On Saturday, both CNN and BuzzFeed published 274 pages of investigative notes and memos from Mueller’s interviews with key witnesses about Russian interference in the 2016 election — and the Trump campaign’s involvement. The documents revealed that President Donald Trump, his family members and his top advisers pushed repeatedly to get access to hacked documents WikiLeaks was releasing throughout 2016.
The documents illustrated with new examples the factual conclusions Mueller found about how Trump has welcomed foreign help in elections. And they’re only the first slim window into the massive trail of Trump campaign activity Mueller’s team followed over two years. Mueller’s team ultimately interviewed about 500 witnesses and gathered millions of documents, which he distilled into a dense collection of findings in his final report.
This is how we got the new documents.
The race for public access was on when Mueller finished his work in March.
CNN almost immediately began pinging the Justice Department and other agencies with requests for public access to more documents, citing the federal Freedom of Information Act. In all, I sent the Justice Department, FBI and other agencies almost 60 letters requesting different types of communications, memos and investigative paperwork related to the Mueller investigation, with most of my requests emailed out a day or two after Mueller said he was done.
Through April and May, the federal agencies deflected nearly all of my requests related to Mueller, often saying they needed more time to review the requested documents because it was “unusual circumstances” and would need an unspecified amount of extra time to handle.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the public has a right to access many records created by the federal government, from emails to calendar entries to other notes, within about a month following a request. But requests for sensitive information or lots of papers can take the government years to fulfill. Transparency groups like Judicial Watch and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sue frequently when they don’t receive documents quickly, allowing them to jump to the front of the line for access. These groups, when they win, often make the documents public immediately on their websites, and the FBI and other agencies sometimes follow by posting the records on their websites as well.
Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News, a reporter who’s become known for his aggressive records requests and lawsuits fighting for the release of documents, also filed many Freedom of Information Act requests about Mueller. So had the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a transparency group that was first out of the gate to sue for access to Mueller’s records.
Because both CNN and BuzzFeed had specifically asked for the FBI witness memos from the Mueller investigation, CNN’s focused lawsuit was eventually combined with BuzzFeed’s broader one.
Judge Reggie Walton of the federal court in Washington agreed with our news organizations’ legal teams. At a hearing in early October, Walton ruled that the Justice Department should turn over the 302s in monthly chunks to CNN and BuzzFeed.
So the Justice Department overnighted Leopold and me CDs on Friday. My request’s FedEx tracking number gave a November 2 delivery — a day late, and a weekend when Washington was largely distracted by its World Series parade.
When I got the disc back to CNN’s Washington bureau and popped it in a computer, one file held 274 pages containing redacted FBI memos. The memos described some of Mueller’s interviews with Gates, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Among the documents, the Justice Department also provided the additional handwritten notes and relevant emails. The rest of the 500 pages due to us were withheld for reasons the Freedom of Information Act allows, the Justice Department said.
In less than a month, we’re expecting the next CD.
The House of Representatives, in its impeachment investigation, is pursuing some of the same witness records under different law from FOIA. So far, the House has seen witness interview memos for 17 Mueller witnesses, including White House staffers Sean Spicer, Stephen Miller, Sarah Sanders and others. The Justice Department has said in court that it’s working on getting another 16 witnesses’ memos, including Bannon’s and Gates’, to the House.
Conceivably, the memos CNN and BuzzFeed receive in the future could shed more light on what other key witnesses, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former White House counsel Don McGahn, said during their interviews. A few are already publicly available, like the memo the FBI wrote after interviewing Flynn in January 2017, when he lied.
Of those other 57 Freedom of Information Act requests I made related to the Mueller investigation, only one has come through. It turned up three pages of unnoteworthy emails about Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s recusal from his office’s investigation into Cohen, which was previously known.
The Justice Department has said it could take years to get us all 44,000 pages of the FBI memos that the judge has ordered it to make public — and that’s only a sliver of the millions of documents from the Mueller investigation.