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Former Senate Aide Faces Charges That He Lied To FBI About Contacts With Reporters

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 4:50 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been a busy day for people who follow the Justice Department, and those people include NPR's Ryan Lucas, who's here to talk with us about two big developments. First, here in Washington, special counsel Robert Mueller announced new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. And second, in Baltimore, a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member faces charges as part of a leak investigation. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello there.

SHAPIRO: OK, let's start with Manafort. What are the new charges against him?

LUCAS: Well, there are two new charges that were handed up by a grand jury here in Washington, D.C., conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. Now, these relate to the witness tampering allegations that the special counsel's office leveled against Manafort earlier this week. They accused him of trying to get two witnesses to provide false testimony about lobbying work that the witnesses did with Manafort on Ukraine.

Remember; prosecutors presented text messages and phone logs to support their arguments in that. They've now gone a step further and have brought formal charges against Manafort and a longtime foreign associate by the name of Konstantin Kilimnik. I'll quickly say that Kilimnik is a very interesting character on his own. He worked closely with Manafort in Ukraine, and U.S. officials say he has ties to Russia's intelligence services.

SHAPIRO: Day after day, you're here in the studio telling us about yet more pressure on Manafort.

LUCAS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What does all of this mean for the Mueller investigation?

LUCAS: Yet again, this increases the pressure on Manafort.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: Yes, he does already face conspiracy, money laundering, a bunch of other charges. The special counsel, though, has asked the judge to consider changing Manafort's conditions of release, basically proposing that Manafort be locked up in jail while he awaits trial. The outstanding question remains. Is Manafort ultimately going to decide to stop fighting the charges he faces and cooperate with the special counsel? We don't know. We don't know what he has to offer. We don't know what he knows. But he of course was campaign chief in the summer of 2016. He was involved in key moments including the infamous meeting at Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer. So again, we'll wait and see.

SHAPIRO: Coming back to the question we've been asking for months, what, if anything, will it take to flip Paul Manafort? So as if that weren't enough, you've also been following this case in Baltimore of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member who is now involved in this leak investigation. Tell us about him.

LUCAS: The man's name is James Wolfe. He worked for about 30 years as the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's been charged with three counts of making false statements to the FBI. Prosecutors say that Wolfe repeatedly lied to FBI agents during an interview that he had with them in December. He said he didn't have contact with reporters when in fact he had been in touch with several reporters by phone, by email, encrypted messaging apps, met with some at restaurants, bars. Prosecutors also say that he provided information to reporters - has to say that he hasn't been charged with disclosing classified information.

The reporters aren't named in the indictment. That was unsealed last night. But The New York Times identified one of the journalists in the indictment as its reporter Ali Watkins, whom I reported alongside on the intelligence beat. The Times says that the Justice Department secretly seized her phone and email records during the investigation. Wolfe and Watkins had had a long-term romantic relationship as well, which is one thing that Wolfe allegedly lied to the FBI about.

SHAPIRO: This has to ring alarm bells for people concerned about the First Amendment, especially when federal investigators are seizing reporters' records. Is this part of a larger Justice Department crackdown on leakers?

LUCAS: Well, it does most definitely raise concerns among people interested in protecting First Amendment rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists has expressed its concern about the seizure of Watkins' phone and email logs. It warned that this instance may essentially be setting a dangerous precedent and be what it described as an opening salvo in the battle to protect sources.

This is the first known instance of prosecutors seizing reporters' data under the Trump administration. Trump of course has lashed out about leakers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as you may remember, announced a special crackdown against leaks last year. He said that the Justice Department had 27 open leak investigations. That's a really high number. But remember; the Obama administration was very tough on leaks, took a very hard line, and it obtained telephone records of Associated Press reporters back in a 2013 leak investigation.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department for us. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.