Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mueller's Witch Hunters or '14 Angry Democrats'?

They know when to hold 'em — and when to fold 'em: President Donald Trump has derided the team Robert Mueller had assembled to probe Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election as "angry Democrats" operating a corrupt "witch hunt," but the group has a stellar track record of rooting out corruption — and of walking away when they don't have enough to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

"It's probably one of the most impressive groups ever assembled for a special counsel investigation," Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, told NBC News. "You've got a collective of prosecutors who've covered some of the most high-profile and complex investigations in the last 20 years."

Since Mueller's appointment as special counsel in May 2017, at least 18 prosecutors and lawyers have worked on the inquiry, which is tasked with investigating "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump" and any matters that "may arise directly from the investigation."

The probe resulted in 34 people and three companies being criminally charged, and there have been seven guilty pleas and one trial conviction.

The team members' specialties range from constitutional law and obstruction of justice to money laundering and cyber crimes. While they have a history of successful prosecutions, they also have a reputation for fairness, said Walden, who represents one of the witnesses in the investigation. "Every one of these prosecutors has walked away from cases that didn't fit their criteria," Walden said. "They're doing this because they want to do the right thing."

Trump has complained that the team is made up of "some very bad and conflicted people" because 13 of them are registered Democrats, and several have made donations to Democratic candidates. Justice Department officials, however, are not supposed to ask about employees' political affiliations.

Department policy prohibits "using political affiliation and may also prohibit using certain ideological affiliations in hiring and taking other personnel actions with regard to career attorneys," according to the department’s inspector general. Mueller and the deputy attorney general who appointed him, Rod Rosenstein, are both registered Republicans.

Each team member brings a specific expertise.

Andrew Goldstein has been involved with the investigations into Trump's former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen and former adviser Roger Stone. A former top public corruption prosecutor for then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Goldstein helped to convict a New York State Democratic powerhouse, longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, on corruption charges.

Goldstein, a former Time magazine reporter and high school teacher, also prosecuted the CityTime case, involving an automated timekeeping project for New York City employees that exploded in cost from an expected $63 million to more than 10 times that in what the Department of Justice called “the largest municipal fraud and kickback scheme in history.”

The probe, the department said, was "a dogged investigation that involved tracing payments through more than 150 foreign and domestic accounts, poring through hundreds of thousands of emails and project documents, interviewing more than 100 witnesses, and securing cooperation from two key insiders."

But Goldstein was also involved in the 2017 decision not to charge New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a bribery probe even though a campaign donor pleaded guilty to trying to get favorable treatment through his contributions, The New York Times reported.

While court documents said de Blasio took steps to benefit the donor in exchange for the contributions, federal prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against him because of "the high burden of proof" and "the particular difficulty in proving criminal intent in corruption schemes where there is no evidence of personal profit," Goldstein's then-boss, acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, said at the time.

Greg Andres is a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, where he managed a program that targeted foreign bribery. Before that, he took on the mob as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn. He was so successful he was allegedly targeted for assassination in 2005 by the acting boss of the Bonanno crime family, Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano.

"He [Basciano] said Greg Andres destroyed the Bonanno family, he ruined all our lives," cooperating witness Generosa Barbieri — AKA "Jimmy the General" — testified in Basciano's 2011 murder trial, according to the Daily News. "He said we should make an example of him." Andres left the DOJ in 2012 and became a defense attorney at a New York law firm.

Zainab Ahmad also worked in Brooklyn U.S. attorney's office, where she focused on terrorism. That work included negotiating with foreign officials and interviewing witnesses overseas. "Everybody’s human. You pull the levers,” she told The New Yorker in 2017, referring to terrorists.

The magazine reported that she had prosecuted 13 people for terrorism since 2009 and never lost a case. Ahmad was involved with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn's guilty plea, and worked with Andres in the prosecution of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

James Quarles, who worked with Mueller in private practice at the Washington office of WilmerHale, has investigated a president before. From 1973 to 1975, he was an assistant special prosecutor for the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, which helped force Richard Nixon out of office and prosecuted a number of Nixon administration officials.

Jeannie Rhee worked with Mueller and Quarles at WilmerHale. She rejoined the firm in 2011, resuming work advising clients who are the subject of government investigations, including white-collar criminal investigations, the firm said in its announcement, after spending two years as a deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel.

There, she "advised the attorney general, the White House and senior agency officials on constitutional, statutory and regulatory issues regarding criminal law, criminal procedure, executive privilege, civil rights and national security," the law firm said.

Aaron Zebley is another WilmerHale alum and is especially close to Mueller; he was his chief of staff at the FBI. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He continued probing al Qaeda from FBI headquarters after the attack and later worked in the DOJ’s national security division, which oversees counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations.

Elizabeth Prelogar is an appellate lawyer from the Office of the Solicitor General, which represents the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. A former Miss Idaho, Prelogar clerked for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, as well as for Judge Merrick Garland, whom President Barack Obama unsuccessfully nominated for the high court.

Of possible importance to Mueller, she lived in Russia and studied Russia media while on a Fulbright scholarship before getting her law degree from Harvard.

Michael Dreeben also came from the Solicitor General's office and has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts — who, as a lawyer, was Dreeben's adversary in the government attorney's first argument before the high court in 1989 — congratulated him when he hit the century mark in 2016. "You are the second person to reach that rare milestone this century,” Roberts said, according to SCOTUSblog. “We look forward to hearing from you many more times.”

Andrew Weissmann is the chief of the criminal fraud section of the DOJ and a favorite target of conservative pundits, in part for having signed off on a no-knock search warrant for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Fox News host Sean Hannity has called him "a legal nightmare" and "a legal tyrant."

Weissmann rose through the ranks in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, where he prosecuted over two dozen mob cases. He was lead prosecutor in the trial of Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, a mob boss who was notorious for walking around in a bathrobe and pretending he was crazy.

Weissmann's greatest successes and failures came when he directed the task force investigating Enron, a giant energy company based in Texas that collapsed in 2001. The team racked up over 30 convictions in the highly complex case, but one of them, involving the company's outside auditing firm Arthur Andersen, was reversed by the Supreme Court.

Rush Atkinson worked under Weissmann in the DOJ's criminal fraud section, where he specialized in financial fraud. He's also worked on espionage cases. Atkinson has been involved with the prosecution of 13 Russians who are accused of using social media to try to create discord during the 2016 presidential election.

Aaron Zelinsky, who comes from the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland, has played good and bad cop while questioning witnesses in the Russia probe, some of those witnesses told MSNBC's Ari Melber. Zelinsky, who has clerked for Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens, was professional and asked appropriate questions, former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg told Melber. Another witness, Jerome Corsi, said Zelinsky was "a thug" who was "acting up" during his questioning.

Adam Jed worked as an appellate lawyer in DOJ's civil division and has experience in asset forfeiture. In the Mueller case, the Harvard Law graduate has reportedly worked to keep some documents sealed from public view. Like Zelinsky, he has clerked for Justice Stevens.

Uzo Asonye, deputy chief of the financial crimes and public corruption unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, was the lead prosecutor in the Manafort trial.
Other members of Mueller's team have already concluded their work.

Scott Meisler, who like Weissmann and Atkinson worked in DOJ's criminal division, returned there in December. Meisler worked on the Manafort prosecution, and along with Ahmad has fought to obtain information from a still-unidentified foreign company.

Kyle Freeny left in October, returning to DOJ's money laundering and asset forfeiture section. She'd worked on the Manafort case, and on the indictment of a dozen Russians charged with hacking into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman.

At the DOJ, Freeny was involved in prosecuting a multibillion-dollar money laundering case involving a Malaysian financier who allegedly used some of the cash to finance the movies "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Dumb and Dumber To."

Brandon Van Grack, who was involved in the Flynn and Manafort plea deals, went back to DOJ's national security division and will lead the enforcement of foreign lobbying law, the department announced. He previously specialized in economic espionage and cyberthreats.

Ryan Dickey, who specializes in computer crime at the DOJ, left the investigation in August. He was the first computer crime specialist to join the team, having helped to prosecute a notorious Romanian hacker who used the online alias Guccifer. Dickey assisted in the Mueller cases involving Russians, some of whom who'd pretended to be a hacker going by the alias "Guccifer 2.0."

Brian M. Richardson went to work as an appeals lawyer for Mueller after finishing up a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He'd helped with the case against Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller's team about his dealings with Manafort deputy Rick Gates.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has sabotaged his own investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election. He has only himself to blame for ruining what could have been a credible probe.

As I will document below, Mueller deliberately assembled a team of partisans with a history of political bias who appear determined to undo the results of the 2016 presidential election and drive President Trump from office.

Because Mueller improperly stacked the deck of his special counsel staff with biased crusaders, he transformed what was supposed to be an impartial investigation into an illegitimate and seemingly corrupt one.  

To restore integrity, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should un-recuse himself from the case for the limited purpose of cleaning up Mueller’s mess. There is no law that prevents the attorney general from doing this.

Sessions should remove all of the partisans on the special counsel staff and replace Mueller with someone who can bring a measure of neutrality and objectivity to the matter. This is vital as a matter of justice and simple fairness, and would give Americans trust and confidence in the outcome of the investigation.

There are plenty of highly skilled and qualified lawyers across America who have no particular political ax to grind. Mueller could have – and should have – hired them for his special counsel team to gather and evaluate evidence in a neutral and objective manner. Had he done so, his investigation would be regarded as fair and honest.

Mueller chose to do just the opposite – a clear indication of his improper bias.

Mueller also selected from the ranks of the FBI an agent by the name of Peter Strzok to serve as his top investigator. Strzok has since been exposed for his numerous texts disparaging President Trump and supporting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

While Strzok was removed from the special counsel case in July, Mueller, the FBI and the Department of Justice spent months covering up the true reason behind the agent’s departure. But Peter Strzok is not the Lone Ranger.

Eight of the lawyers on the special counsel staff are Democratic donors. Five of them gave money to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Some have connections to Clinton’s associates and the Clinton Foundation. This cannot be a mere coincidence –it must have been by design.

It is no surprise that Mueller would be capable of unscrupulous maneuvers. After all, he maneuvered himself into the job of special counsel despite two disqualifying conflicts of interest, which he ignored with impunity.

Mueller’s Own Bias

First, Mueller had the audacity to accept his current position one day after being interviewed by President Trump for the job of replacing fired FBI Director James Comey. During the interview, Mueller never told Trump that he was considering investigating the very man who was sitting across from him posing questions. This was deceptive and dishonest.

How could Mueller take command of a special counsel probe that involves, in part, the president’s firing of Comey when Mueller was directly involved in the aftermath of that firing? How could Mueller take command of a special counsel probe that involves, in part, the president’s firing of Comey when Mueller was directly involved in the aftermath of that firing?

This conflict was so obvious and acute that Mueller should have refused to accept the appointment as special counsel the next day when it was offered to him by Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Unless Mueller had an ulterior motive.

Ask yourself: Is it fair or ethical for a person who was passed over for a job to suddenly reverse course to investigate the man who declined to give him the job? Or was this Mueller’s plan all along?  Did he devise a devious scheme to gather evidence from Trump that he could then use as special counsel, while pretending to be interviewing for the job of FBI director?  It certainly looks that way.

Second, Mueller’s longtime close relationship to Comey, who is obviously a pivotal witness in any potential obstruction of justice case, presents yet another blatant conflict of interest.

As I explained in previous columns, the special counsel statute requires Mueller to recuse himself if he has “a personal relationship with any person substantially involved in the investigation or prosecution.”

The statute then defines the term “personal relationship” as a “friendship … normally viewed as likely to induce partiality” (28 CFR 45.2). The Mueller-Comey friendship is well-documented and indisputable. The two have long been friends, allies and partners in what has been described as a mentor-protégé relationship. Yet Mueller rejected the law and his ethical duty. Under the Code of Professional Responsibility, even the appearance of a conflict of interest is forbidden.

One cannot help but wonder whether Mueller is determined to exact retribution for the firing of his friend. Did Mueller deliberately stack his staff with investigators who have corrupt motives and would be more than willing to manufacture a prosecutable crime – even though the president was empowered to remove Comey in the discharge of his constitutional duties?

Even more suspicious is Comey’s admission under oath that he leaked confidential memorandums to the media for the sole purpose of triggering the appointment of a special counsel who turns out to be his friend and mentor.

As former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell writes in a recent column, one can surmise that Mueller, Comey and Rosenstein (who previously worked for Mueller) “hatched this plan for Mueller to be special counsel – if not prior to Comey’s termination, then immediately after it”.

Once Mueller seized the reins of power, he summoned the equivalent of a “hit squad,” as Powell describes it.

Andrew Weissmann’s Bias

Andrew Weissmann – one of the top prosecutors working for Mueller on the Russia investigation – has clear anti-Trump sentiments. These were also revealed this week in the form of an email obtained by Judicial Watch.

After Acting Attorney General Sally Yates defied a direct order from President Trump to defend his newly issued travel ban, Weissmann sent her a message:  “I am so proud… and in awe. Thank you so much. All my deepest respects.”

Weissmann is a notorious lawyer known for abusive tactics. He has a reputation for weaponizing the law in a ruthless and often unprincipled quest to convict. He has been accused of hiding evidence and threatening witnesses. Innocent people have been victimized by him. His biggest cases were reversed by higher courts.

As a federal prosecutor, Weissmann drove the accounting firm Arthur Anderson out of business, costing tens of thousands of people their jobs, only to have the convictions reversed unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal smack-down by the high court underscores what a wrongful prosecution he pursued.

But Weissmann was undeterred. He went after Merrill Lynch executives, putting them behind bars and destroying their lives, only to have that case also reversed – this time by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

All of this should have been enough for Weissmann to be banished forever from the Department of Justice. But Mueller came to the rescue by hiring him as general counsel at the FBI. Weissmann eventually made his way back to the Justice Department as head of the Criminal Fraud Division in the Obama administration.

When Mueller became special counsel in the Trump-Russia investigation, he immediately turned to his old “pit bull” of a prosecutor, Weissmann, who joined the team.

It is hard to fathom that Mueller did not know of Weissmann political bias. A quick public search would have revealed that Weissmann contributed generously to both the Democratic National Committee and the Obama presidential campaign.

Any vetting by Mueller would also have revealed Weissmann’s close ties to Hui Chen, whom he hired at the Justice Department. As I pointed out in a recent column, her Twitter account is filled with hundreds of anti-Trump tweets. While working for the government, she proudly posted a photograph of herself outside the White House wearing an orange “Resist” jacket during a Trump protest.

The inspector general at the Justice Department must obtain and review all of Weissmann’s electronic messages while at the department to determine whether he exchanged anti-Trump emails and texts with Chen or others. Since Weissmann’s message to Yates has been uncovered, there are likely more.

Jeannie Rhee’s Bias

Mueller also brought to his team another partisan, Jeannie Rhee, who was a partner with Mueller at the law firm WilmerHale. Rhee’s job is to decide whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey. This hiring of Rhee is especially brazen, since she defended Hillary Clinton’s foundation in a civil racketeering case and donated $5,400 to Clinton’s campaign. Let’s consider the implications of this.

Rhee is now in a position to bring a prosecution against the person who defeated the candidate she supported and defended. It was a shamelessly bold hire by Mueller, given how obvious a conflict of interest Rhee has.

The Clinton connection doesn’t end there. Rhee worked for a time under FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose wife pocketed roughly $675,000 in campaign money from political groups aligned with Clinton – at the same time McCabe was investigating Clinton in her email scandal. McCabe is now under investigation.

There are others on the special counsel staff who likely harbor the same kinds of disqualifying conflicts of interest as Strzok, Weismann and Rhee.

For example, lawyer Aaron Zebley is on the Mueller team. He represented Justin Cooper, who worked for Hillary Clinton and set up her private email server, registering the domain in his own name. He did not have security clearance for any of the classified documents on Clinton’s server. Zebley’s involvement in the Clinton case creates yet another appearance of impropriety.

All of these well-documented cases show conflicts of interests and improper bias on the part of Mueller and key members of his prosecutorial team before they ever began looking at Russian meddling in the presidential race. This provides clear evidence that this is the wrong team for this important probe.

Attorney General Sessions has a responsibility to bring in a new special counsel and new team of prosecutors free of conflicts who will conduct a fair and unbiased investigation. Simple justice requires this.