Shocker: AP and FBI seemingly in collaboration in Manafort investigation

Before Donald Trump won the presidency, the Associated Press was a fierce defender of press independence from law enforcement.  But newly released documents indicate that the desire to get information that might be useful to incriminate former campaign adviser Paul Manafort, and then pressure him to incriminate President Trump in some misdeed, has led the AP into some sort of collaborative relationship with federal investigators.

Two journalists, Chuck Ross of The Daily Caller and Josh Gerstein of Politico, are today covering what may be a historic change in the relationship of the nation's biggest news-gathering organization with law enforcement. Ross explains:

Justice Department documents released on Friday confirm that the DOJ attorney known as Robert Mueller's "pit bull" arranged a meeting with journalists in April 2017 to discuss an investigation into Paul Manafort.

The documents show that Andrew Weissmann arranged a meeting with DOJ and FBI officials and four Associated Press reporters on April 11, 2017, just over a month before Mueller was appointed special counsel.

Manafort's lawyers obtained the documents on June 29 and revealed them in a briefing filed in federal court in Virginia.  The attorneys are pushing for a hearing into what they say are possible leaks of secret grand jury information, false information and potentially classified materials from the meeting.

"The meeting raises serious concerns about whether a violation of grand jury secrecy occurred," a lawyer for Manafort, Kevin Downing, wrote in a motion requesting a hearing.  "Based on the FBI's own notes of the meeting, it is beyond question that a hearing is warranted."

Those FBI notes are not the notorious 302 notes that are still used in place of video or even recording – an absurdity that can only degrade rather than enhance accuracy – but rather E.C.s – "electronic communications" in the Bureau's jargon.  

The meeting was first reported in January, but only last Friday did the public receive confirmation in the form of FBI documents that were part of a court filing by Manafort's lawyers.

In the hearing, FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Pfeiffer said that the FBI may have conducted a May 2017 raid of a storage locker that Manafort was renting based on a tip from AP reporters.  He also said that the purpose of the meeting was for the DOJ and FBI to obtain information from The AP. ...

Friday's court filing includes two reports about the April 11, 2017 meeting: one written by Pfeiffer and another written by Supervisory Special Agent Karen Greenaway.

"The meeting was arranged by Andrew Weissmann," Greenaway wrote in her report, for the first time establishing that Weissmann took part in the meeting.

Greenaway also said that Weissmann provided guidance to the reporters for their investigation.  According to Greenaway, Weissmann suggested that the reporters ask the Cypriot Anti-Money Laundering Authority, a Cypriot government agency, if it had provided the Department of Treasury with all of the documents they were legally authorized to provide regarding Manafort.

The AP journalists, Chad Day, Ted Bridis, Jack Gillum and Eric Tucker, were conducting an extensive investigation of Manafort, including payments he received through various shell companies set up in Cyprus.

Day and Gillum published an article a day after the meeting laying out some of the allegations against Manafort, including that he was listed in a "black ledger" that documented illicit payments from a Ukrainian political party allied with the Russian government. 

This certainly sounds like a two-way information exchange, or a quid-pro-quo, if you will.  If grand jury-developed information was provided to the AP reporters, that would be a violation of law and procedure.  And if the reporters were passing along information to law enforcement, that comes close to the line of becoming stooges for the cops – something journalists used to abhor, on the grounds that sources would not trust them if they thought the police would be tipped off.

The AP's response to the Daily Caller does not inspire confidence:

"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.  During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location," Easton said in a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

That "did not provide name or location" denial does not cover this reported offer, as Josh Gerstein wrote in Politico:

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 number or location of the locker.  (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."

Andrew Weissman has a terrible track record of ethics problems and does not belong anywhere near a politically sensitive investigation, but he was Robert Mueller's chief counsel when Mueller headed the FBI, so the two have been in cahoots for a matter of decades.

As for the AP, as with so many mainstream media institutions, the old rules don't seem to apply in the quest to overturn the election of 2016.  Gerstein notes:

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.

Judge T.S. Ellis, who is handling the case, has a sterling track record.  Stay tuned, because this could be explosive, especially if laws were violated.

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