President Trump's disgraced onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort sought to advance the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email servers during the 2016 campaign, according to newly released notes from an FBI interview with Manafort's former deputy, Rick Gates.
In July 2018, a federal grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials for allegedly hacking the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 campaign. However, Gates told investigators that Manafort speculated that Ukraine might be responsible as the Trump campaign sought to capitalize on disclosures from the DNC emails and associates discussed how they could get hold of the material themselves.
In July of this year, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the DNC servers in the same phone call in which he pushed for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. That call has served as the catalyst for House Democrats' ongoing impeachment inquiry against the president.
"I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine," Trump told Zelensky, according to a memorandum of the conversation that was made public in September. "They say Crowdstrike ... I guess you have one of your wealthy people ... the server, they say Ukraine has it. ... I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it."
In an April 2018 interview, Gates said that after the campaign learned in June 2016 that Wikileaks had the roughly 20,000 hacked DNC emails, Manafort said the hack was “likely carried by the Ukrainians, not the Russians,” contradicting the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. Gates said that Manafort's assertion echoed the position of his business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who speculated the hack could have been carried out by Russian operatives in Ukraine. U.S. authorities have assessed that Kilimnik, who was also charged in Mueller's investigation, has ties to Russian intelligence.
Gates also said the campaign believed that Michael Flynn, who later 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 that the U.S. 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 his contacts with then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
During his interviews with investigators, Gates said that Donald Trump Jr. would ask where the hacked emails were during family meetings in the summer of 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 of the people who expressed interest in the emails is blanked out.
One time on the campaign aircraft, Gates told the FBI, candidate Trump said "get the emails." Gates also said that another point, Trump told him that more leaks were coming, though the heavily redacted documents do not indicate how Trump knew that.
Gates also described conversations with the then-chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Reince Priebus, who later entered the White House as the first chief of staff. 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 at the RNC had that information. "Gates said the only non-public information the RNC had was related to the timing of the releases."
Mueller's investigation concluded in March with a report that found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. The report also examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to seize control of the Russia probe but did not conclude one way or the other about whether the president had illegally obstructed justice. Attorney General William Barr ultimately concluded that the president had not committed a crime.
Gates worked with Manafort in a lucrative international political consulting business that included Ukraine and later testified against him. Gates pleaded guilty last year in Mueller's investigation 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.
In a January 2017 report, the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded Russian intelligence gained access to DNC servers in July 2015 and maintained access through July 2016. The report concluded with “high confidence” that Russian intelligence used WikiLeaks and other sources to release hacked emails from the DNC.
The release showed DNC staffers appeared to undermine the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, in favor of Hillary Clinton, leading former group chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Clinton supporter, to resign.
Manafort, meanwhile, was trying to advise the Trump campaign even after severing ties with the campaign in the summer of 2016, causing alarm among some of the candidate's most senior advisers.
Manafort emailed Kushner on Nov. 5, 2016, just days before the election, saying he was feeling good about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Kushner sent Manafort's 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, in his reply. "Paul is nice guy but can't let word get out he is advising us."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.