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Manafort Spread Ukraine Conspiracy Theory Months Before 2016 Election

WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, spread a conspiracy theory now at the center of the impeachment investigation — that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee — as early as five months before the 2016 election, according to newly released documents from the special counsel’s investigation.

Mr. Manafort told his deputy on the campaign about the theory shortly after emails stolen from the Democrats were published in June 2016, and questions arose about whether Russia hacked the emails to help the Trump campaign, according to the documents.

The documents have no information about when Mr. Trump embraced the conspiracy theory, which he later asked Ukraine’s president to investigate in a July 25 phone call even as he was withholding military aid for the country. Those revelations helped touch off the impeachment inquiry.

The details of what Mr. Manafort told campaign officials are included in a trove of records from the special counsel’s investigation obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The documents — including F.B.I. interview reports with several key witnesses and emails of Mr. Trump’s top campaign officials — contain few startling details that were not in the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, but they underscore the notion that Mr. Trump’s campaign eagerly welcomed Russia’s help in the election and show how concerned campaign officials were about being tied to Russia.

The documents also provide new insights into how the Fox News personality Sean Hannity played a role in Mr. Trump’s campaign and how Mr. Manafort remained involved in helping Mr. Trump long after he was fired in August 2016.

“I am really feeling good about our prospects on Tuesday and focusing on preserving the victory,” Mr. Manafort said in an email to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, three days before the election. “This memo deals with this concern.”

Mr. Manafort, who was removed as the campaign’s chairman after questions arose about his business ties to Ukraine and is now in prison for financial crimes associated with his work there, told Mr. Kushner that he had briefed the deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, and Mr. Hannity on the memo.

Mr. Kushner forwarded the email to Mr. Trump’s top campaign strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

“We need to avoid this guy like the plague,” Mr. Bannon said. “Paul is a nice guy but can’t let word get out he is advising us.”

Mr. Bannon added, “They are going to try to say the Russians worked with WikiLeaks to give this victory to us.”

The account of how Mr. Manafort first raised the prospect that Ukraine had been behind the hack was included in an F.B.I. report about an interview the special counsel’s office did with Mr. Gates in April 2018. Mr. Gates said Mr. Manafort’s theory echoed one that had been pushed by a Ukrainian businessman who had worked with Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates when they consulted for the government there years earlier. Mr. Mueller’s office has said that the Ukrainian businessman, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, has ties to Russian intelligence.

“Gates recalled Manafort saying the hack was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians, which parroted a narrative Kilimnik often supported,” according to the F.B.I. interview report. “Kilimnik also opined the hack could have been perpetrated by Russian operatives in Ukraine.”

It is unclear when Mr. Trump embraced the theory. In April 2017, just three months into his presidency, he first raised the issue publicly, questioning how the F.B.I. conducted its investigation into the hack and why agents declined to take the server from the Democrats to more closely examine who breached it.

The Democrats “get hacked, and the F.B.I. goes to see them, and they won’t let the F.B.I. see their server,” Mr. Trump told The Associated Press.

“They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,” Mr. Trump said in an apparent reference to a company the Democrats brought in to investigate the hack. “That’s what I heard. I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian.”

Mr. Gates laid out for investigators how determined Mr. Trump appeared to be during the campaign to find emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email account and how Mr. Trump told his aides that he wanted them to “get the emails.”

Mr. Trump’s top national security aide on the campaign, Michael T. Flynn, “said he could use his intelligence sources to obtain the emails,” Mr. Gates told investigators.

Mr. Flynn told campaign officials that the American intelligence agencies would be unable to determine who was behind the hack, Mr. Gates said, adding that he believed Mr. Flynn had a negative view of the agencies because he had been pushed out of the intelligence community during the Obama administration.

“Gates said Flynn had the most Russia contacts of anyone on the campaign and was in the best position to ask for the emails if they were out there,” according to Mr. Gates’s F.B.I. interview report.

Mr. Trump fired Mr. Flynn less than a month into his presidency. In 2017, Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to F.B.I. agents about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition, and he is awaiting sentencing.

Mr. Gates said Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner had initially been skeptical about working with the Republican National Committee. But Mr. Gates said that they became more interested in collaborating after learning that the committee wanted to help amplify the emails that WikiLeaks planned to release.

Mr. Gates said that the committee had private information that indicated it knew the timing of upcoming email disclosures.

“Gates did not specify who at the R.N.C. knew this information,” according to the documents. “Gates said the only nonpublic information the R.N.C. had related to the timing of the releases.”

The Republican National Committee said in a statement that Mr. Gates’s claims were false.

“The R.N.C. had no advanced knowledge. Gates has already pled guilty to lying to federal authorities,” said the committee’s communications director, Michael Ahrens. “Why would anyone believe him now?”

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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