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Investigative Journalist Jason Leopold Breaks Down His Reporting On Trump And Russia


Each new peek into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation seems to enlarge the cast of characters. In three court filings on Friday, prosecutors revealed new details about outreach from Russians early in President Trump's presidential campaign. Some of the references were familiar to BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold. He's been part of a team reporting on the Russians involved for a while now. And he joins us now in the studio.

Hi, there.

JASON LEOPOLD: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I imagine you scoured the pages of the court filings pretty eagerly on Friday night.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yeah. As a person who's been tracing the Russia side of this, what jumped out at you?

LEOPOLD: Well, first of all, in the special counsel's sentencing memo of Michael Cohen, what was remarkable to me was a footnote in there in which he stated - his office stated that in August, when Michael Cohen met with them regarding what he knew about Trump and Russia, that he was not forthcoming. In fact, he was lying about a Trump Moscow and his role in the development of this tower in Russia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for people who might not be following this...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...As closely as you are, what does that mean? What does that say to you?

LEOPOLD: To me, it says that Michael Cohen was holding himself out as someone who was going to divulge information about what went on behind the scenes between the Trump campaign and Russia and that he was simply just not telling the truth. And to me, it also indicated that, perhaps, he was trying to send a signal to the White House about, you know, what he would discuss and what he wouldn't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, there are just a raft of characters in this. And we don't have a lot of time to go through them all. But I do want to talk about a name brought back into the spotlight in the sentencing memo of Michael Cohen - a Russian athlete who had contacts with Ivanka Trump way back in 2015. Who is he? And what did we learn?

LEOPOLD: So this is from a story that my colleagues and I reported earlier this year. He's a...


LEOPOLD: ...Russian weightlifter - Olympic weightlifter. His name is Dmitry Klokov. And he's not named in the sentencing memo. But it lines up very closely to what we reported - the timeline and the fact that he - his wife contacted Ivanka Trump and was trying to get in touch with Michael Cohen, trying to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in order to push forth this proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's also another person in the Manafort filing. We learned about more contacts between former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate who has links to the GRU, the military intelligence arm in Russia that was largely responsible for the hacking in the 2016 election, right? That's Konstantin Killemnik (ph).

LEOPOLD: Kilimnik, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kilimnik, thank you.

LEOPOLD: Yes. And he is a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, had done business with Paul Manafort for a number of years. In fact, earlier this year, he was charged in a superseding indictment and accused, along with Manafort, of trying to get two witnesses to, essentially, tell investigators that the work that those two were doing on behalf of some lobbyist in the Ukraine was only in the Ukraine and had nothing to do with the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's all these people swirling around.

LEOPOLD: It's a very complicated story, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course it is, but there's all these people swirling around, you know, the Trump family.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's all these relationships. What does it tell you about the Russian strategy in terms of their relationship with Trump and his family?

LEOPOLD: You know, early on, we were hearing - early on meaning, you know, two years ago, maybe during the course of the campaign - that, you know, the Russians were, obviously, trying to cultivate Donald Trump and members of his family. And it seems from some of these filings that that, in fact, was the case.

You know, going back to Michael Cohen in 2015, when he was being contacted by this weightlifter and others that he was trying to work with, it really does appear that there was some sort of cultivation taking place. But, you know, the reality is is that there is more to be revealed. Clearly, that sentencing memo on Friday that was laid bare about what the contacts were indicates that there is more to be revealed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. Jason Leopold is a reporter for BuzzFeed News. Thanks so much.

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

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Jason Leopold