Associated Press reporters asked the FBI and Justice Department for a meeting in April 2017, hoping to find out whether their reporting on President Trump’s former campaign chairman was on the right track.
But it was the AP reporters who would shape the FBI’s investigation, an agent would later testify, when they disclosed the existence of a storage locker used by Paul Manafort.
Roughly a month after the meeting, the FBI obtained a search warrant for the locker, seizing 30 years’ worth of financial documents that would become the backbone of the government’s current prosecution of Mr. Manafort in two different courtrooms.
Conservative media-watchdog groups say the meeting illuminates a cozy relationship between news outlets they perceive as having an anti-Trump bias and Justice Department, which has been besieged by accusations of political partisanship.
“This is a lapse of journalistic ethics,” said Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media. “It looks like The Associated Press is cooperating with the investigation and pushing this information to get Manafort so it could get to Trump.”
An Associated Press spokeswoman said the meeting was an effort for reporters to learn more about the FBI’s Manafort probe. She confirmed the reporters did ask officials if they knew about a storage locker belonging to Mr. Manafort, but said the reporters did not share its name or location.
“Associated Press journalists met with representatives from the Department of Justice in an effort to get information on stories they were reporting as reporters do,” said Lauren Easton, a spokeswoman for the news outlet.
That explanation didn’t satisfy Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative-leaning Media Research Center.
“You can see why the AP would push back on this, because it makes them look like anti-Trump activists who brought Paul Manafort to the FBI,” he said.
FBI agent Jeff Pfeiffer revealed the conversation with AP reporters in testimony in court last week as a judge prepares for a trial on federal charges related to failure to pay income taxes and tax fraud.
Mr. Pfeiffer said the purpose of the meeting was for the FBI to learn more about what The Associated Press uncovered. Journalism ethics experts said there is nothing wrong with meetings between reporters and law enforcement to exchange information.
“Particularly with investigative journalists, you often have meetings where you have to trade information to get information,” said Mark Feldstein, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. “This is how the sausage is made and it often looks unappetizing to members of the public who aren’t familiar with the process.”
Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, agreed.
“The AP was going there to ask questions about their investigative reporting into Paul Manafort and the FBI saw this as a way to glean information,” she said. “If the AP were going to turn information over to the FBI that would be suspect, but if they are going to do interviews as part of their reporting, that is ethically laudable.”
One day after the Justice Department meeting, the AP published a story saying Mr. Manafort had received at least $1.2 million in off-the-books payments from Ukrainian officials.
The meeting has raised concerns from some Republican lawmakers.
In December, Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein seeking all records from the meeting.
Mr. Nunes’ letter noted the attendance of Andrew Weissmann, a top deputy for special counsel Robert Mueller, who is prosecuting Mr. Manafort as part of his probe into possible collusion between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
The conference with The Associated Press occurred roughly one month before Mr. Mueller was appointed as special counsel. At that time, Mr. Weissmann headed the Justice Department’s fraud division.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
Revelations of The Associated Press’s boost to the Justice Department come on the heels of a spat of high-profile ethical lapses by journalists on both the right and the left.
In April, Fox News host Sean Hannity was named as a client of President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. The courtroom disclosure came after Mr. Hannity used his Fox News pulpit to blast the FBI’s raid on Mr. Cohen’s home and office.
Mr. Hannity said during his radio show he sought advice on a real estate deal but never paid Mr. Cohen nor did he receive an invoice.
A month later, CNN host Don Lemon and other network personalities were caught partying it up with Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump. The party was believed to be at Mr. Lemon’s home, according to a report in The Daily Caller.
A party guest tweeted a picture of Mr Avenatti taking a silly photo with a group that included Mr. Lemon and two other CNN commentators. The guest, who later deleted the tweet, is believed to be the wife of Errol Louis, a CNN political analyst. At the time of the photo, Mr. Avenatti had been on CNN 74 times in the past 70 days, according to Newsbusters, a conservative media group.
And Ali Watkins, a reporter with The New York Times, has admitted to a relationship with former Senate intelligence committee staffer James Wolfe, who now faces charges of lying about the relationship.
In a lengthy indictment the government details contacts between the two that strongly suggest Mr. Wolfe acted as a source and assisted Ms. Watkins in her reporting on former Trump campaign figures being investigated.
Ms. Watkins, who previously worked for BuzzFeed and Politico, said she disclosed the relationship to her employers, but has denied Mr. Wolfe’s having been a source.
“The Associated Press meeting may not be bad, but when you look at everything else that has happened, it just adds to the whole narrative that these guys are after Trump one way or another,” Mr. Irvine said. “Each of these lapses kind of feed off each other.”
Mr. Graham said the FBI should be embarrassed if it did learn new information from reporters about Mr. Manafort — someone they had been investigating since 2014.
“This is one of those scenarios that doesn’t look good for the FBI either way,” he said. “Either the FBI was exploiting reporters or they are completely ignorant of their subjects. Every time the journalists meet with powerful government officials, you need to ask who is getting what?”
Yet former FBI agent Danny Defenbuagh, a 33-year veteran of the bureau, said it is common, especially in corruption cases, for the agents to learn facts from newspaper reports.
“You read the papers every day because the press may come up with something you may not have known,” he said.