Mueller’s Dream Team Gears Up
In his Senate testimony on June 8, fired FBI Director James Comey was asked whether Donald Trump obstructed justice by pressuring him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey, as he did many times during the hearing, referred senators to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and current special counsel, saying it was now his job to sort it all out.
As special counsel, Mueller is investigating any links or coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. He is vested with a unique set of powers, the extent of which won’t be clear until he attempts to exercise them. Mueller has the traditional tools of a federal prosecutor: He can issue subpoenas, pull people in front of grand juries, and bring criminal charges. In theory, he can interrogate the president, though it’s unclear whether Trump would willingly submit. Mueller can also seek to expand his probe beyond the original mandate into places he believes are relevant.
To that end, the special counsel is a repository for all things Russia, taking relevant information from congressional testimony and filtering through all the political noise, including Trump tweets or rumors of his own dismissal. Friends of the president have said Mueller is at risk of being fired by Trump—a claim denied by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who gave Mueller the job on May 17.
Mueller inherited months of work already under way at the FBI, including criminal investigations of Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Over the past month he has set up shop in a federal office building in downtown Washington and begun assembling a team of investigators. Some of them worked for him during his 12-year tenure running the FBI; others he met more recently while a partner at the Washington law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP. Some estimate that Mueller will need 50 to 100 lawyers and investigators, comparable to the staffing of the Watergate congressional committee and the Sept. 11 Commission. Rosenstein, who controls Mueller’s budget, says he’ll have the resources he needs.
Mueller has his pick of some of the top lawyers in the country. “If you’re a prosecutor, this is what you dream of—getting on a case like this,” says Peter Zeidenberg, who prosecuted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
Among the most notable of Mueller’s early hires is Michael Dreeben, who’s argued more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and is considered an expert on whether the president can legally keep his staff communications secret. Another is Andrew Weissmann, former head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s fraud unit. Aaron Zebley has spent years in proximity to Mueller, most recently at WilmerHale and before that as his chief of staff at the FBI. Zebley worked as a national security prosecutor in Virginia, where at least one of the Russia-related cases was based. He was also the lead FBI agent in the case against a key Sept. 11 conspirator.
“This is an incredibly intelligent, tenacious, and thorough team,” says Tom Hanusik, a former prosecutor on the Enron Task Force. “Regardless of your political persuasion, if you’re interested in having this resolved, you should be heartened by this kind of team.” Trump allies have already questioned the independence of some of Mueller’s investigators over their political donations to Democrats.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, is having trouble persuading people to join his defense team, according to two people familiar with his efforts. Instead, Kasowitz is leaning on his longtime partner, Michael Bowe, a prominent litigator. He also signed up Jay Sekulow, chief counsel to the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, who was dispatched to cable news shows to attack Comey’s credibility. Trump also assailed Comey’s testimony, saying he’d be willing to testify that he didn’t demand a pledge of personal loyalty from him.
Mueller is more likely to focus first on Trump associates such as Flynn. “A core strategy would be to find out everything that Michael Flynn knows about Russia and the campaign,” says Kendall Coffey, a former prosecutor in Miami. In a March 24 letter to a Congressional committee, Coffey was listed as one of three lawyers representing long-time Trump associate Roger Stone. In an interview, though, Coffey said he is not currently representing Stone. Increasingly, those Trump associates also have legal teams for Mueller to contend with. Flynn is represented by Robert Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, which boasts a bench of two dozen ex-prosecutors. Jared Kushner is represented by Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, now at WilmerHale, Mueller’s old firm. Manafort is represented by Reginald Brown, also of WilmerHale.
Adding to the intrigue are congressional probes, which can advance or complicate Mueller’s work. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a June 13 Senate hearing refused to say whether Russia came up in discussions with Trump about firing Comey—asserting his right to keep secret his conversations with the president. “It’s multidimensional chess,” says Robert Buschel, a Miami lawyer who represents Stone. “Anything you say in the House and Senate can be used by the Justice Department, which has criminal goals. You want to protect your clients’ freedom first, and then their reputation and job.”
(Updates in the ninth paragraph with description of Kendall Coffey as a former lawyer for Roger Stone.)