The Legal Team That Mueller Picked to Help Him Tells Us a Lot About the Russia Investigation
Even before the special counsel’s inquiry has begun in earnest into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, the team Robert Mueller is building provides clues about which way the investigation is heading.
One is a veteran of the Watergate investigation, and Donald Trump – like Richard Nixon – was reported on Wednesday to now be under investigation for obstruction of justice. Other team members have specialities that could point toward where Mueller is looking after taking over control of the investigation from the FBI: money laundering, financial fraud and Russian organised crime.
Donald Trump has been reported to be contemplating the dismissal of Mueller, who was appointed by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, on 17 May just over a week after the president sacked the FBI director, James Comey. Witness interviews have yet to begin, and the special counsel headquarters are still being established in an office block on Washington’s D Street, but Trump used Twitter early on Thursday morning to denounce the investigation – or perhaps the attendant media coverage – as “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people”.
The tweet and similar attacks launched by surrogates in recent days suggest Trump’s strategy will be to assail the integrity of the investigators from the onset.
Even in the highly partisan climate in the US, that will be an uphill struggle. Mueller is a Republican, a marine awarded a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in Vietnam when his unit was ambushed by the Viet Cong in 1969. He was appointed FBI director in 2001, took office a week before the September 11 attacks and was generally acclaimed for his service. When Barack Obama took office, he asked Mueller to serve an extra two years beyond the normal 10.
A succession of senior Republicans leapt to Mueller’s defence on Thursday and warned Trump against any attempt to get rid of him. Rosenstein, who has the power to sack Mueller, told the Senate that without “good cause” he would not consider it and “it would not matter to me what anybody said”.
Three members of the team he has hired so far have been reported to have made election donations to Democrats, a fact that has become another avenue of attack for Trump supporters. But one of the three also made donations to Republicans, and the proportion of Democratic supporters is not significantly out of line with the general population.
It is the specialities of Mueller’s team that is more likely to be a serious concern to the Trump camp, since they point to a wide-ranging inquiry that will look into all aspects of Trump’s complex links to Russia.
One of the more recent recruits is reported to be Lisa Page, a justice department trial attorney with a substantial record of investigating Russian and former Soviet organised crime and in particular its reputed godfather, Semion Mogilevich.
Mogilevich associates are reported to have owned condos in Trump Tower in New York, and the father of Trump’s business partner in the Trump Soho hotel, Felix Sater, was a Mogilevich lieutenant.
Vladimir Putin is known to use oligarchs and organised crime bosses as instruments of Kremlin influence abroad.
“This pick really shows that Mueller recognises that Russian organised crime and sophisticated financial transactions involving them are going to be right at the centre and Page is definitely a leading expert there,” said Scott Horton, a US lawyer with experience of working in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Another sign that the Mueller team will take a “follow the money” approach is the recruitment of Andrew Weissmann, an organised crime expert who oversaw lengthy cases in the US district court for the eastern district of New York focused on the city’s mafia families and their infiltration of Wall Street.
Weissmann formerly led the FBI’s fraud unit and the taskforce that unpicked the complex financial dealings of Enron, after the giant energy corporation collapsed in December 2001. It was the most complex white collar crime investigation in FBI history and led to the convictions of the firm’s top management.
“What is striking to me is that his team is a counter-intelligence team and is a money fraud, banking, laundering-type team. Andrew Weissman did the Enron cases, which is all about following the money trail,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the homeland security department.
Another legal heavyweight Mueller has recruited is Michael Dreeben, a former deputy solicitor general who has argued more than 100 cases before the US supreme court. Rosenzweig described him on the Lawfare blog as “quite possibly the best criminal appellate lawyer in America” and said he represented even worse news for Trump last week than Comey’s damning testimony.
Mueller has brought with him three members of his law firm, WilmerHale, who have justice department and law enforcement backgrounds. One of them is James Quarles, who was part of the Watergate taskforce and focus on irregularities in GOP campaign finance.
Another WilmerHale lawyer is a former FBI agent, Aaron Zebley, a cybersecurity specialist who, according to Wired magazine, was part of the bureau’s I-49 counter-terrorism unit, which helped track down the bombers who blew up the US embassies in east Africa in 1998. He worked as a counsel at the justice department’s national security division before following Mueller to WilmerHale.
The third member of the WilmerHale trio is Jeannie Rhee, who was deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration and is an expert on the intersection of criminal law and government.
“This is a team with wide expertise that is really top notch,” said Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University. “These are people who have a number of competencies who have dealt with fraud and corruption and who know government well. All of them know obstruction of justice and many have worked with Mueller and with each other before.”
As for the hostile scrutiny the special counsel team is likely to endure as the investigation gets going, Greenberg predicted they were equal to it.
“These are seasoned attorneys,” she said. “They have faced challenges out there before dealing with corporate corruption ... starting with Mueller, who came into office days before 9/11. They have been through things every bit as stressful and tough as this.”
Those on both sides hoping for a swift resolution to the investigation may be disappointed: special counsel investigations can take years before coming to any conclusions. If Mueller did find evidence of potential criminal charges, a sitting president is unlikely to be indicted, so the ball would be passed to Congress for a possible impeachment – extremely unlikely while Republicans continue to control both houses.