WASHINGTON >> New details from the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian influence over the 2016 election released today underscored President Donald Trump’s keen interest in weaponizing information stolen by the Russians and funneled to WikiLeaks for use against his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The new disclosures also emphasized prosecutors’ doubts about whether Trump told them the truth when he was questioned during the two-year investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into Russian interference in that election and whether the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow to influence its outcome.
Overall, however, the new information shed little new light on the special counsel’s inquiry that dominated the first two years of Trump’s presidency. It was released in response to a lawsuit claiming that the Justice Department’s redactions of sensitive information in the Mueller report violated the Freedom of Information Act.
Many of the disclosures confirmed information already revealed in media reports or in criminal cases against Trump’s former aides. The public record is replete with accounts of both the Trump campaign’s efforts to use purloined emails against Clinton and the president’s attempts to frustrate the special counsel’s inquiry, including by dangling pardons before key witnesses and targets in hopes that they would not cooperate with law enforcement officials.
The newly released details deal principally with Trump’s friend and former campaign adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted in November of lying to federal authorities, impeding a congressional inquiry and tampering with a witness. He has been sentenced to 40 months in prison.
Stone was the Trump campaign’s principal intermediary to WikiLeaks. According to newly released passages, prosecutors suspected that the president feared Stone might incriminate him. It also shows they doubted Trump was being truthful when he stated in written answers to their questions that he did not recall ever discussing WikiLeaks with Stone during the campaign.
“It is possible that, by the time the president submitted his written answers two years after the relevant events had occurred, he no longer had clear recollections of his discussions with Stone or his knowledge of Stone’s asserted communications with WikiLeaks,” Mueller’s investigators wrote in a newly disclosed paragraph. “But the president’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the president’s denials and would link the president to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.”
The prosecutors wrote that Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer who was convicted of campaign finance violations and other crimes, told them that he overheard a conversation between Trump and Stone in the candidate’s Trump Tower headquarters in the summer of 2016, before WikiLeaks released its first tranche of Democratic emails stolen by the Russians.
Cohen said that after Stone promised that WikiLeaks would soon release more damaging information about Clinton, Trump responded, “Oh good, all right.” After WikiLeaks later publicized documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee, Cohen said Trump told him, “I guess Roger was right,” the report said.
The prosecutors also noted that Trump’s public comments about Stone and other witnesses and targets were an obvious signal. They “communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the president and disparaged if they chose to cooperate,” they wrote in a previously redacted sentence.
The Justice Department had withheld passages dealing with Stone in order, it said, to protect the ongoing criminal case against him. But the lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, and BuzzFeed News journalist Jason Leopold challenged those and other redactions as violations of the Freedom of Information Act.
John Davisson, a lawyer for the privacy group, acknowledged in an interview tonight that much of the newly disclosed information “had come out, in one form or another” after the Mueller report was released. But, he said, “the delay itself is harmful.” He also said he spotted redactions that were unnecessary and raised suspicions about whether law enforcement officials had wrongly withheld other information.
The Justice Department’s decision to release more of the text of the report came after the federal judge overseeing that case, Judge Reggie B. Walton of the District of Columbia, expressed suspicion about whether the redactions were justified and ordered government lawyers to provide him with the full report so he could review the redactions himself. The plaintiffs in the case argued there was no reason to withhold any information about Stone because his criminal case is over.
Walton said he would privately review the full text because “adherence to the FOIA’s objective of keeping the American public informed of what its government is up to demands nothing less.”
During Stone’s trial, prosecutors said that he obstructed a congressional inquiry into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election in order to protect the president. “He knew that if the truth came out about what he was doing in 2016, it would look terrible,” one prosecutor said of Stone.
The defense team argued that the entire premise of the prosecution’s case was false because Stone never had any evidence that would have hurt Trump. He merely tried to discover what information WikiLeaks had obtained that Trump could use against Clinton before the election, they argued, and neither he nor anyone else tied to the campaign ever conspired with the Russians who had funneled that information to WikiLeaks.
After Trump attacked the prosecutors’ recommendation for a stiff prison term on Twitter, Barr intervened and the department asked for a more lenient sentence — an extraordinary reversal that stunned legal experts and department veterans. Four career prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest, and one quit the department entirely.
Stone, who is scheduled to report to the Bureau of Prisons by the end of June to start serving his sentence, has expressed hopes that the president will pardon him.