Mueller Scrutinized an Unidentified Member of News Media in Russia Inquiry

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The scrutiny was one of several new disclosures the Justice Department made about investigative actions involving the news media during the Trump years.

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who led the Russia investigation, in 2019. His team tried to determine whether a “member of the news media was involved in the conspiracy” to hack Democrats and make their emails public, the Justice Department said.
Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Charlie SavageAdam Goldman

Sept. 1, 2021Updated 9:50 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — The special counsel who investigated Russia’s 2016 election interference, Robert S. Mueller III, scrutinized “a member of the news media suspected of participating in the conspiracy” to hack Democrats and make their emails public, the Justice Department disclosed on Wednesday.

The deputy attorney general at the time, Rod J. Rosenstein, who was overseeing the Russia investigation, approved a subpoena in 2018 for the unnamed person’s phone and email records. He also approved seeking a voluntary interview with that person and then issuing a subpoena to force the person to testify before a grand jury, the department said.

“All of this information was necessary to further the investigation of whether the member of the news media was involved in the conspiracy to unlawfully obtain and utilize the information from the hacked political party or other victims,” the department said.

No member of the news media was charged with conspiring in the hack-and-dump operation, and the disclosure on Wednesday left many questions unanswered.

It did not say why the person was suspected of participating in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 election, or whether that person ever testified before a grand jury.

Nor did it define “member of the news media” to clarify whether that narrowly meant a traditional journalist or could broadly extend to various types of commentators on current events. (For example, it has been known since September 2018 that Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy theorist and political commentator, was subpoenaed that year.)

A Justice Department spokesman declined to provide further clarity, and several former law enforcement officials who were familiar with the Mueller investigation did not respond to requests for information.

The disclosure of the scrutiny of a member of the news media was contained in a revision to a report issued by the Trump administration about investigative activities that affected or involved the news media in 2018. The Trump-era version of that report had omitted the episode.

The Justice Department under President Biden also issued reports on Wednesday covering such investigative activities in 2019, which the Trump-era department failed to issue, and in 2020. And it provided new details about leak investigations at the end of the Trump administration that sought records for reporters with CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The report for 2019 disclosed another investigative matter apparently related to the special counsel’s office, which by then had issued its final report and closed down. During the prosecution of one of the people who was charged with “obstructing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” a U.S. attorney authorized subpoenaing an unnamed member of the news media for testimony, and that person agreed to comply.

Prosecutors, however, ultimately did not call that person to testify at the trial. The report did not say whether any subpoena was issued, or whether obtaining one was merely approved. Nor did it say what the person would have testified about.

It also did not say whether it was referring to the trial of Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime friend, which took place in 2019. Mr. Stone was charged, among other things, with obstructing one of Congress’s Russia investigations; he was convicted, but then pardoned by Mr. Trump.

The 2019 report also glancingly discussed two previously unknown episodes in which the Justice Department investigated members of the news media for “offenses arising from news gathering activities” without saying what those allegations were.

One section of the report briefly discussed an investigation into one member of the news media for such offenses. It said the attorney general had authorized prosecutors to use various legal tools to force companies to turn over communications and business records about the target. (The report did not name the attorney general; President Donald J. Trump appointed William P. Barr to the post in February 2019.)

In that case, the report said, investigators used a “filter team” in an effort “to minimize the review of news media-related materials and safeguard any such materials.”

Another section of the 2019 report discussed an investigation into “employees of a news media entity” for such offenses. It said the attorney general had authorized investigators to conduct voluntary interviews of “two members of the news media employed by a media entity” in connection with the matter, but provided no further details.

In contrast to those sparse accounts, the Justice Department also released a detailed timeline of the leak investigations late in the Trump era into sources for reporters with CNN, The Post and The Times, all of which spilled over into the Mr. Biden’s presidency and which the Biden administration disclosed earlier this year.

The leak investigations involving CNN, The Times and The Post were opened in August 2017, both involving stories published or aired in preceding months. The chronology did not explain why three years later, there was a sudden urgency to go after the reporters’ communications records.

Mr. Barr approved requests to try to obtain a CNN reporter’s communications records in May 2020, the chronology shows. He approved going after the Times reporters’ materials in September 2020. And on Nov. 13, after Mr. Trump lost the presidential election, Mr. Barr approved a request to try to obtain the Post reporters’ communications records.

The Justice Department successfully obtained call data — records showing who called whom and when, but not what was said — for the reporters at the three organizations. The chronology said the phone companies had been legally free to reveal that they had received subpoenas, although none did.

While the department ultimately obtained some email records for a CNN reporter, Barbara Starr, it did not succeed in getting email records for the Times and Post reporters whose stories were under scrutiny. The Biden-era department ultimately dropped those efforts.

Still, the fight over those materials — including the imposition of gag orders on some news media executives, and a delay in notifying the reporters that their materials had been sought and in some cases obtained — spilled over into the Biden administration. The chronology showed that in April Attorney General Merrick B. Garland approved extending a delay in notifying Ms. Starr about the matter.

In July, at the direction of Mr. Biden, Mr. Garland barred prosecutors and F.B.I. agents from using subpoenas, search warrants and other tools of legal compulsion to go after reporters’ communications records or force them to testify about confidential sources — a major change in Justice Department policy from practices under recent previous administrations of both parties.

At the request of Mr. Garland — who also ordered the production of the timelines — the Justice Department inspector general has opened an investigation into the decision by federal prosecutors to secretly seize the data of reporters, as well as communications records of House Democrats and staff members swept up in leak investigations.

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