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story.lead_photo.caption In this file photo Paul Manafort (center) arrives in court, Thursday, June 27, 2019 in New York.

President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, suggested as early as the summer of 2016 that Ukrainians might have been responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign rather than Russians, a key witness told federal investigators last year.

Newly released documents show that Manafort's protege, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, told the FBI of Manafort's theory during interviews conducted as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Gates told the FBI that Manafort had revealed his theory of Ukrainian culpability to him and other campaign aides before the election.

The new information shows how early people in Trump's orbit were pushing the unsubstantiated theory about Ukraine's role. And it illustrates a link between Mueller's investigation, which concluded in March, and the current House impeachment investigation of Trump. The president had pushed Ukrainians to open an investigation into whether their country interfered in the election -- an assertion his allies have made in an effort to discredit Mueller's findings about Russia's role.

The documents were released in response to lawsuits filed by BuzzFeed and CNN seeking documents related to Mueller's investigation. BuzzFeed on Saturday published the first installment of internal Mueller records, released by the Justice Department in response to a court order.

They include heavily redacted summaries of FBI interviews of Gates, as well as the inverviews with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former senior adviser Steve Bannon, along with other documents.

The documents show that Gates told the FBI that Trump adviser Michael Flynn had been "adamant" that the Russians were not responsible for the hacking.

Flynn, who served briefly as Trump's first national security adviser, pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Last month, his lawyers suggested that he had not intended to lie and was instead entrapped by the FBI.

Sidney Powell, an attorney for Flynn, on Saturday called Gates' statement regarding Flynn "hogwash."

The documents also help explain why Mueller and his team spent months investigating the possibility that Trump's campaign may have had advanced knowledge of releases of emails purportedly stolen by Russia and released publicly by WikiLeaks.

Interview summaries show that Gates told the FBI of various moments that led him to believe that Trump and others might have learned of WikiLeaks' plans ahead of time. An attorney for Gates, who has been cooperating with prosecutors since pleading guilty in February 2018 to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

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, and Mueller's 448-page report did not accuse anyone of having advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans.

The report also examined numerous 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 obstructed justice. Attorney General William Barr ultimately concluded that the president had not committed a crime.

MANAFORT EMPLOYEE

Regarding Ukraine, a summary of an interview with Gates conducted in April 2018 shows that he told the FBI that Manafort citing Ukrainians for the hacks "parroted a narrative" that also was advanced at the time by Konstantin Kilimnik -- an employee of Manafort who the FBI has assessed to have ties to Russian intelligence services.

Trump and some of his allies have long pursued a theory that Ukraine had a hand in interfering with the 2016 election. Witnesses testifying before the House impeachment inquiry have indicated that they believe Trump conditioned military aid to Ukraine on that nation's new president agreeing to open an investigation into its role in the 2016 election as well as an inquiry of Trump's domestic political rivals.

In a July 25 phone call, Trump personally urged Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate the matter.

The theory would serve to undermine any suggestion that Trump needed Russian assistance to win the election -- and exonerate Russia for its role. The U.S. intelligence community has indicated it has a high degree of confidence that it was Russia and not Ukraine or any other country that was to blame for the hacking. In July 2018, Mueller's prosecutors indicted 12 Russian military officers and accused them of orchestrating the hacks.

Gates' comments suggested that the theory that Ukraine was to blame for the hacks may have originated with Kilimnik, a Russian employee of Manafort's political consulting operation in Kyiv.

Kilimnik was charged with tampering with witnesses in the Mueller investigation. He is believed to be in Moscow. He has denied ties to Russian intelligence services and did not respond to a request for comment Saturday. Gates told the FBI that Kilimnik also had suggested that the hacks could have been conducted by Russian operatives working out of Ukraine.

WIKILEAKS' ROLE

The newly released documents show that Gates also told the FBI that Trump's campaign was euphoric after WikiLeaks began publishing the hacked emails in July 2016, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, and eager to put them to use to help the election bid. He testified that he believed the Republican National Committee appeared to have advanced knowledge of the timing of email releases through WikiLeaks. A spokesmen for the Republican National Committee did not immediately return a request for comment.

During his interviews with investigators, Gates told the FBI that Donald Trump Jr. would ask during family meetings in the summer of 2016 where the hacked emails were. Gates recalled that other key campaign aides, including future Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump's 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.

Gates told the FBI that shortly after the Democratic convention he was traveling in a car with Trump to the airport from Trump Tower in New York when Trump received a phone call related to WikiLeaks. After boarding an airplane, Gates said, Trump informed him that additional releases of information would be forthcoming.

In October 2016, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the account of John Podesta, the campaign chairman for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Gates also described conversations with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who later entered the White House as Trump's first chief of staff. He described the Republicans as energized by the emails and said that though Trump and Kushner were initially skeptical about cooperating with the committee, "the WikiLeaks issue was a turning point," the FBI notes show. The campaign also was very pleased by the releases, though Trump was advised not to react to it but rather to let it all play out.

After the WikiLeaks release, the Republican National Committee would put out news releases to amplify the emails' release, Gates told the FBI. "The RNC also indicated they knew the timing of the upcoming releases," Gates said, though he didn't specify who at the committee had that information. "Gates said the only non-public information the RNC had was related to the timing of the releases," the FBI notes say.

In written answers to questions posed by Mueller, Trump indicated he had no advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans. At the time, Trump confidant Roger Stone was bragging publicly and privately that he had information about WikiLeaks' plans. He has since said his boasts were exaggerated and he was not in contact with WikiLeaks.

Stone goes on trial Tuesday in Washington, accused of lying to Congress about his efforts to learn WikiLeaks' plans.

As the Trump campaign scrambled to learn what WikiLeaks held, Gates told the FBI that he could remember a moment on the campaign plane when candidate Trump ordered his subordinates: "Get the emails." Flynn responded that he could use his "intelligence sources" to try to obtain copies of the stolen emails in WikiLeaks' possession.

The documents show that the Trump campaign struggled at times to decide how to respond to the growing evidence that Russia was interfering with the election.

As reports of the Russian effort mounted leading to Election Day, Erik Prince, a military contractor and informal adviser to Trump's campaign, emailed Bannon suggesting that the campaign create "an alternative narrative" about Russia's efforts -- and that the Kremlin wanted Clinton, and not Trump, to win.

"Consider this response," Prince wrote in the October 2016 email released on Saturday. "It's unclear to me if Russia is directly involved in attempting to influence the US election. That said, its safe to say they are keenly interested, and likely using surrogates to poke in the US election. Who does the Kremlin want to see in the White House? Ms. Clinton."

Trump has adopted the line repeatedly since his 2016 victory.

"You look at all of the different things, Russia would've much rather had Hillary than Donald Trump. I can tell you that right now," Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity in March, at the conclusion of Mueller's investigation.

Information for this article was contributed by Rosalind S. Helderman, Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett, Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Colby Itkowitz of The Washington Post; and by Eric Tucker, Mike Balsamo and Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press.

Photo by AP file photo
In this Feb. 23, 2018, file photo, Rick Gates leaves federal court in Washington.

A Section on 11/03/2019

Print Headline: Ukraine theory pushed in '16

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