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A Lead Prosecutor On Mueller's Team Weighs In On Where The Investigation Fell Short

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller is sworn in before testifying on July 24, 2019 before a House Judiciary Committee hearing about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller is sworn in before testifying on July 24, 2019 before a House Judiciary Committee hearing about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Since the release of the Mueller report in April 2019, it's been analyzed, praised and criticized — and cited by President Trump as proof that there was no collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.

Andrew Weissmann was one of the lead prosecutors on special counsel Robert Mueller's team. In his new book, Where Law Ends, Weissmann looks back on where the Mueller investigation succeeded — and where it fell short.

Weissmann points to March 24, 2019, as the exact date when he knew he would write the book. That's when Attorney General William Barr issued what was purported to be a four-page summary of the Mueller report. But Weissmann felt Barr's statement sounded like the work of a political fixer rather than a public servant.

"The four-page letter bore no resemblance to our report in substance or in conclusions," he says. "I spent 20 years at the Department of Justice and seeing the attorney general behave in this way ... is something that is really soul-crushing for many of us who are either at the department now or are alumni of the department."

"I realized at that point that it was going to be a real benefit to the American public to have an insider record, as candidly as possible, what had happened," he says.

Weissmann notes the Mueller investigation was fundamentally shaped by two powers the president held over the team.

"One is the ability to fire us, and the other is that the president had the ability to pardon people who ... we wanted to cooperate with us," he says. "Those two were destabilizing and posed real challenges to what we were doing."

Weissmann argues that at key moments, Mueller was timid when he should have been aggressive in getting information and testimony. And he says the report should have been far clearer in its conclusions about the president's conduct.

In response to Weissmann's book, Mueller wrote Tuesday: "It is not surprising that members of the Special Counsel's Office did not always agree, but it is disappointing to hear criticism of our team based on incomplete information. ... The office's mission was to follow the facts and to act with integrity. That is what we did, knowing that our work would be scrutinized from all sides. When important decisions had to be made, I made them. I did so as I have always done, without any interest in currying favor or fear of the consequences. I stand by those decisions and by the conclusions of our investigation."


Interview Highlights

On working for Robert Mueller

Where Law Ends, by Andrew Weissmann
/ Penguin Random House

Bob Mueller is a wonderful leader. ... There's a persona that's been created, I think, by the media that he is sort of a classic cold WASP. And while there is a side of him that's like that, he is, in fact, quite warm and just a wonderful person to deal with. But having said that, there also is a side of him that is a meticulous, trenchant thinker and is constantly asking questions.

A story about Bob Mueller that everyone at the FBI knows is right after the 9/11 attacks, someone was reporting on the latest that had been uncovered in an investigation. And in his typical style, [Mueller] was asking question after question after question and the investigators were answering them. And finally the director said, "And what color was the car?" And his point was not that he really cared about the color. It was driving home that you needed to be meticulous and details matter. And that is classic Bob Mueller.

On investigating the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump advisers and Russian officials (The White House later claimed the meeting was about international adoptions)

There's no question that the statement that was put out by the White House was, to put it charitably, misleading. To say that the meeting was primarily about adoptions is a misleading statement. The meeting, as we know from all of the witnesses who testified about it, as well as the written communications, was the Russians coming to a meeting with Paul Manafort [then chair of the Trump campaign], the president's son, and Jared Kushner to provide what they described as "dirt" with respect to Hillary Clinton — and Don Jr. responded that he would love that information. So the statement that this was primarily just about adoptions is a misleading statement.

For people to understand what's really going on, to say some things about adoptions is really to say it was about the Magnitsky Act. The history is that the Magnitsky Act was imposing sanctions on Russia. And Russia, of course, hated that act. And what they did in retaliation after the United States passed the Magnitsky Act is they said, we are not going to allow any American adoptions of Russian babies. So to say that the Russians came because they only wanted to talk about adoptions is masking what was really going on — which was the Russians were asking to have the Magnitsky Act repealed. ...

What you had here, unquestionably, in writing, was Russia offering assistance to the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign saying, yes, we are willing to accept it.

As we said out in our report, there was a lot of evidence about the president personally being involved in how the press release would read to make it as benign as possible — even though the facts were anything but benign, because what you had here, unquestionably, in writing, was Russia offering assistance to the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign saying, yes, we are willing to accept it. Those are the clear underlying facts. But the statement was one that was trying to mask that.

On why he disagrees with his colleagues who concluded that the deception about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting did not amount to obstruction of justice

One of the grounds that was put forth for why this could be viewed not as obstruction was that it was a press statement that was only aimed at the public and not at either the Congressional investigation or our investigation. Under the law, a statement that is solely to mislead the public — while that may seem like something that should be a crime — it isn't. People are free to lie to you, for instance, without it being a criminal act. But what I disagreed with is the argument that the statement that the president and his team put out [was] something that was solely aimed at public opinion — as opposed to being aimed at Congress or our investigation — and if any part of it was aimed at affecting our investigation or a Congressional investigation, then that is something that is covered by a criminal statute.

On why he believes Trump's threats to fire Mueller contributed to the team pulling punches in the investigation

We had no idea initially just how serious [Trump's threats were]. We didn't know initially about the conversations between [White House counsel] Don McGahn and the president in June of 2017. So just as we were starting where, just as we were getting off the ground, the president was interested in pulling the plug. In my book, what I try and talk about is, what is it like to investigate someone for 22 months where every day you go into the office and you don't know if that's going to be your last day? And unlike other cases that I've investigated involving Enron or organized crime, here, the person that you're investigating has the ability to fire you. Enron executives and organized crime figures don't have that. That can be extremely destabilizing. ...

Early on, we issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank in connection with Paul Manafort's finances, and the White House got wind of that and demanded to know whether we were investigating the president's finances. As you recall, he had very publicly said that was a red line, that if there was an investigation into his finances, that was something that was intolerable and should not happen. Obviously, that's quite a red flag that there may be something there. And obviously, based on The New York Times reporting this past week, there may be a very good reason that the president drew that red line.

So early on with that admonition from the president with respect to Deutsche Bank, the decision was made that we will not cross that red line, that it wasn't worth it, as we were first starting out, to risk our being fired. And I could go along with that. And I thought that that was an unusual situation. But you could understand the tension between: Do you pull your punches early to proceed with the rest of the investigation or do you not? My disagreement with the special counsel is that as we progressed, I thought that it was necessary to revisit that decision and that there should have been an investigation into the president's finances as it related to the Russia investigation.

On why he disagrees with Mueller's decision to not issue a grand jury subpoena of the president and have Trump sit for an interview

My analogy to Bob Mueller is ... "This is like Hamlet without Hamlet." And by that I meant: How do you determine the president's intent, what it is that he was seeking to do, without interviewing him and hearing from him?

I worked for Bob Mueller. He's a wonderful, incredible guy, and I just respectfully disagree with the ultimate call, which was that I think that we should have issued the subpoena if we were not getting the information we needed. My analogy to Bob Mueller is ... "This is like Hamletwithout Hamlet." And by that I meant: How do you determine the president's intent, what it is that he was seeking to do, without interviewing him and hearing from him and asking follow-up questions and not just getting written answers that are hedged and couched by lawyers and all sorts of so-called weasel words without really being able to do follow ups? And it is true that that may have led to litigation. It is also true that it may have led to our being fired. But by pulling our punches and making that decision on our own, we owned it. We made that decision. It wasn't being made by anyone else. And at some point ... the view I had and others had was, you know, what if we're fired — so be it. We have to do our job. Our job is to be as thorough as possible, and hearing from the president and being able to ask follow up questions was something that was necessary, in my view.

On the two reasons the special counsel gave for why they didn't subpoena the president

We, in our report, give two reasons for not subpoenaing the president. And that's where I probably have some of my sharpest disagreements with what we did, because one of the reasons that we put in our report was that if you look at the decision as of March of 2019, not to subpoena the president, we say, well, if we did it at that point, it would have caused the investigation to drag out, because it could have taken extensive time to litigate that. But I don't really think that's fair, because the issue isn't whether we would issue the subpoena in March 2019. We could have issued the subpoena a year before then. So the delay is true, but it didn't have to start so late.

The other reason we give in the report is that we basically say it was sort of unnecessary. We didn't really need to hear from the president. And while that is a somewhat correct statement, that's only correct if you're then going to make a conclusion with respect to whether he obstructed justice. Meaning we don't need to hear, because the proof is so overwhelming that he obstructed justice, but we don't actually come out and say that. So to say we don't really need it, but not say what he did, I think is one of the reasons that Attorney General Barr was able to take advantage of the report, and I think the American public, frankly, there was a bit of a disservice to them, because we weren't being very clear about what we had concluded. And so we missed what I would call the educational function of the special counsel report.

On why he chose a John Locke quote for the title of the book

John Locke's quote is, "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins," and the shortened version of that "where law ends, tyranny begins" is inscribed in the limestone walls of the Department of Justice. I chose it because I spent over 20 years of my life devoted to the Department of Justice that I love and cherish, and I'm a lawyer, and I like being a lawyer, and I like being a public servant. I think that in the last few years we have seen the erosion of norms and the rule of law.

Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.