Details emerge on Justice Department meeting with reporters on Manafort

Lawyers for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are crying foul over a meeting Justice Department prosecutors held with four Associated Press reporters last year as news organizations and the FBI bore down on the longtime lobbyist and political consultant.

Manafort’s defense has argued for months that the off-the-record session on April 11, 2017, was a potential conduit for improper leaks to the press about the probe that led to two criminal cases against the former Trump campaign chief.

Now, Manafort’s attorneys have fresh evidence they say bolsters their claims: two memos written by FBI agents who attended the meeting and documented their version of what transpired.

Manafort’s legal team paints the evidence as confirmation that journalists were given inside information about the investigation in violation of Justice Department policies and, perhaps, legal prohibitions on disclosure of grand jury secrets.

“The meeting raises serious concerns about whether a violation of grand jury secrecy occurred,” Manafort's lawyers wrote in a filing Friday with U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis, who’s set to oversee an upcoming trial of Manafort on bank and tax fraud charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. “Now, based on the FBI’s own notes of the meeting, it is beyond question that a hearing is warranted.”

One of the FBI memos indicates that the AP did get some information at the meeting. At the conclusion of the session, reporters got a vague assurance that they “appeared to have a good understanding of Manafort’s business dealings,” one memo says. The same memo says the meeting was “arranged” by Andrew Weissmann, then the chief of the fraud section of Justice’s Criminal Division and now the top prosecutor on the Manafort case. 

Weissmann responded to an AP query about Cyprus’ cooperation in the probe by urging the reporters to ask Cypriot officials whether they had given the U.S. all the information it sought about Manafort’s bank dealings there or just a portion of it, one of the memos says.

However, the memos indicate that the bulk of the information flow at the meeting went the other way, with the AP journalists providing the FBI with a bevy of facts the news organization uncovered during its inquiries into Manafort's work and finances. The meeting took place a day before the AP published a story saying that Manafort received at least some payments ascribed to him or his companies in a so-called black ledger of off-the-books spending by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Reporters do sometimes give government agencies a heads-up on forthcoming stories that could significantly affect an investigation, but the details in the FBI memos show that the AP provided numerous details to the officials about the news outlet's investigation. Many appear to have already been public, but some seem unreported, like a claim that Manafort sent an internal White House document to people he was working with in Ukraine. 

One of memos also says the purpose of the meeting was for the FBI to “obtain documents from the AP reporters,” although it’s unclear any documents were shown or changed hands.

The memos also show that one of the AP journalists gave the FBI an unusual detail about a storage unit in Alexandria, Virginia that Manafort used to keep records of his worldwide business dealings. Both memos say the AP revealed a code number to access the unit, although one memo says the reporters declined to share the unit number of the locker or its street address. (The memos give two slightly different versions of the code, with one suggesting it was to access a locked parking lot at the storage facility.)

The FBI agent who wrote one of the memos, Jeff Pfeiffer, testified last week that the tip from the AP may have led to discovery of the locker, although he said there was a possibility he had heard about the storage site before the April 2017 meeting. The FBI later found a Manafort aide who led them to the spot where Manafort’s records were stored. After looking in with the aide, the FBI got a search warrant and seized many of the records.

One journalism expert said he was taken aback by the AP sharing the code with the FBI, but he cautioned that the FBI's accounts are only their perspective on the meeting.

“I’m surprised by the access code notation, that does seem rather unorthodox if the FBI memo is accurate in stating or implying that the AP reporters volunteered that information,” said University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein. “Generally speaking, skepticism is warranted when it comes to self-reporting by both the FBI and news outlets about their interactions. Neither side is supposed to share confidential information with the other, but in fact each often does — perhaps to seek corroboration, perhaps to get other confidential information back in exchange or perhaps to spur on the other side's investigation.”

An AP spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the FBI reports, but said last month that the organization’s goal in the meeting was to gather news.

“Associated Press journalists met with representatives from the Department of Justice in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting, as reporters do,” spokeswoman Lauren Easton said. “During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location.”

The AP has vehemently objected in recent years to government actions it said threatened its independence as a news organization.


In 2014, the AP denounced the FBI’s impersonation of an AP reporter in a bid to gain access to the computer of a suspect in a case involving cyberattacks. “The agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press,” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said at the time. A year earlier, the AP lodged a formal complaint after investigators obtained phone records for numerous AP reporters as part of a leak investigation.

Manafort’s lawyers noted in their plea for a hearing on the issue that the House Intelligence Committee asked for more information on the meeting earlier this year. The defense attorneys also seem eager to get a hearing at which they can seek to call Weissmann to the stand. When Pfeiffer briefly testified about the meeting last month, Weissmann did not take his usual position at the prosecution table, instead opting to sit elsewhere in the courtroom.

A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined to comment Sunday on the 2017 meeting or the new court filings.

The FBI documents made public Friday by Manafort’s defense are not the standard forms the bureau uses when interviewing witnesses in a case. Instead, they’re formal internal memos known as “electronic communications.” Neither memo indicates who requested that the details of the session be written up. One of the memos is dated about three weeks after the session, and the other is dated a full month after the meeting.

Feldstein said journalists and law enforcement often have a different perspective on their interactions.

“FBI records may suggest reporters are something akin to confidential informants,just as reporters’ notes will suggest it’s the law enforcement officials who are sources for the journalists. And it’s not necessarily deliberately misleading; often each side views the other that way as they are more focused on what new information they picked up than what information they provided,” the former CNN and ABC reporter said. “It’s all part of the way the news sausage is made in Washington, even if it looks unappetizing to those who don’t know how it works.”



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