A meeting last year where Associated Press reporters discussed with federal officials the news outlet’s investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s finances may have led the FBI to a storage locker the bureau raided, an FBI agent testified Friday.
The unexpected testimony from FBI Agent Jeff Pfeiffer at a federal court hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, on the legality of the May 2017 search was the first live witness the government has offered against Manafort since special counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictment against the longtime lobbyist and political consultant was returned last October.
The April 2017 meeting between AP reporters and officials from the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the FBI has been the subject of inquiries from congressional Republicans, who suggested it that it might have involved leaks to the media.
Pfeiffer, however, described the session as an opportunity for federal investigators to hear what The AP had discovered. The FBI agent said that the federal investigators rebuffed the reporters’ questions, at least most of the time.
Asked by prosecutor Uzo Asonye how the officials responded to the journalists’ queries, Pfeiffer said: “Generally, no comment.”
In response to an earlier question about how the agent became aware that Manafort used a storage locker for many of his business-related files, Pfeiffer said: “Either through my investigative efforts or through a meeting that occurred with reporters of The Associated Press.” Pfeiffer said a reporter mentioned the locker at the meeting, but the FBI agent was not sure whether that was the first time he’d heard of it.
A spokeswoman for the news service said on Friday that the goal of the meeting for the reporters was to learn more about the FBI’s investigation into Manafort. However, she confirmed that reporters did ask whether officials were aware that Manafort had a storage locker.
“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,” AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said in a statement. “During the course of the meeting, they asked DOJ representatives about a storage locker belonging to Paul Manafort, without sharing its name or location.”
The day after the meeting between the AP journalists and Justice Department officials last year, the news service published an exclusive story saying at least $1.2 million in payments from a so-called “black ledger” maintained by Ukrainian officials had been received by Manafort’s companies.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III stood at the courtroom’s elevated bench during much of the testimony, looming over the proceedings in his black robe and regularly interjecting questions he deemed more fitting than those of the attorneys.
After Pfeiffer was on the stand for about 20 minutes, Ellis recessed the hearing to allow defense lawyers time to consult a binder they had just received from prosecutors of statements about the April 2017 meeting. The precise contents of the inch or two of documents were unclear, but there was internal dissent at the Justice Department about the meeting. Senior department public affairs officials indicated that they did not attend the session and, in a potential breach of protocol, were unaware of it until after the fact.
When the hearing resumed, defense attorney Tom Zehnle read from an FBI report on the 2017 meeting, claiming that an unidentified participant said the AP reporters “were advised that they appeared to have a good understanding of Mr. Manafort’s business dealings.”
Asked whether he knew who made that comment, Pfeiffer said, “I don’t recall that being said, so I wouldn’t be able to say who said it.”
Other portions of Friday’s hearing generated little drama. Ellis declined to hold a hearing that Manafort’s defense requested on alleged leaks of grand jury information. The April 2017 AP report was among the leaks the defense team cited in its papers.
Kevin Downing, a Manafort attorney, said his client’s right to a fair trial was in jeopardy. “The press and media has been satiated with false statements,” he complained.
Pressed by the judge on what could be done if there was an improper leak, Downing said, “One remedy is dismissal.”
“No. I’m not going to do that,” Ellis shot back.
As the judge asked again what else could be done, he grew impatient. “Will you listen to what I’m saying to you?” Ellis snapped at Downing.
The judge eventually said he’d consider a motion to change the venue for the trial, perhaps to Richmond or Roanoke, if defense attorneys made one. He gave them until next Friday to do so.
After the hearing, Downing was noncommittal. “We’ll figure that out,” he told reporters.
Pfeiffer did confirm on Friday that Andrew Weissmann, then the top prosecutor in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and now a top deputy to Mueller, was present at the April 2017 Associated Press meeting, along with other prosecutors and FBI agents. Weissmann was also present in the courtroom Friday but was not seated at the prosecution table.
It was Weissmann’s presence in the meeting with AP reporters that first generated interest from congressional Republicans. In a January letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes indicated he was interested in obtaining “records related to the details of an April 2017 meeting between DOJ Attorney Andrew Weissmann … and the media.” The disclosure of the meeting in Nunes’ letter led to speculation among Trump allies that Weissmann had aided the reporters’ stories.
Pfeiffer’s sworn testimony may undercut that argument, part of a multi-pronged attack on Weissmann by Trump’s closest allies in Congress. They’ve also pointed to his reported attendance at Hillary Clinton’s election-night rally and an email he sent praising former acting Attorney General Sally Yates after her refusal to enforce President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
An assistant to Manafort, Alex Trusko, eventually helped the FBI obtain access to the locker and consented to its search. Defense attorneys say Trusko lacked authority to agree, but Trusko was listed as the “occupant” on the lease and he had a key to the locker.
Court records indicate that Manafort initially used a small storage locker at the Alexandria facility, then arranged for a larger one. Perhaps because the second locker was rented in Trusko’s name, the FBI may have learned about the second one only after it interviewed Trusko. About six weeks elapsed between the AP meeting and the locker search.
In other courtroom action Friday, Ellis turned down prosecutors’ request for a written jury questionnaire in the case. He said he’d handle questioning the jurors himself, with input from attorneys from both sides.
“I ask all the questions. … I’m not going to ask jurors who they voted for, or anything of that sort,” Ellis declared. “We’re not going to determine whether people subscribe to some magazine called Progressive or National Review. … We’re not going to do down that road.”
Manafort is set for trial July 25 in Alexandria on charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and failing to report foreign bank accounts. He is set to face another trial, on Sept. 17 in Washington, on charges of money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and witness tampering. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Ellis said he was intent on the Alexandria trial‘s going forward on July 25, although he said there was some chance a personal issue outside the control of the parties might present a problem. The judge also seemed perturbed when Asonye said the prosecution was increasing its estimate of the trial’s length to three weeks from two.
“You better think about ways of streamlining your case,” Ellis said, growing more cantankerous as the hearing rolled through the lunch hour. “It‘s a document case.”
Ellis did not rule Friday on the defense motion to suppress evidence from the locker or that taken from Manafort’s Alexandria condo. Another defense attorney, Jay Nanavati, did complain to the judge that the search warrant’s grant of approval to take electronic devices in Manafort’s home was based on a “wafer-thin“ rationale.
Manafort was not in the courtroom for the Friday hearing. He waived his in-person appearance in order to avoid the two-hour drive each way from the jail where he is being held in Warsaw, Virginia.
Manafort’s attorneys filed a motion with a federal appeals court in Washington on Thursday night to try to secure his release before his trials. In an order on Friday, judges told Mueller’s team to respond by next Thursday. It seems unlikely the appeals court will rule before the following week.