In a spartan office at the Justice Department, a team of experienced prosecutors is conducting a rapidly expanding probe into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia — and into whether President Donald Trump himself may be guilty of obstruction of justice.
Led by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, the team includes heavy hitters like Michael Dreeben, an expert on criminal law who has argued more than 100 cases in front of the Supreme Court, and Andrew Weissmann, a seasoned prosecutor who’s spent his career going after organized crime.
Adding to the firepower are James Quarles, a former assistant special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation; Jeannie Rhee, a former senior adviser to former Attorney General Eric Holder and a white-collar crime specialist; and Aaron Zebley, a cybersecurity expert who spent decades in the FBI before joining a private practice.
The appointments come amid growing signs that Trump himself is in Mueller’s crosshairs: On Tuesday night, the Washington Post reported that the special counsel was directly investigating whether the president’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey was an effort to obstruct justice.
The Mueller team is setting up interviews with the nation’s top intelligence officials to find out whether Trump had asked them to try to persuade Comey to drop the FBI’s probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to the Post. The New York Times, meanwhile, reported Tuesday night that Mueller was also looking into possible money laundering by Trump campaign staffers and associates.
The fact that Mueller’s team can conduct such a broad probe — one apparently looking into every possible angle of the Trump-Russia scandal, from possible financial crimes to outright collusion with the Kremlin — is a reflection of just how much legal firepower he has assembled.
Trump’s team, by contrast, is led by Marc Kasowitz, a Wall Street lawyer with minimal experience in federal investigations who burst onto the national scene with a typo-ridden statement defending the president. His top two partners so far, Michael Bowe and Jay Sekulow, are known more for their time on TV than their time in the courtroom, and don’t have anywhere near the background Mueller’s team boasts to take on this challenge.
It’s also not looking like Kasowitz’s team is going to get much stronger anytime soon. Prominent lawyers with investigative experience at four major law firms declined to represent the president, citing concerns about Kasowitz’s leadership and influence over Trump. These lawyers include Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly, a white-collar specialist who is consistently named as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the country, and Ted Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who was the solicitor general under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004.
At least so far, Mueller’s team has a clear advantage. This edge will be important when Mueller squares off with Kasowitz over the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Moscow, undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, financial ties to Russia, and the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
That is, of course, assuming Trump doesn’t fire Mueller, something that the president has considered but is at least so far refraining from actually doing. It’s not clear if Trump will change his mind now that he knows Mueller is investigating him personally. In the meantime, the Mueller investigation is kicking into high gear. And that means Trump — and those around him — has real reason to worry.
Team Trump just doesn’t have the right experience
Kasowitz, who will lead Trump’s defense and brags of being the toughest lawyer on Wall Street, has a longstanding relationship with the president. He defended Trump in various high-profile cases, including the 2016 class-action lawsuits against Trump University for fraud and the 2006 defamation suit against biographer Timothy O’Brien for allegedly misrepresenting the real estate mogul’s net worth. The suit was later thrown out by a judge in New Jersey in 2009.
But even though Kasowitz has experience working with Trump, he doesn’t have an extensive background dealing with politically charged investigations like this one or navigating official Washington.
His first hires, at least on paper, don’t seem likely to fill those holes. There are two key team Trump players besides Kasowitz: Michael Bowe, a partner from Kasowitz’s law firm, and Jay Sekulow, a chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative, Christian-based social organization.
Like Kasowitz, Bowe’s experience is in commercial and corporate litigation. The two lawyers have spent their careers building reputations on Wall Street, but it’s not clear how their prowess there will hold up during the Russia and obstruction case.
Sekulow, the ACLJ’s chief counsel, has slightly more relevant experience. He argued 12 cases in front of the Supreme Court, including hearings on abortion rights and religious freedom. It’s an impressive tally, but doesn’t compare with Dreeben, who has argued more than 100 cases in front of the country’s highest court.
Regardless, it’s probably not their legal aptitudes that got Bowe and Sekulow spots on Kasowitz’s team. It’s their showmanship.
Both of these lawyers have high public profiles and regularly appear on television, which likely appeals to Trump given his obsession with cable news. Bowe tends to be on CNBC, Fox Business News, and Bloomberg, while Sekulow is a recurring guest on the Christian Broadcasting Network and Fox News.
Sekulow may also have earned extra points with Trump after writing a series of articles criticizing Comey and his testimony last week. “Comey’s case against President Trump collapsed like a house of cards,” he wrote in his most recent post. “Comey craves the spotlight. Comey likes to be the center of attention.”
On Tuesday night, he went on Fox News to allege that the Washington Post’s sources committed a crime by talking to the paper. So far, though, neither he nor Kasowitz is disputing the accuracy of the piece.
Kasowitz, who did not respond to inquiries for this piece, and the others must figure out how to work with the lawyers other White House staffers are hiring to protect themselves.
As Politico reported, more than 12 lawyers are already working to represent Trump and a small group of his aides, including Trump’s son-in-law and right-hand man Jared Kushner, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chair Paul Manafort, Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, and former campaign advisers Carter Page, Roger Stone, Boris Epshteyn, and Michael Caputo.
But these folks, who will feature in Mueller’s investigation, are not Kasowitz’s concern. “His duty is to Trump — not White House staff,” Jane Sherburne, a former Clinton White House attorney, told Politico. “So first and foremost, White House staff should understand that he is not looking out for their interests.”
Kasowitz, like Trump, prides himself on not abiding by customary rules. He reportedly bypasses White House counsel when he speaks with the president. His actions, which seem to ignore normal codes of conduct in these kinds of investigations, were partially the reason why at least two experienced Washington lawyers chose not to join the White House team, reported the New York Times.
Kasowitz feels his own experience and that of those around him is more than enough to take on Mueller’s squad — and that may very well be. But on paper, it isn’t looking too good for the president.
Mueller’s strategy: picking experts he trusts
The Russia probe is a criminal investigation historic in its implications and scale. Members of the special counsel’s team need to know how to best make use of the vast resources of the FBI and Justice Department to make their case. And they need to know how to do that quickly given the political importance and public interest.
That’s why, as Mueller set out to put a team together, he reached out to seasoned hands.
“Experience at the FBI, experience at the DOJ, experience working with members of the Congress — these are all critical to working quickly,” said Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI special agent. “You don’t want anyone having to learn how those communication channels work while they’re on the job.”
This shouldn’t be too hard for members of team Mueller, all of whom have spent years embedded in these organizations, familiarizing themselves with how they work and whom to call when more information is needed.
Mueller also wanted a team he could trust, which is why four out of five of his hires have worked with him before. Hiring from his personal network not only let him recruit more quickly, it let the team hit the ground running.
“The [counsel members] understand each other’s shorthands. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so they can communicate more easily,” German explained. “Remember: The goal here is to get this investigation done as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.”
But why did they join the team in the first place? After all, most of them left high-paying jobs and put important federal duties on hold within weeks of Mueller’s appointment. Three former WilmerHale partners — Rhee, Quarles, and Zebley — as well as Mueller himself, likely took a large pay cut to join the team. A simple look at Glassdoor shows that a WilmerHale associate earns a base salary of around $175,179. A partner would have made … quite a bit more.
To get a sense of the scale of the pay cut, a 2016 survey of more than 2,000 law firm partners showed that their average compensation was $877,000. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who technically sits above the special counsel, is paid at the government’s executive level 1 rate, which for 2017 was about $207,800 — less than a quarter of what law firm partners are said to earn.
The upshot is that Mueller’s team is full of people so committed to him, and the mission he’s been given, that they’re willing to put their careers on hold and take massive pay cuts to help lead the Trump investigation. And that has the real potential to be very, very bad news for both the White House and the president himself.
For deeper dives into the five members of Mueller’s team, see below.
Michael Dreeben: the criminal law expert
With decades of experience representing the federal government before the Supreme Court, former Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben has been touted by CNN as Mueller’s most important hire.
Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in Lawfare that the worst thing to happen to Trump last week wasn’t Comey’s testimony, but the announcement that Dreeben — “quite possibly the best criminal appellate lawyer in America” — had been recruited into the special counsel’s office.
Dreeben’s appointment has drawn praise from lawyers of both parties, including Preet Bharara, a former US attorney who alleges he had some uncomfortable phone calls with Trump before being fired in March.
More importantly, Michael Dreeben is careful, meticulous, non-partisan, and fair-minded. His loyalty is to the Constitution alone. https://twitter.com/preetbharara/status/873197270983991298 …
Bharara’s praise is a reflection of Dreeben’s long career in the solicitor’s general office, where he has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court. Many of them delved into the exact issues the special counsel will investigate.
“There have been cases in the past 20 years that have determined what obstruction of justice means, and he was involved in many of them,” Rosenzweig said in an interview. “He will have worked on issues of executive privilege. He will have worked on issues of grand jury investigations.”
Andrew Weissmann: the expert prosecutor
One of Mueller’s first appointments, Andrew Weismann, is another heavy hitter. He has taken a leave of absence from working as the head of the Justice Department’s criminal fraud unit to join the special counsel, and has been described by Politico as Mueller’s most significant hire.
That reflects the fact that Weissmann has a reputation as someone who has made a career out of taking on organized crime.
In the 1990s, Weissmann worked at the US attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York, where he eventually rose to become the chief of the criminal division. He supervisedmore than 25 cases, going after the infamous Colombo and Gambino Mafia families in New York City and digging into organized crime on Wall Street.
From 2002 to 2005, he led the Enron task force that prosecuted more than 30 individuals and corporations involved in white-collar crime, after which he received several honors, including the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service in 2006.
Weissmann’s investigative skills will be a key resource for the Russia probe, said James Jacobs, a criminal law expert who worked with Weissmann while he was an adjunct professor at New York University.
“He’s very familiar in following the money and very familiar with technology,” Jacobs said in an interview.
James Quarles: the former Watergate prosecutor
A renowned litigator, James Quarles also happens to be a former assistant prosecutor in the Watergate investigation, where he specialized in campaign finance research, according to Wired.
The FBI has already requested financial documents from both Flynn and former campaign chair Paul Manafort. It makes sense that someone with experience in these matters was selected to join the team.
“There is nothing comparable to the kind of pressure and obligation that this kind of job puts on your shoulders,” Richard Ben-Veniste, one of the leading special prosecutors for Watergate, told CNN. “Having been there before gives [Quarles] the confidence to know how to do it and how to do it right.”
Aaron Zebley: the cybersecurity expert
Aaron Zebley has spent most of his career working in national security, but has more recently focused on cybersecurity.
When he was hired at WilmerHale in 2014, the firm’s co-managing partner, Robert Novick, said in a statement that the longtime FBI staffer would boost WilmerHale’s cybersecurity expertise.
Zebley worked as a special agent in the FBI’s counterterrorism division for seven years. He went on to become the FBI’s chief of staff and, later, a senior counselor in the National Security Division of the Justice Department.
Jeannie Rhee: the DOJ expert
Rhee, another career litigator, brings an insider’s view of the Justice Department.
From 2009 to 2011, she was the deputy assistant attorney general, charged with providing counsel to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and to the White House on issues surrounding criminal law, executive privilege, and national security, according to WilmerHale.
After joining the private law firm, she focused on advising clients involved in government-related litigation, which again, suggests that she has a strong sense of how the Justice Department works. This is important given that the special counsel will technically be part of the department — albeit with more independence — and will need to know how to navigate its many different departments and resources.