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Manafort's Guilty Plea Details His Entanglement With Russian-Backed Oligarchs

Sep 19, 2018
Originally published on September 25, 2018 6:23 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The next stage of the Mueller investigation could be shaped by the plea deal that Paul Manafort reached last Friday with federal prosecutors. The deal requires him to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and to answer fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly questions about any and all matters prosecutors ask about.

My guest, Ken Vogel, is a New York Times reporter who's been writing about Manafort since his days as Donald Trump's campaign manager. Manafort took that position after having worked as a campaign strategist and then lobbyist for the Russian-backed authoritarian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. He was elected in 2010, then forced out four years later after a series of mass protests against him. While lobbying for Yanukovych in Washington, Manafort did not comply with the American law that required him to register as the agent of a foreign political person or country. Manafort used various deceptive, sometimes illegal, schemes to hide his connections to the lobbying efforts he was behind.

Ken Vogel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with describing, like, the plea deal that Manafort made and why that's so important.

KEN VOGEL: Yeah. So Paul Manafort is pleading guilty to two counts. One is an obstruction of justice count. And one is a conspiracy count that lumps in any number of the other charges that were made against him by the special counsel, including lobbying law violations, tax violations, banking violations.

But the reason it's so important is because he is agreeing - in exchange for pleading to a lesser count and sentencing considerations, he is agreeing to cooperate with not only the special counsel but with prosecutors in the United States government more broadly - which could potentially be a huge boon to the special counsel - to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York looking into lobbying law violations by people with whom he worked, also potentially to the FBI investigating Russian organized crime. Paul Manafort has visibility into so many spheres that the United States government and its law enforcement agencies are interested in. It's really difficult to predict where his cooperation could take U.S. investigators.

GROSS: Could it take U.S. investigators into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?

VOGEL: That is the big question. That's sort of the brass ring for which Mueller is reaching and Democrats and liberals hope that he is able to grasp. The lawyers for Donald Trump have said, no, they're not worried that Paul Manafort has any great visibility into that would be able to offer anything that would allow them to build a case for collusion against President Trump.

But of course he was there at pivotal stages of the campaign, was actually in attendance at this meeting with a Russian lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin who had set up a meeting in Trump Tower with Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, top advisers to the president - in Kushner's case, obviously, the president's son-in-law. The Russian lawyer who set that meeting up or the folks acting on her behalf had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is potentially a key element of any case to be built for collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

GROSS: The Manafort trial and the documents released by Mueller along with the trial reveal a very deceptive lobbying campaign that Manafort waged on behalf of one of his clients, his major client of the period, Viktor Yanukovych, who became the authoritarian president of Ukraine. So let's talk about some of this deceptive lobbying. First of all, Manafort didn't want to register as a foreign lobbyist even though he was representing a foreign client. What are the regulations pertaining to a foreign lobbyist that Manafort didn't want to have to deal with?

VOGEL: Yeah. So this is something that has really come into focus here in Washington, D.C., as a result of the Mueller investigation into not just Manafort, but some of these other peripheral figures in the case. The Foreign Agents Registration Act is this World War II-era law that was intended to sort of get at Nazi propaganda and propaganda by U.S. enemies at that time. And it requires anyone who is working on behalf of a foreign power or a politician or a political party to register with the Department of Justice and essentially declare themselves as a foreign agent and provide very detailed information about where they got the money from this client, how much they were paid, what specifically they did, including down to the granular level of meetings, specific meetings on specific dates that they had with both U.S. officials and Congress and the executive branch, and also in the media, public relations efforts on their behalf.

And so what Manafort argued is he was not lobbying. All he was doing was providing advice to this client, the former strongman president of Ukraine, pro-Russian president of Ukraine - an important point in this context - Viktor Yanukovych. In fact, what Mueller's team was able to prove through very comprehensive documentation and logs of communications was that not only was Manafort contracting out to other lobbying firms in the United States to actually lobby on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, but he himself was lobbying and doing public relations on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych in violation of this Foreign Agents Registration Act.

GROSS: So when Yanukovych was running for the presidency in 2010, Manafort's goal was to burnish Yanukovych's image and tarnish the image of his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. Why did Yanukovych's image need burnishing?

VOGEL: Well, Yanukovych was a former trucking director who was twice convicted of assault and had lost a bid for the presidency in 2004 amid concerns about allegations of vote rigging and ballot box stuffing. So he was regarded as kind of a failed politician, and not just a failed politician, but sort of a pro-Russian one at that.

And so what Manafort did is he imported U.S.-style political tactics, including polling, focus groups, stuff that we sort of take for granted here in the U.S. where we have a sort of nonstop campaign cycle and an industry built around it, but in the former Soviet bloc, was sort of new and novel. And so he essentially recreated Yanukovych into this more Western-looking polished figure. He even put him in nicer suits and brushed his hair in a way that many people who worked on that campaign have told me seemed like an effort to recreate Manafort's image in Yanukovych.

GROSS: (Laughter).

VOGEL: And so he managed to pull off really this political miracle of getting this guy elected by kind of straddling, you know, presenting Ukraine as a bridge and Yanukovych as a bridge between Russia and the West. And then he helped - Manafort did - helped Yanukovych run his government. Now, once Yanukovych got in power, as you alluded to, his government immediately set about prosecuting one of his former rivals, this Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister against whom he ran in that 2010 election. And that was very much frowned upon by the international community.

So one of Manafort's first challenges once he got Yanukovych elected was essentially convincing the international community that this trial and this prosecution and this jailing of his rival was conducted within the sort of norms of Western judicial processes and that it was not unfair or politically motivated.

GROSS: So before we get to how Manafort tried to support Yanukovych and his imprisonment of his former rival, let's talk about what happened to her. Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych's former rival was imprisoned. What was she prosecuted for and is she still in prison?

VOGEL: So she was prosecuted for a range of charges, including everything from an intent to bribe supreme court judges in Ukraine to misuse of public finances when she was in office to abuse of her office related to natural gas imports from Russia. And the sense in the international community was, well, you know, there may be some validity here, but it was the process that really raised concerns.

And also the motivation for these charges, the thinking being that it was a politically motivated effort to punish a rival and keep this rival off of the political playing field at a time when Viktor Yanukovych was trying to establish himself in Ukraine and the international community as a pro-Western leader.

GROSS: So before we get to what Manafort did, let's talk just a moment about the Trump campaign, which Manafort managed for a while. One of the slogans or chants that you always heard at Trump campaign rallies was lock her up, meaning lock up Hillary Clinton, his rival. Considering that Yanukovych had his rival locked up after the election and considering that Manafort was basically managing Yanukovych and then managed Trump, do you hear any echoes, any connections between those two things?

VOGEL: Yeah. There's sort of an eerie parallel there. I actually hadn't thought of that one. The one that I - that sort of jumped out to me is the call to drain the swamp that we heard so much from Donald Trump when of course Paul Manafort was in many ways a pioneer of the swamp in Washington and really around the world.

GROSS: In the type of lobbying techniques that he used.

VOGEL: Yeah. I mean, he was a real revolutionary. He pioneered - I mean, he pioneered so many elements of what we now think of as K Street and the Washington influence industry, everything from initially creating a firm that did both lobbying and political consulting so you could both elect people and then sign clients to help influence the people who you elected and then exporting that same model abroad and really pioneering a form of international political consulting that did that same thing, electing figures in these far-flung regions - many times unsavory figures - and then also helping them in Washington win the support, or at least the patina of support, from Washington and from the international community and then trying to take that into the business sphere, trying to get some of the wealthy backers of these politicians, like Viktor Yanukovych, to enter into business deals with him beyond the political and lobbying deal. So in many ways he created this industry that now his case and guilty plea is bringing down. So there's some sort of poetic arc there as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Ken Vogel. He covers the confluence of money, politics and influence for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Vogel, a reporter for The New York Times who covers the intersection of money, politics and influence for the Times. And he has covered the Paul Manafort trial and the documents that Mueller released that show some fascinating details about Manafort's lobbying on behalf of the former Ukrainian strongman, Viktor Yanukovych.

So let's talk about some of the ways that Manafort tried to get around having to register as a lobbyist for a foreign government. So in order to do that, he created a group called the European Center for a Modern Ukraine that he claimed was an NGO, a nongovernment organization, which would mean he wasn't lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. So that would get him off the hook in terms of registering as a foreign lobbyist. So what was the European Center for a Modern Ukraine?

VOGEL: Well, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine was a front group. It was just that. It was a way to get around these lobbying rules in the United States. And the way that he used this group - first of all, I should say this group was funded largely by wealthy businessmen, oligarchs if you will, who were supporters of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, and it was essentially an adjunct of Viktor Yanukovych's party. And the way that it was used was to pay other - or not even to pay but to be the client for other lobbying firms that Manafort tried to bring in to this lobbying effort to shape public opinion in the United States and in Washington, within the halls of power.

The European Center for a Modern Ukraine ended up hiring two lobbying firms, one that was headed by a Republican and one that was headed by a Democrat, to try to tamp down concerns that were rising in Washington about Viktor Yanukovych and the direction that he was taking Ukraine and the sense that he had sort of overseen this politically motivated prosecution of and jailing of his rival.

So the European Center for a Modern Ukraine was the group that was essentially the client of these lobbying firms when in fact we now know thanks to the Mueller investigation, the extensive documentation that was released in connection with that, that the client was really Viktor Yanukovych and his political party, and the European Center for a Modern Ukraine was merely an effort to circumvent the U.S. lobbying laws that would require disclosure.

And what Manafort feared, according to Mueller, is that by acknowledging that the real client for this work was Viktor Yanukovych it would somehow diminish the independence or the credibility of this group and this lobbying effort, that it would be more credible if it was seen as independent from Viktor Yanukovych and his party and the oligarchs who funded it.

GROSS: So when it comes to these two American lobbying firms and the European Center for a Modern Ukraine and Manafort and Yanukovych, who paid who? Like, how did the money flow?

VOGEL: So the money flowed largely through these overseas accounts that Manafort had set up in Cyprus. They had a variety of names. They were very much at the center of his trial in the Eastern District of Virginia in which he was convicted of these eight counts related to banking fraud and tax fraud. And so Manafort used these accounts essentially as slush funds.

The accounts were funded - the accounts took in money from these oligarchs, many times pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs who wanted to support Yanukovych, and then Manafort would use these accounts to fund aspects of the lobbying campaign, including payments to the two firms that we've mentioned - they were the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs - and also to a very respectable white-shoe law firm in the United States - Skadden, Arps - that was commissioned to do a report, a supposedly independent investigation, into the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko.

The goal from a Manafort's perspective - and he was the one who sort of set this all up - was to show that the prosecution was not politically motivated and essentially to be able to hold up yet another piece of independent evidence to say, hey, this guy, Viktor Yanukovych, my client, is not the bad guy that you're making him out to be. This entire effort was funded through these overseas accounts, set up mainly in Cyprus, that were funded by these oligarchs.

GROSS: So he's setting up this front group, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, to hire these American lobby groups while he's hiding himself and sending out memos saying there should be no fingerprints (laughter) on any of this. So I guess, until now, that was pretty successful.

VOGEL: Well, I mean, during the 2016 campaign, there was some reporting on this. And in fact, it was what prompted...

GROSS: Oh, and you did some of it. Yeah.

VOGEL: Correct. And so it was what appears to have prompted - based on documents that we have gotten through a lawsuit against the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act - it appears - our reporting and reporting by others appears to have prompted the interest of the unit within the Department of Justice that handles this Foreign Agents Registration Act.

And they began asking questions both of Manafort and of the lobbying firms that he hired, including this Mercury Public Affairs, the head lobbyist of which was a former Republican congressman named Vin Weber, and the Podesta Group, the co-founder of which was Tony Podesta - who is, of course, John Podesta's brother - John Podesta being the chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign. So all the entities that have - that were brought into this, recruited by Manafort, are now facing some degree of legal scrutiny themselves - or at least, scrutiny more broadly, including from the press - and some of them also legal scrutiny.

GROSS: And this story you just touched on is pretty amazing - that Tony Podesta, one of the people who lobbied on behalf of Manafort and Yanukovych, is the brother of John Podesta, who managed Hillary Clinton's campaign and had his emails hacked by Russians and then made public through WikiLeaks. So the team that Tony Podesta is representing, whether he is aware of it or not, you know, is Russian-backed Ukrainians. And the team that hacks his brother John Podesta's emails are the Russians. It's crazy.

VOGEL: Yeah, it really is. There's a lot of, sort of, Shakespearean elements here. And the question of what Tony Podesta knew - and what others at his firm and others at Mercury Public Affairs knew - is potentially a central legal question because those firms are now the subject of interest from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who were referred a foreign lobbying-related case about their lobbying through Manafort by Mueller.

GROSS: So what are the questions? How much did these lobbying groups know about who was really paying them? Did they know that the European Center for a Modern Ukraine was basically a front group for Paul Manafort? Is that the major question?

VOGEL: Yeah, that is a central question. And Mueller's team released some internal emails from those two firms, the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs, in which employees seemed to be revealing that they knew that this European Center for a Modern Ukraine was a front group. And so we had a correspondence in which Tony Podesta, the co-founder of the Podesta Group, told his team to operate on the understanding that Yanukovych was, quote, "the client" - while an employee at the other firm, Mercury Public Affairs, called the claim that the European Center for a Modern Ukraine was independent, quote, "nonsense," and compared it to "Alice In Wonderland."

And even - there was a particularly funny, I thought, email that was quoted - or correspondence that was quoted - from an employee of the Podesta Group, who referred derisively to the European Center for a Modern Ukraine as, quote, "the European Hot Dog Stand for a Modern Ukraine." So you see, internally - whatever they were saying externally about whether this was a foreign lobbying job - internally, their own employees and some of their officials had some real doubts, if not had completely concluded that this was a front group.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Ken Vogel. We'll talk more about Manafort's deceptive lobbying practices after a break. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album he says made him feel uplifted. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Ken Vogel, who covers the intersection of money, politics, and influence in Washington. We're talking about Paul Manafort, the lobbyist who served as Donald Trump's presidential campaign manager. After Manafort's trial, as part of the Mueller investigation, he was found guilty of eight charges, including bank fraud and hiding foreign bank accounts. Last week, he reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which he admitted to money laundering, bank fraud and foreign lobbying violations, and pledged to cooperate fully with the Mueller investigation. The violations he admitted to relate to his work lobbying on behalf of the Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

When we left off, we were talking about the deceptive, sometimes illegal, practices Manafort used to circumvent having to register as a foreign lobbyist - a lobbyist of a foreign person or government. He hid his role by creating a front group and hiring other lobbyists to work on his behalf.

So another group that Manafort worked with was the law firm Skadden Arps, which is - they do a lot of lobbying. And you say they were recruited by Manafort to do work related to Ukraine. And one of the people - like, one of the stars of this group is Greg Craig, who was President Obama's White House counsel. So that's an interesting connection. What did they do for Manafort?

VOGEL: So what Skadden Arps did was to write what was billed as an independent report assessing Viktor Yanukovych's prosecution and eventual jailing of his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. The goal, at least from Manafort's perspective, was to be able to get this highly-respected law firm with ties to the current administration, which at that time was the Obama administration, to come out and say, hey, this prosecution was actually not as bad as what you and the international community believe, and that Viktor Yanukovych was not merely prosecuting his rival for political purposes.

What's interesting about that is that the client there was actually the Ukrainian government. And the - Skadden Arps took - received $12,000 - essentially, the equivalent of $12,000 from the Ukrainian government for this report. But then they received an additional $4.6 million through these overseas Cypriot accounts controlled by Paul Manafort. And there are questions about whether Skadden Arps may have run afoul of these lobbying laws by not just doing the report but actually having the firm disseminate the report and having the firm's lawyers including Greg Craig go out and do interviews with publications including, admittedly, The New York Times in which he essentially tried to sell the report.

GROSS: So there's another group I want to ask you about that Manafort set up as part of his lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and this is the Hapsburg Group. Like, what is that group? What was its purpose?

VOGEL: So the Hapsburg Group was a group of former senior European politicians who Manafort and Gates and some of the lobbyists with whom they worked recruited to essentially vouch for Viktor Yanukovych and his party and his regime, both in the United States and in European capitals, both through direct lobbying and also through writing op-eds in prominent publications and - again, including The New York Times - essentially vouching for Viktor Yanukovych, saying that he wasn't the bad guy that he was sort of made out to be. And this continued right up until Viktor Yanukovych ultimately was ousted from power, stepped down and fled amid these massive street protests against his regime's widespread corruption and its pivot towards Moscow.

GROSS: I'm assuming that The New York Times didn't know that the op-ed that you refer to was basically planted through a group created by Manafort.

VOGEL: Yeah. I mean, we did some reporting on it - on that. And we found that the person who facilitated it was a PR guy who is now deceased. He died in Afghanistan, sadly. But he was working with Rick Gates, who was then working with the Hapsburg Group. So there were sort of many layers of separation. And perhaps that was intentional to hide the ultimate sort of animating, you know, force or interest behind this op-ed. And also to hide the flow of money and the fingerprints, as Manafort put it in one of the memos that was unearthed and published by Mueller's team.

GROSS: So one of the really big questions that all of this raises is, what was Manafort doing running Donald Trump's presidential campaign? Is it total coincidence that the presidential race that was actually hacked by the Russians is this same race in which one of the candidates, Donald Trump, had a campaign manager during part of that campaign who had deep ties to Russian-backed Ukrainians and Ukrainian oligarchs who were connected to Putin?

VOGEL: It's certainly a reasonable question, and there's been a lot of speculation on that. From Trump's perspective, I don't think that the Trump campaign was reaching out to and bringing on Paul Manafort because of any connections to pro-Russian Ukrainians or even to Russian oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, which was one of his first clients in the former Soviet bloc who is very close to Vladimir Putin. From Manafort's perspective, I think it was merely a business decision, that his financial prospects were in shambles and he saw this as a way to reup them and get back in the game.

Now, there is a third perspective, which is the Russian perspective or the perspective of pro-Russian Ukrainians for whom Manafort worked. Did they want him on the campaign? Did they see it as a potential foothold to get into Trump's world? I simply don't know. We haven't seen any reporting that suggests that. But it is one of those questions that the circumstances that you laid out, you would - you could either dismiss them as coincidence, or if you're sort of more conspiratorially-minded, look for some motivation there. Again, our reporting just hasn't found that to date.

GROSS: During the period that Manafort was managing Trump's presidential campaign, Manafort through a third party sent a message to Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is an aluminum magnate, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. The email message sent through the third party was - said basically that if Deripaska needs private briefings, we can accommodate. That's from July 7, 2016.

So what exactly do we know about that message and what Manafort intended - because that sounds like we're going to give you briefings about what's happening in the presidential campaign in the U.S. and you're a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. Like, what? Do you think Mueller, now that he has Manafort's cooperation, is going to be looking into, like, what did that mean; what was that about?

VOGEL: Absolutely. And just complicating things further for - at least for Manafort is the liaison - the intermediary who Manafort used to relay the message to Deripaska is Manafort's long-time right-hand man on the ground in Kiev, a guy by the name of Konstantin Kilimnik, who Mueller says has ties to Russian intelligence. So here you have the sitting chairman of the Republican nominee's presidential campaign reaching out to a guy who U.S. law enforcement believes is a Russian spy or at least has ties to Russian intelligence to relay a message trying to rekindle a relationship or open a channel of communication with a Russian oligarch who is very close to, according to some estimations, Vladimir Putin - at a time when Vladimir Putin's agents, according to Mueller, are working to try to elect Donald Trump.

That right there would be, you know, if you're going to make a collusion case, that right there would seem to be a critical element therein. That said, talking with folks who are close to Manafort, who are familiar with his business relationship with Oleg Deripaska, they say that it was exclusively a business thing. They say that, in fact, Oleg Deripaska owed Manafort money and Manafort was trying to recoup those unpaid fees.

On the flip side, people close to Deripaska say, oh, no, no, no. Actually, Manafort owed Deripaska money resulting from this failed hedge fund that they - or private equity fund that they tried to establish before the financial crash to buy up properties in the former Soviet bloc, including a cable company and other telecom interests that fell apart in the collapse. And Deripaska subsequently sued Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik and Rick Gates and some of the other people around Manafort, saying that they absconded with the money.

So some uncertainty, certainly, about the specific nature of - or status of the financial relationship between Deripaska and Manafort, but a potentially critical revelation that Manafort wanted to reopen communications with this Russian oligarch at this pivotal time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Vogel. He covers the intersection of money, politics and influence for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Ken Vogel. He covers the intersection of money, politics, and influence for The New York Times. He covered the Paul Manafort trials and the documents that Mueller released related to Paul Manafort and has been writing about Manafort's lobbying efforts - his covert lobbying efforts on behalf of former Russian-backed Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.

Remember when President Trump tweeted praise after the first Manafort trial because Manafort, quote, "refused to break - make up stories in order to get a deal" - I wonder what he's thinking now.

VOGEL: Yeah. You would have to think, given the way that he characterized Michael Cohen, his long-time fixer's decision to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, suggesting he was a rat, that he probably has changed his opinion of men Manafort. And what's interesting here, Terry, talking to folks who were involved in the defense in that first trial where Manafort ended up fighting the charges, ultimately unsuccessfully - or at mostly unsuccessfully - they essentially admitted that they - part of their audience was not just the jury, but was Donald Trump.

They didn't want to go down these avenues that might make Donald Trump look bad and might cast scrutiny on his campaign, including, interestingly, when Rick Gates took the stand - Rick Gates has subsequently - has pled guilty and was testifying against Manafort. He took the stand. And Manafort's lawyers got him to admit that he may have essentially cheated or fudged his expenses for the Presidential Inaugural Committee that Gates continued to work for even long after Manafort was gone from the campaign. And I'm sitting there in the courtroom thinking like, oh, this is interesting. And they just dropped it.

Talking to folks afterwards, they admit that there was another audience other than the 12 folks sitting in the jury box and that it was the guy sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Because they wanted to keep Trump on their good side, in case there was a conviction, that they might be able to extract a pardon from him for Manafort. Obviously, now that Manafort has pled guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors, it would seem as if the likelihood of that pardon has diminished to something around the area of zero.

GROSS: So meanwhile, President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify about 20 pages of an application for surveillance against Carter Page, who had been Trump's foreign policy aide in the campaign. And President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release all text messages relating to the Russia investigation from former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and current Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr. What do you think is happening there?

VOGEL: What's happening is President Trump is trying to build the case that this investigation was cooked up by his political opponents and was motivated by their desire to undermine his presidential campaign and then, subsequently, his presidency. And the ways in which he has done that is by casting aspersions and making allegations against some of these officials in the Justice Department up to and including James Comey, but also these previously unknown FBI agents Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and this Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who we now know from communications that were leaked - in many cases, by congressional committees - were - had made disparaging comments about Donald Trump and were working with this former British spy by the name of Christopher Steele who was also being paid by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign to do research into Donald Trump and Russia and - potential ties between the campaign.

And so all of these things are sort of being pulled together by conservative media and Donald Trump and his allies in Congress to undermine or attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation with an eye towards potentially adverse findings in any report that Mueller might issue about Trump. They can say, hey, look. This was biased all along. And so this effort to declassify - this order to declassify this information is the latest incarnation in this effort to undermine the investigation.

GROSS: The president's order to release these text messages and documents is very controversial. Why is it so controversial?

VOGEL: Well, because there is an ongoing investigation. And it is essentially opening up the - at least, a piece of the investigation to public inspection at a time when there could be sensitive information that could be used in the course of the investigation that might be compromised. The ability - his ability to use this stuff, Mueller's ability to use this stuff going forward - or, you know, other federal prosecutors who are trying sort of peripheral cases, their ability to use some of this stuff going forward could be compromised or limited by public exposure of it at this stage.

GROSS: So the president has the right to demand the release of these documents, but that doesn't mean he is correct or ethical in demanding it. Is there any kind of, like, umpire in a situation like this?

VOGEL: Not that I'm aware of. I mean, certainly the court of public opinion and the Twittersphere is weighing in with ample opinions of various sides of this issue. And conservatives are saying that he has every right and that it is important to have a check on the investigators even if it means potentially compromising an ongoing investigation. And liberals are saying this is a - liberals - I shouldn't say liberals. Liberals and, you know, law enforcement professionals are saying that this is potentially a gross intrusion by the executive branch into a, you know - a politically motivated intrusion by the executive branch into a law enforcement matter.

GROSS: So the documents that the president is demanding be released are documents related to investigations of the president himself. It seems like an unusual move.

VOGEL: It is absolutely unusual, and it has drawn howls of protest from the law enforcement community.

GROSS: And I mean, this is information that Trump's own lawyers can use to potentially support Trump, though who knows what information they're going to get and what it's going to say?

VOGEL: Yeah, that's right. I mean, we've seen a lot of this already, and we have hints of what might be in it. And we do think that it probably will help Trump attempt to undermine the investigation or at least the derivation of the investigation, the origins of it 'cause a lot of this is pretty dated. It goes back to a 2016 campaign period when this investigation is just ramping up.

GROSS: So you've been covering the Manafort trial and the Manafort story. The trial's over, Manafort is cooperating with Mueller. What's next for you? What are you going to be reporting on?

VOGEL: You know, a lot has come out of this trial and this prosecution of Manafort about other people with - people and firms with whom he worked and then more broadly about foreign lobbying in Washington, D.C. This is a really - has been a really under-covered area both by the media and by government regulators. And now we're seeing much more attention to the various ways in which foreign powers and interest groups are working to influence U.S. policy, foreign policy and domestic policy. And so that is a very rich area that I plan to continue looking at.

GROSS: Ken Vogel, thank you so much for talking with us.

VOGEL: It was a pleasure to be with you.

GROSS: Ken Vogel is a reporter for The New York Times. After a break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan. This is FRESH AIR.

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