Mueller’s Empire: Legions of Lawyers, Bottomless Budget, Limitless Jurisdiction

By | 2017-07-12T14:48:26+00:00 June 21st, 2017|
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So I’ve been wondering: Why on earth does a prosecutor, brought in to investigate a case in which there is no apparent crime, need a staff of 14 lawyers?

Or, I should say, “14 lawyers and counting.” According to the press spokesman for special counsel Robert Mueller—yeah, he’s got a press spokesman, too—there are “several more in the pipeline.”

Concededly, none of Mueller’s recruits requires Senate confirmation, as do Justice Department officials—notwithstanding that the former may end up playing a far more consequential role in the fate of the Trump administration. But does it seem strange to anyone else that, by comparison, the president of the United States has managed to get—count ’em—three appointees confirmed to Justice Department positions in five months?

A special counsel, the need for whom is far from obvious, has in just a few days staffed up with four times the number of lawyers. And all for a single investigation that the FBI has described as a counterintelligence probe—i.e., not a criminal investigation, the kind for which you actually need lawyers.  

The way this is supposed to work is: the Justice Department first identifies a likely crime, and then assigns a prosecutor to investigate it. Here, by contrast, there are no parameters imposed on the special counsel’s jurisdiction. Mueller is loosed—with 14 lawyers and more coming—to conduct what I’ve called a “fishing expedition.”

Oh, and about those three Justice Department appointees: One of them, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has already recused himself from the investigation in question—the department’s most high profile undertaking. Another, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is reportedly weighing whether he, too, should bow out. Perhaps he figures he has already done quite enough, having sicced a special-counsel investigation on the Trump Administration by flouting both the regulation that requires a basis for a criminal investigation before a special counsel is appointed, and the regulation that requires limiting the special counsel’s jurisdiction to the specific factual matter that triggers this criminal investigation.

The way this is supposed to work is: the Justice Department first identifies a likely crime, and then assigns a prosecutor to investigate it. Here, by contrast, there are no parameters imposed on the special counsel’s jurisdiction. Mueller is loosed—with 14 lawyers and more coming—to conduct what I’ve called a “fishing expedition.” But it is actually worse than that, as sagely observed in these pages by my friend John Eastman, the Claremont Institute scholar and former Chapman Law School dean. Mueller’s probe is the functional equivalent of a general warrant: a boundless writ to search for incriminating evidence. It is the very evil the Fourth Amendment was adopted to forbid: a scorch-the-earth investigation in the absence of probable cause that a crime has been committed.

For now, Mueller appears utterly without limits, in his writ and in his resources. As the ease with which he has staffed up shows, it is not hard to recruit lawyers. All you need is money. Mueller has a bottomless budget, thanks to a bit of Treasury Department chicanery known as “permanent, indefinite appropriations.”

Under the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause, no funding is supposed to be paid out of the treasury unless Congress has approved it in advance. Under the Framers’ design, with an eye toward limited, accountable government, every spending initiative must compete with every other one when Congress enacts a budget. Lawmakers must decide what we can and can’t afford when they draw on what is supposed to be the finite pot of money confiscated from taxpayers. We are supposed to know what we are underwriting and what it will cost.

The Swamp, ever resistant to such restraints, has developed a scheme known as “indefinite appropriations.” These are slush funds for future contingencies. A good example is the “Judgment Fund,” which President Obama raided to underwrite nearly $2 billion in ransom payments demanded by Iran, the sweetener he needed to close the infamous nuclear deal. It is an Orwellian game. What makes an appropriation an appropriation is that Congress provides a definite amount of funding suitable to the task it has approved. If it turns out more is needed, the executive branch is supposed to come back to Congress—ask for it and justify why it should be prioritized over other needs.

These lawyers, overwhelmingly, are Democrats. Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff and the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross have been tracking it: Mueller’s staffers contribute to Trump’s political opponents, some heavily.

Mueller’s special counsel investigation is somehow under no such restrictions, according to the Justice Department. He unilaterally decides how much staffing he needs. And unlike a normal prosecutor’s office, the special counsel does not have to apportion his resources over hundreds of cases. He can direct all of them at one investigative target.

In this instance, the target is Trump, and the resources—apart from what will be scores of FBI agents—include 14 lawyers (going on 15 … going on 16…).

These lawyers, overwhelmingly, are Democrats. Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff and the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross have been tracking it: Mueller’s staffers contribute to Trump’s political opponents, some heavily. The latest Democratic talking-point about this unseemly appearance is that hiring regulations forbid an inquiry into an applicant’s political affiliation. That’s laughable. These are lawyers Mueller has recruited. They are not “applicants.” We’re talking about top-shelf legal talent, accomplished professionals who have jumped at the chance of a gig they do not need but, clearly, want.

The Democrats’ other rationalization is that Mueller, whose integrity is well established, is ultimately responsible for all prosecutorial decisions. I agree that Mueller’s personal probity entitles him to a presumption of ethical propriety. But a presumption is not a blank check.

Unlike many conservative commentators, I’ve contended that too much has been made of Mueller’s close personal friendship and longstanding professional ties to former FBI director James Comey. In drawing that conclusion, I have relied on Rosenstein’s description of the investigation assigned to Mueller. He said it is the same investigation Comey described in March 20 congressional testimony. That investigation is a counterintelligence probe—which is why I’ve never understood the need for a prosecutor. Since such investigations are not intended to build criminal cases, there seemed little prospect that Comey could become a critical prosecution witness. I reasoned that, in the unlikely event criminal charges became a possibility, Mueller could be trusted to consider the ethics of his participation.

Now, however, if reports are to be believed, Mueller is weighing whether the president is guilty of an obstruction crime. Putting aside my assessment that there would be no legal merit to such an allegation, there could be no doubting Comey’s importance as a witness in such a case. Mueller would then have to consider an ethical dilemma that the National District Attorneys Association, in its National Prosecution Standards (third edition), has described in the section on conflicts of interest (Standard 1-3.3, at p. 7):

The prosecutor should excuse himself or herself from any investigation, prosecution, or other matter where personal interests of the prosecutor would cause a fair-minded, objective observer to conclude that the prosecutor’s neutrality, judgment, or ability to administer the law in an objective manner may be compromised.

Notice that, consistent with the familiar ethical canon that lawyers must avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the standard here is based not on the lawyer’s personal rectitude or his subjective belief that he can administer the law impartially. The issue is: What would this look like to fair-minded observers?

Consequently, if this boundless investigation careens into a criminal prosecution, Mueller could have some major soul-searching to do. I thus confess to being taken aback that he has exacerbated the problem, rather than trying to mitigate it, with his staffing decisions. Into an investigation that was already fraught with political tension, the special counsel has recruited partisans—donors to politicians who describe themselves not as a loyal opposition but as the Trump “Resistance.” What are fair-minded people to make of that?

Not just one or two recruits, but 14 lawyers, with more to come.

Some personal perspective, if you’ll allow me. I had the good fortune to be a prosecutor in two of the better known criminal cases in modern American history. The Pizza Connection case, which I believe remains our longest federal criminal trial, involved a vast narcotics and money-laundering enterprise, overseen for well over a decade by the mafia in Sicily and the United States. The years-long investigation required gathering evidence on three continents, coordinating with a parallel, massive Italian prosecution, and ultimately indicting 36 mafiosi. The subsequent 17-month trial of 22 defendants, starting in late 1985, featured hundreds of witnesses and more than 2,400 wiretap conversations (translated into English from Italian). I was the junior member of a five-prosecutor team, which many of our peers found to be excessive despite the prosecution’s success.  

Consequently, if this boundless investigation careens into a criminal prosecution, Mueller could have some major soul-searching to do. I thus confess to being taken aback that he has exacerbated the problem, rather than trying to mitigate it, with his staffing decisions.

I was the lead government lawyer in the terrorism investigation of the so-called Blind Sheikh’s jihadist cell, following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and an unsuccessful plot to bomb New York City landmarks. The case involved extensive undercover investigations. We also probed the history of overseas jihadist movements, as well as that of covert American aid to the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Red Army. There were classified-information challenges, including litigation over the admissibility in a criminal trial of evidence obtained under foreign-intelligence-gathering authorities. The eventual nine-month trial of 12 defendants, involved hundreds of witnesses and intercepted conversations (translated into English from Arabic).

We managed to get by with a team of three trial prosecutors and one appellate lawyer assigned to help us with the many novel legal issues. After all the defendants were convicted, I wrote the government’s appellate brief with the assistance of a single appellate editor. Not much staff, but the convictions and sentences were nevertheless upheld.

Why does special counsel Mueller need 14 lawyers (and more coming) for a counterintelligence investigation, as to which the intelligence professionals—agents, not lawyers—have found no “collusion with Russia” evidence after over a year of hard work? What will those lawyers be doing with no limits on their jurisdiction, with nothing but all the time and funding they need to examine one target, Donald Trump?

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About the Author:

Andrew C. McCarthy
Andrew C. McCarthy is a former chief assistant U.S. attorney best known for successfully prosecuting the “Blind Sheikh” (Omar Abdel Rahman) and eleven other jihadists for waging a terrorist war against the United States – a war that included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a subsequent plot to bomb New York City landmarks. He is a recipient of the Justice Department’s highest honors, helped supervise the command-post near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks, and later served as an adviser to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. His several popular books include the New York Times bestsellers Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad and The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America. He is a senior fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor at National Review. He is a frequent guest commentator on national security, law, politics, and culture in national media, and his columns and essays also appear regularly in The New Criterion, PJ Media, and other major publications.