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As we anticipate the potential release (or possible leak) of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on alleged collusion between Russia and President Trump’s 2016 campaign, it’s important to remember that Mueller is not a detached third party and his report will not represent a dispassionate review of the facts.
Rather, the report will be the product of a team that started coming together long before Trump took office. Not only did many of them know each other beforehand, many shared a common goal: to stop Trump any way they could. It would be unjust to allow the report into the public domain without giving its target, the president, the opportunity to defend himself.
When the Clinton Foundation needed a private law firm to prevent Hillary Clinton’s emails from being released in a lawsuit, it hired the private law firm WilmerHale. Jeannie Rhee, a WilmerHale partner and loyal Democratic Party donor, personally signed the motion that won the case for the Clintons. Not long after, she would get the opportunity to join WilmerHale alumnus Robert Mueller to fight another case involving team Clinton emails. Recall, the alleged theft of more Clinton campaign emails and their subsequent release led to claims that the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election. WilmerHale also produced Mueller team lawyers James Quarles and Aaron Zebley.
How did the team best positioned to achieve payback for Clinton’s 2016 election loss end up with such an incestuous mix of Clinton supporters and donors? Is it a coincidence that so many people with apparent interests in deposing Trump ended up working on the Mueller probe?
If so, it would be an amazing coincidence given that the Trump-Russia collusion story began with opposition research procured by the Clinton campaign. Representatives of the law firm Clinton used to buy the opposition research, Perkins Coie, met with Justice Department officials to discuss the Russia investigation during the 2016 election cycle. Puzzle pieces revealed over the past two years have begun credibly to suggest that the plan to staff the special counsel’s office began well before Donald Trump took office.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about some of the key figures in the special counsel’s investigation.
Bruce Ohr: Ohr did not end up on the Mueller team but was instrumental in its formation. During the 2016 election cycle, Ohr served as an associate deputy attorney general and as the head of the department’s organized crime drug task force. There’s no indication in the record that anyone in the Justice Department assigned Ohr to work on the Trump-Russia hoax or that his actions were within the scope of his duties. As The Hill’s John Solomon noted, “Bruce Ohr played an essential—and unorthodox—role, carrying politically tainted allegations of Donald Trump-Russia collusion to the FBI during the 2016 election,” including research that his wife, Nellie Ohr, generated as a subcontractor to the Clinton campaign.
Ohr’s involvement in vouching for the Fusion GPS information helped give it the credibility needed to spur a federal Investigation. Ohr’s sponsoring and advancement of the collusion hoax while his wife received Clinton money to do work on the same thing appears to be a shocking violation of the criminal statute 18 U.S.C. § 208 and it makes it appear as though a political campaign can buy a federal investigation of its opponent by hiring the spouse of a senior official. (For more analysis on the potential legal violation, read here.) Ohr continues to work for the Department of Justice and has not been charged with anything.
Worse yet, according to the New York Times, Bruce Ohr also handled a Russian cooperating witness, oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who described as “preposterous” the Fusion GPS claim that former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort oversaw communications between the campaign and the Kremlin. Deripaska’s assessment aligned with the charges Mueller eventually leveled against Manafort (which will likely land Manafort in prison for the rest of his life but pointedly did not include any claim of collusion with the Russian government). We are awaiting word of whether the Justice Department advised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about flaws in a key allegation in the Fusion GPS dossier that was used to obtain and renew warrants.
Andrew Weissmann: Before being appointed to the Mueller team, Weissmann sent a fawning email to Obama-holdover acting Attorney General Sally Yates lauding her refusal to carry out the lawful instructions of the newly-elected Donald Trump. The former head of the Justice Department’s fraud section donated to Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2007 and attended her election night party in 2016.
In an early indication that Weissmann was always intended as a figure for the yet-to-be-formed Mueller team, Bruce Ohr (who indirectly received Clinton Campaign money) kept Weissmann in the loop as Ohr ferried Clinton’s opposition research to the FBI to promote the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. This is another indication that the plan for staffing an anti-Trump special counsel was hatched long before Mueller was appointed. Weissmann would then act as the second-in-command of Mueller’s investigation and was reportedly the architect of the aggressive Manafort raid and the push to raid former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s law office.
The fact that Ohr involved Weissmann in the Russia-Trump matter before the appointment of the special counsel also raises the question of whether Mueller recruited Weissmann or Weissmann recruited Mueller.
Mueller helped form the Enron task force that Weissmann led earlier in his career. Author Sidney Powell profiled Weissmann’s time with the task force as a legacy of chilling prosecutorial misconduct leading to the destruction of accounting firm Arthur Andersen with a corporate conviction that the Supreme Court overturned unanimously. Weissmann obtained a conviction of Arthur Andersen for shredding documents in the ordinary course of business that nobody told it to save. In an indication that Mueller could be relied upon to indulge prosecutors run amuck, the New York Times reported that Mueller actually approved of the Enron team’s tactics. Weissmann’s long history with Mueller also includes working for Mueller as a special counsel in 2005 and then as Mueller’s general counsel in 2011.
Zainab Ahmad: In the spring of 2016, Ahmad took a leave from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York to work at Justice Department headquarters at the request of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, dealing with transnational organized crime and international affairs. She returned to the New York office in April 2017, remaining there until that July, when she joined the Mueller team. While it makes sense that Mueller would pick Ahmad as an experienced and energetic trial attorney, it’s not immediately obvious why Bruce Ohr would brief Ahmad with Fusion GPS research in July 2016. Somehow, Ohr had the foresight to know that Ahmad’s career path would take a relevant turn toward the Russia investigation.
Andrew McCabe: As noted in the Justice Department Inspector General’s report, the former deputy FBI director “had an active role in the supervision of the Midyear investigation, and oversight of the Clinton Foundation investigation, until he recused himself from these investigations on November 1, 2016.” As a result of that report, McCabe is currently under criminal investigation for lying to the inspector general.
McCabe’s wife, Jill, received approximately $800,000 in campaign donations from funds directed by Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe. In addition, on June 26, 2015, Hillary Clinton was the featured speaker at a Jill McCabe fundraiser hosted by the Virginia Democratic Party and attended by McAuliffe. Even the left-leaning Slate admitted that the fundraiser raised legitimate concerns over whether Andrew McCabe’s involvement in the Clinton investigations may have been compromised.
McAuliffe approached McCabe’s wife in early 2015. In March 2015, the former secretary of state’s emails (withheld from Congress) were deleted by a contractor and the potential criminal exposure of the email scandal was becoming apparent. Clinton announced her candidacy on April 12, 2015. In June 2016, approximately five months before recusing himself from the Clinton email investigation, McCabe helped draft the memo exonerating Clinton from any criminal liability. McCabe did not directly join the Mueller team but clashed with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over his continued involvement in the probe.
Lisa Page and Peter Strzok: Texts between Page, a former FBI lawyer who served as McCabe’s deputy, and Strzok, the former head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, revealed startling partisan animus against Donald Trump. The texts indicate Page interned for Hillary or Bill Clinton in the 1990s. They also show that Page, Strzok, and McCabe discussed an “insurance policy” in the event that Trump defeated Clinton in the 2016 election. Page explained to Congress that the “insurance policy” text referred to the Russia investigation. Thus, by the time McCabe sent Page and Strzok to the Mueller team, McCabe participated in at least one meeting in which Strzok suggesting using the Russia investigation to respond to a surprise election result.
Strozk would be given the opportunity to use this “insurance policy” on the Mueller team—that is, until the embarrassed special counsel removed both Strzok and Page when their partisan text messages came to light. Mueller quietly returned their phones to the FBI, resulting in their deletion and ensuring even more partisan texts would be lost forever.
Jeannie Rhee: Rhee gave the maximum personal donations to the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2015 and 2016. Rhee would have been well-known to Clinton allies from her successful defense of the Clinton Foundation in a lawsuit seeking the secretary of state’s emails.
As noted by Fox News, Rhee “has a history of working with prominent Democrats, serving as a special assistant to then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, and as counsel to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on the Senate Judiciary Committee.” Rhee has such an extensive history advancing Hillary Clinton’s agenda that one news outlet dubbed her “Hillary’s Attack Dog.”
Rod Rosenstein: The departing deputy attorney general first met Robert Mueller in his first job out of Harvard Law School. Rosenstein landed an internship in office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, where Mueller was in charge. Rosenstein idolized Mueller and could have been counted upon to appoint his old boss as the special counsel.
Rosenstein is a registered Republican, which would have been necessary for the Trump Administration to trust him in the role as second-in-command of the Justice Department. So he might not have been an obvious choice for Clinton’s allies at first. But it’s worth recalling that Rosenstein worked for the Clinton Administration throughout most of the 1990s. He then worked for Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s role in several scandals that plagued her husband’s administration. In 2000, Starr’s office (presumably at Rosenstein’s recommendation) declined to prosecute Clinton for her role in the White House Travel Office scandal.
Rosenstein reportedly oversees U.S. Attorney John Huber’s investigation into the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s emails, and Clinton dirty tricks during the election. Reports are that the investigation is a sham. Few or none of the key witnesses have been contacted.
It’s also been apparent that Rosenstein has been disabled by his obvious conflict of interests and cannot effectively supervise the probe. In this sense, he is the ideal boss for subordinate investigators who want to pursue their agenda unmolested.
It is also worth remembering that Rosenstein was asked to commit to appointing a special counsel during his confirmation hearing on March 7, 2017. Six days earlier, unnamed Justice Department officials engineered the elevation the yet-unconfirmed Rosenstein to oversee the potential special counsel when the Washington Post quoted anonymous sources smearing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with leaks about innocuous meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Sessions’ capacity as a U.S. senator. The leaks worked and Sessions recused himself on March 2. Former FBI Director James Comey flatters himself that his firing and leaking prompted the appointment of a special counsel. It was clearly already in the works.
Robert Mueller: If one wanted a special counsel motivated to avenge Comey’s firing, Mueller would be your man. In addition to his long-standing relationship with Andrew Weissmann, Mueller has a close friendship with Comey. Mueller helped coach Comey for his infamous congressional testimony following his termination.
While neither Mueller nor Comey seem particularly in-the-tank for Clinton, both have a history of letting subordinate investigations run amuck, making Mueller an ideal supervisor for hyperpartisans like Weissmann and Rhee. In addition to Mueller’s history with the Enron task force, Mueller looked the other way during serious FBI misconduct in Boston during the Whitey Bulger era (leading to witnesses being framed) and both Comey and Mueller allowed the FBI to target and harass an innocent scientist in the anthrax investigation. Mueller, also reputed to be a Republican, may have put a bipartisan face on the investigation. But based on Mueller’s history, it’s reasonable to question whether he has ceded real control to his partisan underlings.
Other Members of the Mueller Team: An unidentified lawyer working on the Mueller team sent texts, including “viva la resistance,” and “I am numb,” responding to news of Trump’s presidential election victory. Mueller team member Aaron Zelinsky worked for Rosenstein before joining the Mueller team. Team member Elizabeth Prelogar clerked for openly Trump-hating U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There are 1.34 million attorneys in the United States. Yet that pool was apparently too small to avoid appointing to the special counsel staff attorneys who had a stake in undoing the 2016 election and unseating President Trump. We’ve come a long way from the Watergate era, when Independent Counsel Archibald Cox and his team were deliberately drawn from players unconnected to the scandal or partisan politics.
The facts speak for themselves. The Mueller team was a revenge squad and any report it produces should be reviewed in that context.
Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images