The deep regrets of Mueller investigator Andrew Weissmann

‘Had we given it our all — had we used all available tools to uncover the truth, undeterred by the onslaught of the President’s unique powers to undermine our efforts? I know the hard answer to the simple question: we could have done more’

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 24 September 2020 11:25 BST
Election 2020 Trump
Election 2020 Trump (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
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Donald Trump, upon being told that a special counsel has been appointed to investigate him, slumped back in his chair and groaned, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f***ed!”

He lamented: “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels, it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years, and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

The account of the President’s despair and foreboding, from notes taken by Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, appeared in the redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report. The report did not prove that Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy in the 2016 presidential election. However, it did reveal extensive contact between Trump, his cohort, and Russia. It also revealed eleven instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump and his team.

In the end, Mueller refused to say whether Trump should face prosecution, maintaining that the decision was up to Congress. This allowed the Trump loyalist and Attorney General, William Barr, to say that the President had been exonerated by the investigation.

There were predictions that the Special Counsel’s subsequent appearances before Congress would be “explosive,” and that he would be making “hugely damaging revelations about Trump.” This proved to be wishful thinking by the President’s many critics. Mueller’s testimony was a bit of a damp squib. He refused to go “beyond the purview of the report.” His answers were often monosyllabic. According to NBC’s calculations, the Special Counsel declined to respond or deflected in answers no fewer than 198 times over the course of two hearings.

Last July, a full year after the testimony before Congress, the former Special Counsel wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post defending its mission against a barrage of attacks by Trump and his supporters. The article was in response to the president commuting the prison sentence of his friend Roger Stone, who had been among a number of Trump associates convicted by the investigation.

But it was far too late. Trump had not been “f***ed” by Mueller’s report. It was not the end of his presidency. Instead, he and his team, declaring they had been vindicated, went on a counter-offensive. There has been a change in the Justice Department and intelligence services, removing those who helped to investigate Trump, deemed to be insufficiently loyal.

Mueller maintained a silence with the media and outsiders during his investigation, but there were reports of divisions among his lawyers about his approach, questions about avenues left unexplored, and apprehension about provoking the White House. The frustrations among some of the lawyers became more pronounced as the 22 months of work neared its end.

Now, Andrew Weissmann, one of the Special Counsel’s most senior prosecutors, has given his version of how opportunities were lost in his book Where Law Ends. Part of the failure was due, he says, to the differences in opinion regarding what approach should be taken between many of the prosecutors, Mueller, and his deputy Aaron Zebley.

“Repeatedly during our 22 months in operation, we would reach some critical juncture in our investigation, only to have Aaron say that we could not take a particular action because it risked aggravating the President beyond some undefined breaking point,” he wrote.

The effort to not antagonise the White House led to a failure to subpoena Trump’s financial records, even when there was a strong belief among investigators that the President was extremely vulnerable when it came to his various business dealings. As one of them put it at the time: “At the end, he could be got on the money, like Al Capone.”  

The decision to soft-peddle also meant that Trump and his family, central characters in this extraordinary drama, were not interviewed. Thus, for example, Donald Trump Jr was not questioned about his meeting in June 2016 at Trump Tower with a group of Russians to offer dirt on Hilary Clinton.

Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor from New York, had come across people close to Trump in his previous role pursuing organised crime and the Mafia. The title of his book comes from the words of John Locke, inscribed on the front of the Department of Justice in Washington: “Where law ends, tyranny begins.” The President and his cronies, Weissmann holds, are “lawless.” William Barr has “betrayed his country.” Trump is “like an animal, clawing at the world with no concept of right and wrong.”

One of the most colourful characters in ‘Russiagate’ was Felix Sater, born Felix Sheferovsky, who was once jailed for stabbing a man in the face with a cocktail glass. He avoided a possible 20-year sentence and a $5 million (£3.8 million) fine by becoming a federal informer in another case, that of fraud and extortion by the Mafia which targeted the elderly, some of them Holocaust survivors.

Sater was a lifelong friend of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer who was convicted and sent to prison in the Mueller investigation, and is now a bitter enemy of the President.

Sater was convinced that Vladimir Putin would help Trump get to the White House.

“Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?” he said in an email sent to Cohen.

Sater insisted that Putin would back the development of a Trump Tower hotel in Moscow and that this would be part of a grand plan.

“Our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it … I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Trump elected,” he said in another message.

Sater, who had an office space in the Trump organization, boasted that he was so close to the Trump family that he was asked by Donald Trump to squire Donald Jr and Ivanka on a trip to Moscow. Sater claims he arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin’s chair and, when asked, Ivanka agreed that her trip had included “a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin.” This may have involved sitting at Putin’s desk, although she could not remember if she had done so.

The federal prosecutor who signed the plea-bargain deal with Sater on the racketeering charges all those years ago was Andrew Weissmann. Sater has appeared in court documents relating to the Mueller investigation as “Individual 2.” Trump appears in another set of papers as “Individual 1."

These experiences as a federal prosecutor may have shaped Weissmann’s views that a tougher approach needed to be taken in ‘Russiagate.’ He wrote that some of what was emerging in the investigation against Trump reminded him of the case against the Mafia boss John “Teflon Don” Gotti in the 90s. In a similar vein, FBI Director James Comey compared the President’s behaviour to mobsters like Sammy “the Bull” Gravano.

But Mueller was always wary of the hard approach, worried that Trump would fire him as Richard Nixon had fired the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

“The spectre of our being shut down exerted a destabilising pull on our decision-making process,” Weissmann acknowledged.

Weissmann is clear that the investigation was flawed: “Had we given it our all—had we used all available tools to uncover the truth, undeterred by the onslaught of the President’s unique powers to undermine our efforts? I know the hard answer to the simple question: we could have done more.”

Although Trump appeared to have escaped Mueller, no fewer than 34 people connected to the President were indicted including Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, by prosecutors led by Weissmann.

What emerged in the course of the investigation continues to raise questions about whether the President was the Muscovian candidate for the White House: Russian manipulation, the secrets and lies, the attempts at subterfuge by Trump and his team.

The damning information unearthed by Weissmann and his colleagues in the Mueller investigation may well play an important part in the election this November.

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