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Memo suggests FBI opened Manafort probe before Trump hired lobbyist but gave no warning

Some question why bureau didn't give Trump a defensive briefing in spring 2016.

Updated: October 26, 2020 - 11:22am

A recently declassified government document suggests the FBI opened its most recent investigation of Paul Manafort in January 2016, two months before President Trump hired the lobbyist as a senior official in his campaign. The revelation is prompting new questions about why the bureau did not provide the GOP candidate with a defensive briefing.

The information about the start of the Manafort probe was contained in footnote 332 of a spreadsheet that FBI analysts constructed analyzing the lack of corroboration for Christopher Steele's now infamous dossier alleging Trump and Russia colluded to hijack the 2016 election, an allegation that has since been disproven. 

The spreadsheet was declassified earlier this month, revealing the FBI found little to no corroboration for Steele's allegations against Trump but nonetheless used the dossier to support a FISA surveillance warrant to spy on the Trump campaign through adviser Carter Page.

The information in the footnote and spreadsheet states an "opening EC" or electronic communication was generated in the Manafort probe on Jan. 13, 2016, and by August 2016 "Manafort is an active subject of a money laundering and tax evasion criminal case out of Washington Field Office."

 

The timing suggested in the spreadsheet is consistent with an account from Ukrainian prosecutors, who revealed last year they were summoned on short notice to Washington by the Obama White House for a series of meetings in January 2016 during which Justice Department officials pressed them to find evidence against Manafort and his work for the Ukrainian Party of Regions. The prosecutors also stated the Obama DOJ officials asked the Ukrainians to drop their investigation of the Hunter Biden-related Burisma Holdings gas company and let the FBI take it over.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson last week wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for verification of the claim in the spreadsheet and demanding to know why Trump wasn't given a courtesy warning before he hired Manafort if in fact the probe into the lobbyist started in January 2016 like the spreadsheet stated.

Presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, have gotten defensive briefings over the years when an issue involving national security concerns affects their campaigns. 

"What steps, if any, did the FBI take to alert the Trump campaign about its investigation into Manafort when he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016?" Johnson wrote. Wray has yet to respond.

Manafort Had been investigated for his Ukraine  business dealings in 2014 but the FBI closed the case without charges. He was hired by Trump in March 2016 to help wrangle delegates at the GOP nominating convention and promoted to campaign chairman in June 2016.

Kevin Brock, the former intelligence chief for the FBI, said the question surrounding a defensive briefing would likely depend on whether the Manafort probe involved a counterintelligence matter or just crimes.

"Some may wonder why the Trump campaign wasn't warned by the FBI that the bureau had Manafort under investigation when Trump made him his campaign manager in June 2016.  The answer lies in the distinction between a criminal investigation and a counterintelligence investigation," he said.  

"If the case against Manafort opened by the FBI in January 2016 was strictly based on suspected financial crimes, then the FBI was under no obligation to disclose their case," Brock explained. "However, if the FBI instead opened a counterintelligence investigation that January into Manafort's ties to Russia-supported political operatives in Ukraine, then, yes, a defensive national security briefing to candidate Trump by the FBI sometime in the summer of 2016 would have been a normal and prudent course of action. But we now know the Crossfire Hurricane team at the FBI was not inclined to brief the campaign on anything.”

Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch whose conservative watchdog group has unearthed many of the documents showing abuses in the FBI Russia probe, said he believes Manafort's work for the Ukrainians involved adequate counterintelligence and national security concerns to warrant a defensive briefing.

"I presume that this was mishandled given the FBI's conduct throughout the Russia probe. They had it out for Trump," Fitton said, referring to FBI text message in which agents, lawyers and analysts expressed anti-Trump bias including a desire to "stop" him from becoming president.

"Given that Manafort's work in Ukraine necessarily involved a national security component, Trump should have been notified, especially given that the candidate himself had nothing to do with Manafort's issues in Ukraine," he added.

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