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Mueller Prosecutor Says Report Should Have Said Trump Obstructed Justice

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Mueller Prosecutor Says Report Should Have Said Trump Obstructed Justice

2020-09-22 18:46:06

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Andrew Weissmann (Image source: Screenshot)

 

When former special counsel Robert Mueller issued his final report to the Justice Department after the Russia investigation, it did not answer any questions. When Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of the report, it did not answer any questions. When Mueller appeared before Congress, it did not offer any answers.

Now, less than two months before the 2020 presidential election, we are finally getting some of those answers in a new book, "Where Law Ends," written by Andrew Weissmann, a prosecutor on Mueller's team.

Mueller refused to say whether Donald Trump obstructed justice and only said that he couldn't prove it, yet if there were no evidence, they would have said that, he said, and they didn't. It was a similar story with regard to whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election. He did not find the evidence of it but again left it ambiguously open.

The reason is that a sitting president cannot be indicted by the Justice Department. This is why the Mueller team instead left the responsibility up to Congress. And this is why the public was left with all of these questions, which Weissmann promptly answers in his book, excerpted by The Washington Post.

Weissmann was frustrated that Trump was never subpoenaed and that the investigation didn't go far enough, which he feels was out of fear of Trump. He throws much of the blame on the special counsel's top deputy, Aaron Zebley. He believes he stopped investigators from looking at the president's finances. Weissmann is left wondering whether the team had "given it our all."

"As proud as I am of the work our team did — the unprecedented number of people we indicted and convicted and in record speed for any similar investigation — I know the hard answer to that simple question: we could have done more," Weissmann writes in his new book.

A former DOJ supervisor, he now teaches at New York University School of Law and is also a legal analyst for MSNBC. He discusses not just the White House but also the targets and the investigative team. He adds that the White House counsel members all referred to the Oval Office as the "Magic Kingdom," which makes it sound a little like the flying monkeys waiting for the wicked witch to have water thrown on her.

"We still do not know if there are other financial ties between the president and either the Russian government or Russian oligarchs," writes Weissmann.

"We do not know whether he paid bribes to foreign officials to secure favorable treatment for his business interests, a potential violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that would provide leverage against the president.

"We do not know if he had other Russian business deals in the works at the time he was running for president, how they might have aided or constrained his campaign, or even if they are continuing to influence his presidency."

Weissmann blames Barr, White House attorneys, and others for enabling the "lawless" Trump. He also admits that he was never able to get past a crucial challenge: "the president's power to fire us and to pardon wrongdoers who might otherwise cooperate."

He also comes down on Mueller for never saying that Trump obstructed justice, as he believes the evidence showed it. In an interview with The Post, he said he had told the special counsel he would have included his conclusion in the final report.

'Director Mueller's decision was to not make that conclusion, and by the way, I would have done it," said Weissmann. "I told him why I would have done that." While he believes it's possible Trump could be charged after he leaves office, he's unsure at this point whether he should be.

"I would want to know from the president or anybody else who you were focused on ... 'please tell me why we are factually or legally wrong but what you want us to consider.' " said the prosecutor.

"You want to hear from the defense and see what you're missing, and then you need to make the decision, assuming you got through all of that, whether it's really the right thing for the country at that point."

While he doesn't want the United States to be seen as a country where the leaders are prosecuted, he is also leery of setting a precedent of letting a president off the hook when it's clear he violated the law.

"I think there's an enormous interest in making sure that whatever is decided doesn't set a precedent that there's license for the next president or the next presidencies to commit crimes with no consequences to them," he added.

 Weissmann slams Barr in the book for releasing a four-page summary of Mueller's work before it was released publicly, believing that Barr "had betrayed both friend and country." He said Mueller's report was far more damning of Trump and his campaign than Barr's summary. It was after reading the summary that he decided to write the book.

"I wrote it very much so there would be a public record from somebody, at least one viewpoint, from the inside as opposed to the story being told in maybe a less accurate way by people from the outside," he explained to The Post.

Weissmann also explains that Mueller's team "left it to Congress to make its own assessment of our evidence, or to another prosecutor in the future, who would be free to indict the president once he left office." But Barr and then-deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein jumped in and said the evidence didn't warrant charges of obstruction.

Trump's attacks on Mueller's office and those on the team created fear that the team and its work would be stopped. They made sure their work was logged in to a computer system so that it couldn't be lost. But the pressure remained, limiting the work.

"This sword of Damocles affected our investigative decisions, leading us at certain times to act less forcefully and more defensively than we might have," writes Weissmann. "It led us to delay or ultimately forgo entire lines of inquiry, particularly regarding the president's financial ties to Russia."

There doesn't seem to be much love lost between him and Zebley. He compared him to "timorous" Civil War Gen. George B. McClellan, who was let go by Lincoln for not being aggressive enough.

He writes that Zebley told another prosecutor, Jeannie Rhee, to "stand down' in going after the emails from the Trump Organization because that could jeopardize the negotiations for an interview with the president.

"For Jeannie, the directive was the last straw," he writes. Later he adds, "From then on, 'Better to get fired' was the refrain we tossed back and forth every time we sensed our office pulling back from our mission." He faults himself for not pressing the issue more.

Gaining access to Trump's tax returns may have been a "secondary issue." Still, he believes the office could have taken advantage of other ways to get to the information, such as looking at whether Russian money had made its way into political action committees.

Weissmann's primary task was to lead Team M that investigated former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in the hopes he'd become a witness. Team R explored whether the . Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia, and Team 600 took a look at whether Trump obstructed justice.

He notes an FBI agent assigned to Team 600 complained it was "pulling its punches and shooting down her views." The team's leader, Michael Dreeben, told him he would not have been so mealy-mouthed about calling out Trump for obstructing justice.

"If you and I were in charge, this is not how it would read," Dreeben reportedly told the author.

Weissmann throws more fault at Zenbley for not disclosing the supporting classified evidence to Congress. This includes information about Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian ambassador with links to Manafort.

He also felt it was wrong for Mueller not to subpoena Trump. The office also didn't subpoena Donald Trump Jr. or Ivanka Trump, despite the latter being heavily involved in the campaign and the White House.

"What are we saying to future presidents and to future investigators who will have our decision thrown in their faces?" he suggested to Miller. "If we do not subpoena the president in this investigation, how can others justify the needs to do so?"

He blamed Rosenstein for not giving guidance on whether the subpoenas would be backed by the Justice Department. The team didn't need his approval, but he could overrule the decision, and Congress would be made aware of that.

Mueller was "ultimately" in charge, as "whether good or bad, it rebounds to him." Yet, there were times when he showed he could be more aggressive, such as when he authorized the FBI to search Manafort's apartment, though Zebley seemed hesitant.

Weissmann was often targeted by Trump. He offered more than once to quit the team, but Mueller wouldn't allow him to. Rhee's husband bought the her and Weissmann matching baseball hats that said, "Angry Democrat #1" and "Angry Democrat #2" to match Trump's comments on the investigators.

Earlier, Weissmann was barred by Justice Department rules from speaking out, but now his book has cleared a department review and received the pre-publication clearance, and Barr published the Mueller report, so now he feels he can speak publicly.

He believes that had investigators been more aggressive, it is "unlikely" to have made any difference, though it's still important because "facts should still matter."

He would like to see the special counsel rules overhauled. He also points out that neither the White House nor Congress had defended to U.S. elections from current threats. He believes Russia has "gotten what it had worked so hard for, a servile, but popular, American leader" who is willing to overlook a threat "as pernicious as anything we faced in World War II or on 9/11."

"There is no other way to put it," writes Weissmann. "Our country is now faced with the problem of a lawless White House, which addresses itself to every new dilemma or check on its power with a belief that following the rules is optional and that breaking them comes at minimal, if not zero, cost."

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