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Exclusive: Notes appear to back Comey claims about Trump

Part One of an exclusive look at previously unreleased documents

The Rachel Maddow Show has obtained exclusively what we believe are the contemporaneous handwritten notes of Dana Boente, then acting deputy attorney general, from his conversations with FBI Director James Comey about Comey's interactions with President Donald Trump.

The notes appear to corroborate Comey's testimony to Congress about his exchanges with Trump, including similar phrasing about Trump’s discomfort with the Russia investigation.

Boente records in his notes from March 30, 2017, for example, "What can I do to relieve the cloud" as a line relayed from Comey that Trump said to him in a conversation also on March 30th. Comey cited that similar phrasing in his public statements. Additionally, TRMS has obtained a letter from Boente informing the Department of Justice that he has been asked to speak with Robert Mueller's investigators, and requesting legal representation from the department. The exclusive collection of documents also includes a letter from E.W. Priestap, the assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division of the Department of Justice, informing Boente that his notes from his conversation with Comey are not classified. Below is a rush transcript of part one of Rachel Maddow's exclusive report:


Ok, this is Dana Boente:

Dana Boente first became a public official of national interest when President Trump fired Sally Yates.  Sally Yates was the acting attorney general of the United States, she was fired after she told the White House that she believed Trump's Muslim Ban was likely unconstitutional, that’s the reason she was fired.  But we soon learned that while she had been acting attorney general, she had personally  gone to the white house to give the white house a warning about national security adviser Mike Flynn and his communications with the Russian government, which he had been lying about.

And this all happened very quickly, at the very start of the Trump administration.

Trump was sworn-in on Friday January 20th. Flynn was interviewed by the FBI the following Tuesday, January 24th. On Thursday the 26th, Sally Yates was up at the White House giving them that warning about Flynn.

When she got called back the next day, asked to come back to the White House to discuss that warning further -- that was Friday the 27th.

Then there was the weekend, then Monday she was fired -- January 30th. It all happened very quickly. The whole first ten days of the Trump administration.

She was out. She was fired even before Flynn was.

One of the enduring mysteries about the Russia investigation and this president and this White House is that even after these totally unprecedented warnings from the Justice Department with the acting attorney general coming to the White House to deliver this unprecedented warning about the national security adviser being compromised by a foreign power  -even after that warning and subsequent warnings the next day, they kept Flynn on for another eighteen days. They didn't fire Flynn until mid-February; an enduring mystery that has yet to be explained.

Well a few weeks after they finally did fire Flynn in May of 2017, we found out in the New York Times that the White House had way more warning about Flynn than just that heads-up they got in person from Sally Yates.

The New York Times was first to report -- in May of last year -- that Flynn had actually warned the White House during the transition that he was under federal investigation.

I still remember reading this dramatic headline for the first time: "Trump Team Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation before He Came to White House"... They did?

"Michael T. Flynn told President Trump's transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation...

"Despite this warning, Mr. Trump made Flynn his national security adviser..."

This article in the Times in May of last year, this is where we first learned that federal prosecutors, in fact a veteran espionage prosecutor, was actively pursuing a criminal investigation into the president's national security adviser with a grand jury and subpoenas and the whole shebang.

"The pace of the investigations has intensified in recent weeks, with a veteran espionage prosecutor, Brandon Van Grack, now leading a grand jury inquiry in Northern Virginia that is scrutinizing Mr. Flynn... it has begun issuing subpoenas to businesses that worked with Mr. Flynn and his associates."

"The New York Times has reviewed one of the subpoenas. It demands all ‘records, research, contracts, bank records, communications’ and other documents related to work with Mr. Flynn and the Flynn Intel Group -- his business.

The subpoena reviewed the Times was "Signed by Dana J. Boente, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia."

Alright, so this revelation back in May was stunning at the time for a few reasons. I mean one, the president's national security adviser was being investigated by a grand jury led by a veteran espionage prosecutor. Two, the White House knew that during the transition and they hired him to be national security adviser anyway. 

But the other reason that was stunning is because the federal prosecutor whose office convened that grand jury, the guy whose office that investigation was being run out of, the guy signing the subpoenas, was Dana Boente.

Right, the same guy who Trump had made the acting attorney general of the United States after he fired Sally Yates. And in fact Boente went through a whole string of the highest jobs in American law enforcement in the first months of the Trump administration, and it's important, I think, now to recognize that at every step of the way, he had a key role in overseeing the Russia investigation.

I mean the first thing that was unusual about Dana Boente is that he kept Dana Boente on as the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia when he fired all the other U.S. attorneys. We later found out that Boente had been overseeing an investigation into Michael Flynn in the eastern district of Virginia.

We later learned that in office, as the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, Boente was also signing off on subpoenas and overseeing an investigation, not just into Flynn but also into Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort. 

I mean Trump did fire all those U.S. attorneys last march, Boente was one of the only ones he kept on. And we later found out that Boente's office was running those investigations into Flynn and Manafort.

Then Trump makes him acting attorney general. As acting attorney general, he became responsible for all of the various threads of the Russia investigation, beyond just the parts he had already personally been helming in Virginia.

He's acting attorney general, that lasts until Sessions came on. Jeff Sessions comes on, Boente gets another plum job, he gets named acting deputy attorney general and that meant for a few weeks he actually was no longer responsible for overseeing the whole Russia investigation. But that only lasted a few weeks until Sessions had to recuse himself, and then once again, as acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente was back in charge of overseeing all the parts of the Russia investigation nationwide again. He only had a few weeks off. In that capacity as acting attorney general, we now know Boente signed off on the FISA warrant to conduct surveillance against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

And then even after he got moved out of that job, after Rod Rosenstein got  confirmed by the Senate and he took over as the deputy attorney general, Boente still was instrumental to the Russia investigation because Trump then gave Boente another awesome job, he made him acting head of the national security division at the Justice Department. And we learned just  last week that Boente personally signed off on some of the most important criminal charges that were brought against Paul Manafort.

So Dana Boente, not the most memorable looking guy in the world, right? He turns out to be the Zelig of the Russia investigation. He's everywhere. Or maybe he's the Forrest Gump! Choose your movie. But he really has played a key role and at times the key top supervisory role in the Russia investigation all the way back to the beginning.

And I tell you, at a personal level I remain convinced that there's some interesting story to tell about why Dana Boente got fired from the Justice Department after having all those jobs. Right when Manafort got indicted for the first time, Boente got fired from the Justice Department. We still don't know why. He was abruptly told to resign from his job as head of the national security division and as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, held those jobs at the same time. They abruptly told him to resign at the time Manafort got indicted. And we still don't know why. I believe there is a story to tell there and someday we will tell it, mark my words!

But Boente ultimately got a soft landing.

Yeah he got pushed out of the Justice Department after holding all those jobs but then the FBI hired him. The FBI hired him on as their general counsel, which is where he works now. And arguably, that means he still has an important role to play in the Russia investigation as the FBI increasingly comes under attack as an institution both from the President and from Republicans in Congress who are hostile to the whole Russia investigation.

So Boente is the man in the middle. From the very beginning, here he is right at the heart of all of this.

And here's what we've figured out. Here's our little scoop:

We have obtained some documents that have not previously been seen or reported on that we're going to show you tonight.

We have authenticated them to the best of our ability and what we believe these documents show is a few important things about Dana Boente and the Russia investigation.

First, we can report exclusively right now that Dana Boente has been asked to be interviewed by the Special Counsel's office, in the Russia investigation.

We know that because of this letter, which we have obtained. It's dated January 2nd 2018.

It's a letter from Dana Boente while he was still acting head of the national security division at the Justice Department.

It's a letter to another Justice Department official notifying DOJ that this request has come in.

As you can see at the top of this letter, it's addressed to Scott Schools. Scott Schools is the senior-most career attorney at the Justice Department. And here's how the letter starts:

"Dear. Mr. Schools: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has asked to interview me as part of his investigation of the Russian

government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the event I do not submit to this interview, Special Counsel Mueller would have the authority to issue a subpoena for my testimony before a grand jury.

Boente says, "I served as acting deputy attorney general from February to April,”…

(I should note there's a little typo there it says Februarys 2011, we think he means 2017 there, but that typo is unexplained in terms of this letter.)

…"served as acting attorney general and as head of the national security division from April to the present."

And he's writing in January of this year.

He says, "As the acting deputy attorney general, I was responsible for the overall operation of the Department of Justice and -- given the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- I was also responsible for the investigation of the Russian government's interference in the 2016 presidential election.”

“The requested interview -- from Mueller -- concerns activities occurring within the bounds and scope of my duties with the Department of Justice."

And then this is important: he says, "I have no reason to believe that I am a subject or target of the investigation."

So Dana Boente is not a target, he's not a subject, at least as far as he knows he's not. Which means he's a witness for the investigation. He's telling the Justice Department, he's notifying the senior career official at justice that he's been called in to give witness testimony for Mueller.

And then he closes this letter of notification by asking for legal representation in this matter. He says, "I am requesting representation or a commitment for the reimbursement of legal fees." So give me a lawyer or pay my legal fees for me to hire one.

Signed: "Sincerely, Dana J. Boente".

So this document is previously unreported -- and we have not confirmed if Boente ultimately did an interview with Mueller's prosecutors but this letter from him to the senior career official at the Justice Department indicates that has been asked to do that interview. Dana Beonte who has had all those senior Justice Department jobs, served as U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, including at key moments in the Russia investigation, and who's now the general counsel of the FBI.

And now here's where it gets good.

We have also obtained this document from another senior Justice Department official. This time it's the head of the counterintelligence division at the FBI. And this is a letter from that official to Dana Boente and it's an unusual thing.

This letter is dated just over two weeks after Boente notified the Justice Department that Mueller wanted to talk to him, this letter is dated January 17th.

And this letter from the FBI counterintelligence division is essentially a certification for Boente that a certain set of notes that he took -- handwritten notes -- that were marked by a Justice Department employee as Top Secret, those notes are not actually top secret at all. Check it out:

"Dear Mr. Boente:”

And then you see the “U” there -- I think that means this paragraph is unclassified:  "(U) This letter serves as confirmation under my authority as a FBI official -- excuse me FBI Original Classification Authority that your handwritten notes derived from your March 30th, 2017 conversation with former FBI Director James Comey are UNCLASSIFIED."

"Understanding that your notes were marked as TOP SECRET by an employee of the Department of Justice without your consultation, this letter memorializes a duly authorized finding that the contents of your notes are not TOP SECRET (or classified at all).”

OK, you're getting the importance now of what we've obtained here.

At the very start of January, the day after New Year's Day, Boente tells DOJ he's going to be interviewed by Mueller. He asks for either legal representation, or a commitment to pay his legal fees.

Couple of weeks later, he gets a certification from counterintelligence at the FBI that his notes, handwritten notes from a specific conversation with James Comey, shouldn’t be marked Top Secret. That was improper, they're actually not classified at all.

Now, we don't know for sure, because these are the documents that we've got, but what we surmise from these documents is that Boente is getting his ducks in a row so he can show these handwritten notes to people while preparing for his interview with Mueller. Or perhaps more directly he's preparing to hand over those notes to Mueller as part of this interview.

Well we have also obtained those handwritten notes.

Notes from Dana Boente on his conversations with James Comey while Comey was FBI director. Specifically, we've obtained his notes from a conversation in which Comey says he was pressured by the president about the Russia investigation.

This is key to the question of whether or not the president may be criminally liable for obstruction of justice. Comey told Congress in June, after he was fired that the president had pressured him on the Russia investigation in a phone call on March 30th of last year.

He told Congress, I can give you from his testimony, "Immediately after that conversation, I called acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente to report the substance of the call from the President."

This is a key, key matter in the question of whether the president could be liable for obstruction. Comey says the president pressured him -- the White House responded by saying no, the president did no such thing. Comey says hey, I have corroborating evidence from my side of the story and that corroborating evidence is that I told other senior justice department and FBI officials about what happened between me and the president at the time it happened. Since then, Comey himself, and a number of officials he says he told at the time about the president's behavior have all ended up on the proverbial guillotine, right? Including Comey himself, fired and attacked by the president as a liar, attacked by Republicans and conservative media for almost a year. Also Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, fired and attacked in much the same way -- McCabe says it's because he can corroborate Comey's testimony from his interactions with the president at the time. Other people briefed by Comey at the time have also been mysteriously demoted and/or attacked by the president ever since. He's been picking off those witnesses one by one.

Well Dana Boente is one of those officials who Comey briefed at the time.

And yeah, he did end up getting pushed out of the Justice Department in mysterious circumstances this past fall and we don't really get that yet.

But he's at the FBI now -- as their general counsel.

And we have now obtained what we believe are Boente's contemporaneous notes from his conversations with Comey at the time of Comey's troubling interactions with the president from March 30th.

And those notes do corroborate -- in very striking terms -- exactly what Comey says happened between him and the president.

Before now, no one has ever seen these contemporaneous memos or notes from those interactions between Comey and the president -- but we've got 'em tonight -- and we're going to show them to you next.


So our big news tonight is that We have obtained what we believe is a copy of the handwritten notes that Justice Department official Dana Boente took on March 30th, 2017 when he got a phone call that day from FBI Director James Comey.

On that date, Dana Boente was acting deputy attorney general of the United States.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was recused from overseeing the Russia investigation and so Dana Boente on that date was in charge of overseeing all strands of the FBI investigation into the Russia matter.

Now, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had not yet been appointed. That wouldn't happen until several weeks later, after FBI Director James Comey was fired.

So on the occasion of this call, from which we have photocopies of the handwritten notes, you should know that Comey was still FBI director and he was phoning Boente to report what had just happened between him and the president.

Comey would later explain to Congress that he took notes himself on this interaction with the president and others and he briefed other senior officials, senior law enforcement officials, about this interaction with the president and others because he believed those interactions were, for lack of a better term or phrase, sort of important and unusual. He wanted to make sure there was a record of those interactions.

The president would later denounce James Comey as a liar, saying that his accounts of his interactions with the president were not true. But now for the first time we can compare Comey’s public statements about what he says the president did -we can compare those public statements with the notes taken by someone who Comey briefed about it that same day.

Alright, you can see the heading here:

First, it's marked Top Secret, and then that is crossed out, and the cross-out is initialled by the head of the counterintelligence division at the FBI -- who also provided what amounts to a cover letter to these notes, explaining that this TOP SECRET stamp was basically affixed in error, and that these notes are not, in fact, classified.

Then here is the top line of the notes: "Comey. March 30, 2017. 8:13AM.”

The handwriting here is a little sketchy, we believe this to be Dana Boente’s handwriting.

And Then it says here in the notes: "Cloud as a result of Russia business. This makes running the country difficult."

That's in Boente's handwritten notes as what Comey described the president as saying to him, to James Comey.

Compare that with what James Comey himself described publicly about that interaction with the president:

FEINSTEIN: You described two phone calls that you received from President Trump, one on March 30 and one on April 11, where he, quote, "described the Russia investigation as a cloud that was impairing his ability," end quote, as president, and asked you, quote, "to lift the cloud," end quote.

What -- how did you interpret that? And what did you believe he wanted you to do?

COMEY: I interpreted that as he was frustrated that the Russia investigation was taking up so much time and energy, I -- I think he meant, of the executive branch, but in the -- in the public square in general, and it was making it difficult for him to focus on other priorities of his.

So Comey tells Congress – that the Russia business was a cloud, that the president believed was impairing his ability as president. That’s what he said to Congress out loud.

Comey explains that the same way to Dana Boente according to these notes, "Cloud as a result of Russia business. This makes running the country difficult." So that very closely tracks his public testimony with what he apparently told Dana Boente that day.

Here's more from Comey's written testimony to Congress that day:

"On the morning of March 30, the president called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be a great, there would be great benefit, if we didn't find anything, to our having done the work well. The President agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him."

That is what James Comey testified in his written testimony to Congress. From these notes we have just obtained it appears that is exactly what he told Dana Boente the president said, too.

From Beonte’s Notes:

"What can I do to relieve the cloud...”

"Kept coming back to it making it hard to do business for the country...”

"We will do the work well."

Again, Comey's testimony to Congress about the President's call to him on March 30th about the Russia investigation closely tracking, including exact phrases, closely tracking what these notes say he told Dana Boente about the president's call.

We’ve got two more actually, and for this-this second to last one, let's go back to that Comey exchange with Feinstein – so this will be a little overlap here on the tape you just saw but watch this to the end:

FEINSTEIN: You described two phone calls that you received from President Trump, one on March 30 and one on April 11, where he, quote, "described the Russia investigation as a cloud that was impairing his ability," end quote, as president, and asked you, quote, "to lift the cloud," end quote.

What -- how did you interpret that? And what did you believe he wanted you to do?

COMEY: I interpreted that as he was frustrated that the Russia investigation was taking up so much time and energy, I -- I think he meant, of the executive branch, but in the -- in the public square in general, and it was making it difficult for him to focus on other priorities of his. But what he asked me was actually narrower than that. So I think what he meant by the cloud, and again, I could be wrong, but what I think he meant by the cloud was the entire investigation is -- is taking up oxygen and making it hard for me to focus on the things I want to focus on. The ask was to get it out that I, the president, am not personally under investigation.

The ask was to get it out that I -- the president -- am not personally under investigation.

That's what Comey told Congress about the president's specific request to him in that call on March 30, 2017.

Here's what Comey apparently told Boente that same day so there would be a corroborating witness to this ask from the president:

From Boente’s notes, "Reminded him we are not investigating you. That would be great to get out."

So Comey tells Congress what the president asked him to do was make a public statement announcing the president wasn't under investigation. Comey apparently used that same description when he called Dana Boente that day to brief him on the president's behaviour.

Alright last one -- part of the obstruction of justice concern here is that the president shouldn't have been calling James Comey anyway, shouldn’t have been making this direct call to the FBI director about an ongoing investigation. The president shouldn’t be having a one on one solo communication with the FBI director about matters actively under investigation.

Now, Comey explained to Congress that according to the rules he shouldn't be talking to the president about this stuff alone at all:

SENATOR COLLINS: Did you go to anyone at the Department of Justice and ask them to call the White House counsel's office and explain that the president had to have a far better understanding and appreciation of his role vis-à-vis the FBI?

COMEY: In general, I did. I spoke to the attorney general and I spoke to the new deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein, when he took office and explained my serious concern about the way in which the president is interacting, especially with the FBI. And I specifically -- as I said in my testimony, I told the attorney general, it can't happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me.

“Told the attorney general it can’t happen, that you get kicked out of the room when the president talks to me.” Meaning I can’t be having these conversations with the president alone.

So that's what, that’s what Comey told Congress. He says he let the Justice Department know -- he let the attorney general know -- it can't be that the attorney general gets kicked out of the room and the president talks to the FBI director alone. Can't happen. That’s what Comey says to Congress about what his conversations were like on this subject, right.

Well, it Turns out the notes we have obtained indicate he told Dana Boente that same thing: "Told AG -- before recusal -- I cannot be speaking with the President alone."

So, the FBI director, James Comey, told Congress about his basically strange interactions with the president on the Russia investigation. He says he had these interactions with the president that were about the Russian investigation that were strange, and then the president fired him.

The president later told visiting Russian officials in the oval office, and he told Lester Holt on NBC News, that the firing of James Comey did have to do with the Russia investigation. The president just yesterday made public claims that firing James Comey was the right thing to do. The president has spent the last year denouncing Comey as a liar -- saying he is somebody who lied publicly about his interactions with the president before he was fired by the president.

Well these notes – which we believe are Dana Boente's first hand, hand-written notes from his conversation with Comey after that March 30th call -- this is the first contemporaneous evidence that we the public has seen of what James Comey told other public officials at the time about the president's behavior and as best as we can tell it absolutely matches his public statements about the president’s behavior.

We have a few other documents that we have obtained that we are still reporting out. I should tell you, we have reached out to the Justice Department -- no comment.

We’ve reached out to The FBI -- no comment.

We’ve reached out to James Comey -- no comment.

Dana Boente -- no comment.

But we are working on changing as much of those as we can. Stay with us.