Now that Donald Trump has been impeached on two Ukraine-related articles, it's likely many Americans have lost track of the really important scandal, the one involving Russia and the Mueller Report. The latest on that topic came recently with the release of a second batch of investigative memos -- called 302s -- from a BuzzFeed News request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The first release of memos came on Nov. 2 and had an Alabama flavor, showing that former U.S. Sen. and ex-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Donald Trump were part of a conspiracy to obtain stolen Democratic emails.
BuzzFeed News released the second batch of memos on Dec. 2, and a federal judge has ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to release 500 pages of memos each month, with that process likely playing out for roughly eight years. Senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold, who has led the FOIA action for BuzzFeed, says the releases could go well beyond 302s. Writes Leopold:
The 302s are just the beginning. BuzzFeed News is pursuing five separate lawsuits to pry loose all the subpoenas and search warrants that Mueller’s team executed, as well as all emails, memos, letters, talking points, legal opinions, and financial records it generated. In short, we asked for all communications of any kind that passed through the special counsel’s office. We also requested all the documents that would reveal the discussions among Attorney General Bill Barr, former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, and other high-ranking officials about whether to charge Trump with obstruction.
What is in the second batch of memos? Here is a summary from BuzzFeed:
On [Dec. 2], in response to a court order, the Justice Department released the second installment: summaries of FBI interviews spanning hundreds of pages. These summaries, known as “302 reports,” are some of the most important and highly sought-after documents from Mueller’s investigation. They contain numerous redactions, which BuzzFeed News will challenge in our ongoing lawsuit.
The interview summaries released [Dec. 2] include Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former communications director Hope Hicks, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, former political aide Omarosa Manigault, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Here are highlights from key sections of the December release:
Michael Cohen said Trump family lawyers kept him from telling the truth
Cohen told FBI agents about negotiations to build a gleaming Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow, about how much Trump, who was then in the midst of a presidential campaign, knew about the negotiations, and about the false statement that Cohen later made to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about it all.
Cohen said that during the presidential campaign, he informed Trump that he had a discussion with a “woman from the Kremlin” about the plan to build the tower, according to a Nov. 20, 2018, summary of his interview with FBI agents and prosecutors from Mueller's team.
“Cohen told Trump he spoke with a woman from the Kremlin who had asked specific and great questions about Trump Tower Moscow, and that he wished Trump Organization had assistants that were that good and competent,” the FBI summary says.
He also said that in his letter to Congress about the development, he initially wrote that he had “limited contact with Russian officials.” But that line was struck from the letter. Cohen said he did not know who specifically struck it.
Rick Gates told the FBI that Paul Manafort urged him not to accept a plea deal
In an April 18, 2018 interview with FBI agents and prosecutors from Mueller's team, Gates said Paul Manafort told him in October or November 2017 that the White House would protect both of them and that it would be "stupid to plead" because they would get a "better deal down the road."
"Manafort said something like, 'I talked to Dowd. I've covered you at the White House' and added that a legal defense fund was coming and they were going to 'take care of us.' Manafort told Gates there were two funds out there. The first was called 'Patriot Defense Funds' and it covered White House staff. The other fund would cover anyone outside of the White House and Manafort and Gates would be '#1 and #2 on that list,'" according to a summary of Gates's interview.
Rod Rosenstein was "overcome with emotion" when he discussed Comey's firing
Following Comey’s firing on May 9, Christie told investigators that Trump called him and complained that he was “getting murdered,” presumably in the press, for the firing. Christie asked Trump whether he’d fired Comey because of Rosenstein’s memo, to which Trump replied “yes.” Christie then recommended that Trump “get Rod out there” to defend the decision. Trump said he liked the idea and would call Rosenstein.
On May 10, Rosenstein called Mueller — already thinking about appointing a special counsel. Rosenstein had learned from an FBI briefing that Trump was not a suspect and said he appointed Mueller due to how the public would react to the firing.
Rosenstein told the FBI that days before Mueller was appointed special counsel he was considered to replace Comey as FBI director. Mueller shared ideas about "what should be done with the FBI," which Sessions thought was "brilliant." Mueller interviewed for the FBI director's job on May 16 and met with Trump at the White, "but later decided to withdraw from consideration," Rosenstein told the FBI.
The next day, Mueller was appointed as special counsel. This previously undisclosed detail contradicts assertions by Trump that Mueller had applied for and was denied the job as FBI director.
Hope Hicks said Trump was “angry, surprised, and frustrated” when Mueller was appointed
Hicks, one of Trump's closest aides and former White House communications director, told investigators that Trump was “angry, surprised, and frustrated” when Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation in May 2017.
Hicks then mentioned Sessions, who had recused himself from the probe, followed by a short redacted section, but then she added: “The only other time she had seen Trump like that was when the Access Hollywood tape came out during the campaign.”
Hope Hicks told the FBI she was “shocked” by emails about the Trump Tower meeting
Hicks told federal investigators that she was “shocked” by emails between Donald Trump Jr. and others who attended a controversial meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. Hicks, the former White House communications director, told the FBI that in June 2017, one year after the meeting took place, she reviewed emails about it and “thought they looked really bad,” according to an interview summary obtained by BuzzFeed News in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Senior Trump campaign officials attended the June 2016 meeting after being promised incriminating information on Clinton and after being told that it was part of the Russian government’s support of Trump. Emails released in July 2017 by Trump Jr. revealed that he responded enthusiastically to the offer before setting up the meeting, which became a focal point for both former special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators probing Russian election interference.
In a June 2017 meeting at the White House, Hicks, the president, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner discussed the Trump Tower meeting. “Kushner had a manila folder with documents with him and said to the President that they had found one thing that the President should know about, but it was not a big deal,” Hicks told the FBI.
Kushner then explained that he and other campaign officials had attended the meeting, “and started to open the folder when the President stopped him and said he did not want to know about it.” Hicks “speculated” that the envelope contained the emails she would later review, the interview summary says.
Representatives for Kushner and Trump Jr. didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kushner’s claim that the meeting was “not a big deal” echoes the frequent argument from Trump, his family, and his allies that the Trump Tower meeting was fruitless and focused on the issue of American adoptions of Russian children. But the documents released Monday to BuzzFeed News further reveal serious concerns within the White House about the meeting, as well as how those in Trump’s orbit wanted to handle the eventual release of the emails.
A note from BuzzFeed News: We want your help! If you see something in these memos, email reporter Jason Leopold at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach us securely at tips.buzzfeed.com.