RNC would put out press releases that would serve to amplify the WikiLeaks releases.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian intelligence services were behind the DNC and Podesta hacks and had passed the information on to Wikileaks.
Clinton’s supposedly missing emails were not found. “Trump was generally frustrated,” according to Gates.
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