Agent feared leak of Trump tax returns could affect election
BATON ROUGE— Less than two weeks before Election Day, federal agents descended on a hotel lobby to meet a Louisiana private investigator they believed had illegally tried to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns.
At the time, the agents didn’t know if Jordan Hamlett had been successful — and they feared a public release of Trump’s tax returns could influence the U.S. presidential election, according to a transcript of testimony obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
The agents worried Hamlett could be armed and orchestrated an elaborate operation at the hotel on Oct. 27, with plainclothes officers blending in with guests at the Embassy Suites in Baton Rouge. Other officers took up positions outside.
Authorities now say Hamlett was not able to get Trump’s tax returns. He has been charged with misrepresenting his Social Security number, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
Authorities have not said what Hamlett’s motive for getting the federal tax returns were, and they wondered in the documents whether he was working with anyone or planned to sell them or release them.
Every president since Jimmy Carter has released their tax returns in what has become an American tradition during presidential elections, but Trump so far has refused to release his.
According to testimony, authorities used an undercover agent posing as a potential client to lure Hamlett to the hotel. Instead of meeting the client, he encountered the agents — one from the FBI and the other from the Treasury Department.
Hamlett agreed to an interview in the hotel’s atrium and the agents questioned him for hours in hushed tones inside the crowded lobby, authorities said.
Hamlett immediately took credit for his “genius idea” to seek Trump’s tax returns from a U.S. Education Department financial aid website before he was accused of anything, Treasury Department Special Agent Samuel Johnson testified.
“He sounded somewhat, I would describe it as proud,” Johnson said. “We spoke in lower voices because there was a number of people passing by and the information that we’re discussing at this time relates directly to … presidential candidate Trump and his tax returns.”
Hamlett apparently tried to use Trump’s Social Security number on a program that allows people seeking financial aid to locate their tax records, and transfer the information to the education website. The U.S. Education Department has not returned messages for comment.
It’s not clear how he got the Social Security number, but agents did question him about the internet hacking group known as Anonymous, which had released some of Trump’s personal information, Johnson said.
Neither Hamlett nor his lawyer, Michael Fiser, has returned phone and email messages from The Associated Press.
The complaint against him was initially filed under seal, but it has since been unsealed and new details about the case are coming to light.
In court records, Fiser characterized the interview in the hotel as an “interrogation,” and Hamlett said he was terrified. His lawyer has sought to have his statements thrown out as evidence.
“I was under the impression as soon as we were done talking, I was going to jail,” Hamlett testified, according to the transcript.
Johnson said the interview at the hotel was “almost like friends talking in a sense.” He said Hamlett was free to leave at any time.
Hamlett was asked what he thought would have happened if he had left the hotel and got into his car.
“That I would be in a high-speed chase on the news,” he said.
President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to Yad Vashem to honor the victims of the holocaust, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)