“Lawless White House” – the Mueller Report – “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave …”

The rest of line, you likely know, is “when first we practice to deceive.” Originally published in 1808 but completely relevant to the politics of today. The quote of a “lawless White House” is in the extraordinary book I’m about to describe.

We’ll never know the whole truth about Russian interference in the 2016 election or, most likely, many of the other crimes committed by Donald Trump and his White House/Congressional enablers. Most of the relevant documents have likely been destroyed or hidden away from the prying eyes of investigators armed with subpoenas and, one may wish, indictments. Trump and his enablers have shown they have no regard for law and will do anything to avoid being held accountable.

A bitter pill to swallow. There is, however, still much we don’t know that can be discovered despite the fact that the relevant rules favor the criminals and traitors – see, e.g., the accused is innocent until proven guilty, proceedings of the grand jury are secret, non-disclosure agreements are enforceable, attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, to name just a few.

In 2019 I read every word of and wrote extensively about the Mueller Report, with emphasis on what seemed to me the glaring shortcomings of the investigation and the conclusions reached. The links to those posts are set out at the end of this post for those who care to look back. Little did I know what was really going on. I had only the report itself and various news reports as sources.

But now we have Andrew Weissmann’s remarkable book, Where Law Ends—Inside the Mueller Investigation, published in Sept. 2020, but which I have just discovered and read compulsively. It is a barn burner in the truest sense and should be read by everyone who is genuinely interested in saving our democracy. When you are done, you will understand much better the frailties of our constitutional system and the means by which a putative dictator can undermine the separation of powers and subvert the rights we have taken for granted.

You know you’re in for a wild ride in the Introduction, where Weissmann describes AG William Barr’s 4-page letter purporting to explain and elaborate on the Mueller Report as “so many deceptions,” “deliberately worded obfuscations,” and “unbridled lies.” Weissman, after a long career in the FBI under Mueller, was put in charge of the “M Team” for the Special Counsel Investigation. The M Team was the group of lawyers, FBI agents and others who would determine what crimes had been committed, if any (obligatory qualification there) by Paul Manafort, who for a time was Donald Trump’s campaign manager, among many other roles. The other teams were the “R” (to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian bad actors) and the “600” team (to determine whether Trump had obstructed justice in violation of federal law).

Weissmann thus was in the center of the investigation, privy to most of the challenges and involved in most of the discussion of strategy and tactics as Trump’s determination to undermine the investigation at all costs became apparent.

I am only going to touch on some highlights, that I hope will induce everyone reading this to acquire and digest Weissmann’s book. A full summary would far exceed the bounds of a reasonable blog post and give away too much of the astonishing revelations.

With books like this one, there are often questions about the content and timing of publication. The Twitterverse and other commenters reacted as expected, with some questioning “why wait so long?” “why not reveal everything, including the secret grand jury evidence?” and so on. My response to those critics is (1) pre-publication review was essential to the book’s publication at any time, (2) the book is meticulously fact-oriented and replete with legal analysis (presented mainly in laymen’s’ terms) – something of this nature could not be rushed, and (3) Weissmann gained nothing personally or professionally from delay – he was and is committed to the preservation of law and would have been foolish to violate the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings.

It is also telling that, atypically of exposé books, Weissmann does not make himself the unsung hero of the tale. Quite the contrary, he admits to more than one serious error of judgment in dealing with Mueller and Mueller’s uptight top deputy (Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former Chief of Staff at the FBI) who was brought in from Mueller’s law firm even before Weissmann was hired. Weissmann takes great pains to explain the competing considerations and why he made particular decisions, while also, appropriately in my view, assigning serious errors to people who deserved the rebukes in light of everything known at the time. Anyone who has been involved in any kind of serious investigation (I have) can surely appreciate the difficult choices confronting the leadership of the investigative teams. Nevertheless, rigid thinking and timidity in the face of threats from the subjects of the investigation led to catastrophic errors.

More important, this is a true inside account of the investigation. Weissmann, while in thrall of Mueller before, during and after the investigation/report, is unrelenting in exposing the investigation’s problems and mistakes, laying out the consequences in stark terms. Examples abound throughout the 346 pages. It reads like a good murder mystery, but you know from page one that it is real, not fiction, and all the more chilling for that.

Weissmann flatly accuses the Trump administration of unlawfully interfering with the DOJ Criminal Division in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. Trump had always railed against the FCPA because it interfered with his ability to bribe foreign officials to get development rights he was after overseas.

James Comey comes in for particularly harsh assessment regarding his decision, shortly before the 2016 election, to disclose the discovery of additional emails on the computer of Anthony Weiner who was (inexplicably, to me) the husband of Huma Abedin, a senior aide to Hillary Clinton. Weissmann sets out the multiple options Comey had in addition to the two he claimed were the only ones open to him. Weissmann at 54.

Weissmann also endorses the critique of Comey by Deputy AG Rosenstein while noting that Rosenstein was effectively covering for Trump’s desire to remove Comey because Comey refused to drop the investigation of General Michael Flynn. Weissmann notes that Trump’s statement on the Comey firing was drafted by Trump with Stephen Miller before Rosenstein became aware of Trump’s plan to fire Comey. Thus, “The White House’s effort to pass off the Comey firing as Rosenstein’s idea was a fabrication.” Weissmann at 60. Only one of many, it would turn out.

The White House also withheld from the Special Counsel an important document pertinent to the Russian interference in 2016. Trump’s lack of concern or interest about it made for Obstruction of Justice No. 11 in the pantheon of obstruction uncovered by Mueller, or would have been uncovered. If Mueller had insisted that Trump testify under oath.  Weissmann at 61. In any case, the firing of Comey is explained and shown to be a clear case of obstruction of justice by Trump. Weissman at 64.

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the infamous Trump Tower meeting, that was the subject of withheld information (Jared Kushner) and lies (Papadopoulos). Weismann at 86. Among the conclusions: “it was clear that the highest levels of the Russian government were trying to help Trump and damage his opponent” and “the Trump campaign was extremely receptive to this help.” Weissmann at 88.

In a second chapter entitled “The Trump Tower Cover-Up,” Weissmann notes that neither Donald Trump nor Don Jr. ever agreed to meet with the investigators voluntarily and neither was brought before the grand jury. And the parties coordinated their versions of events to, among other things, support Don Jr’s claim that he had never meet any Russian officials. Weissmann at 103. Weissmann concluded that Trump himself lied about the Trump Tower meeting, that lying was in effect a basic Trump strategy for solving problems and that he seemed to believe there were never any consequences to his doing so. Weissmann at 107. History, so far, shows that Trump’s belief in his invulnerability is justified.

That episode reveals one of the serious points of disagreement within the investigative team. Team 600 concluded that it had found no evidence, through a witness or documents, that proved the president’s motive in lying was to deceive Congress and thus he could not be found to have engaged in criminal obstruction of justice. Weissmann calls this conclusion “timorous,” which in retrospect seems an understatement at best. Weismann at 108. At 110, Weissman concludes, more precisely, that the Trump Tower meeting was “damning.”

This episode, however, was prescient for the future of the investigation as Mueller and Zebley adopted a narrow and rigid view of the mission of the Special Counsel, what the evidence showed and what was risked by being too aggressive in the investigation. See, e.g., Weissmann at 128-129. Eventually, for a time at least, Mueller realized how impactful Russian interference could be and authorized a more full-throated investigation into all aspects of Russian interference, Weissmann at 132, but the ongoing reality was that Mueller was influenced far too much by Trump’s shenanigans throughout the investigation and creation of the final report.

That observation brings me to the most important points about this book. I may have more to say about the details in a future post, but it is vital to understand the overall process and how Mueller’s and Zebley’s conservatism led to a flawed process and failed report.

The harsh and ugly truth is that the presidency, in the wrong hands, gave the subject of the investigation an unequaled power to influence the behavior of witnesses, principally in this case Paul Manafort, but others as well. One such influence is the pardon power that Trump unsubtly dangled to assure witnesses that if they remained loyal to him, even to the extent of repeatedly lying to the investigators, they would be spared any consequences. And we know that this was a situation where loyalty to Trump was indeed rewarded with pardons or commuted sentences– for Manafort, for Flynn, for Stone, for Bannon, for Papadopoulos and others. https://bit.ly/3hfx7O3

The other major influence was Trump’s ability to fire the Special Counsel and thus end the investigation. If Mueller’s fears about this were based on the idea that the Republican Party (his party) would not hold Trump to account, he would have been right to be concerned. Nevertheless, Weissmann argues, persuasively, that the impact of this concern unduly colored many of the most important judgments made in the ultimate report.

Whether or not our skepticism is warranted, the book makes very clear that these two elements: Trump’s ability to pardon wrongdoers and his power to fire the Special Counsel, when used to serve Trump’s personal interest, are matters of the most profound concern for the future of our governance.

One of the most remarkable effects of this, when combined with the relentless attacks from the right-wing “media,” was that while Ivanka Trump, for example, almost certainly had relevant information about, for example, the Trump Tower meeting, the decision was that Ivanka was not to be interviewed. Weissmann at 117-118. Don Jr similarly could have been subpoenaed after refusing to be interviewed, but this was not done either. Weissman at 118. Astonishing. Fear of being fired also impacted decisions regarding how broadly to look into Trump’s finances in search of indirect Russian contributions (the Deutsche Bank subpoenas, for example, still not fully fleshed out). Weissmann at 147-148.

It is clear that Trump’s willingness to, directly and indirectly, threaten the Special Counsel with termination had major effects on the scope and aggression of the investigation. That reality explains many of the obvious and serious defects in Mueller’s final report discussed in detail in my earlier blog posts and exposed by Weissmann’s inside knowledge.

Weissmann demonstrates a clear-eyed understanding of the extent of Donald Trump’s corruption: “One cannot plausibly deny that Trump was seeking foreign assistance from Russia and was open to accepting it if offered.” Weissmann at 126, 135, 140. He labels Trump a continuing “counterintelligence threat.” As long as he remains free and unindicted for his multiple crimes in office, Trump remains such a threat despite his lazy indifference to national security briefings that have been a daily staple in the lives of presidents for a very long time. He knows a lot that would be valuable to our adversaries. Continuing through to the end of his presidency, Trump never acted against the Russian interference that was proven to continue into the 2020 campaigns. Weissmann at 218-219, 222. The book lays out a stark and disturbing list of failures to confront the Russian interference threat. Weissmann at 224.

Similarly, Weissmann describes how Rick Gates was aggressively pressured by Paul Manafort and unnamed others to refuse cooperation to the investigation. Weissmann at 206-208. The prospect of a pardon from Trump was part of the “package” of sweeteners to keep Gates quiet. Ultimately, the pressure failed to silence Gates, but just barely.

One particularly interesting story involved Manafort ginning up attacks from Fox’s Sean Hannity against the Special Counsel investigation in violation of the trial judge’s bail orders that had permitted Manafort to remain free pending trial. The investigators correlated Manafort’s texts to Hannity with on-air smears of Mueller and staff. Aaron Zebley, however, prevented the submission of the texts to the court, saying, “they are too explosive.” Weissmann at 209.

Much of the story of the Mueller investigation reads like the script of a television drama series. Typically, parts of such plots are so over the top, so corrupt and malign that they strain credulity. Trump, however, must have studied those shows because his conduct with people like White House counsel McGahn showed a willingness to flout the law at will. Trump never believed, and likely still does not believe, that he can be held accountable. He genuinely believes he is above the law and able, as he said, “to do whatever I want.”

Skipping much material that I may cover in a future post, Weissmann’s narrative ends full circle, reviewing then-Attorney General Barr’s letter purporting to summarize the Mueller Report, but which in fact was a green light to unleash Trump’s corruption in full and unrestrained flower. It led directly to the Ukraine extortion attempt that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Weissmann at 331. And to Giuliani, Nunes, and the political forgiveness of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, that Weissmann refers to as the “gaggle of presidential defenders and conspirators.” At 332.

Weissmann surgically dissects Barr’s falsities, noting, for example, that Barr’s claim that the president had “full cooperated” with the investigation “”is not just untrue, it’s astonishingly far from the truth.” Weissmann at 333. The same for Barr’s claim that Trump had not asserted presidential privilege to withhold information.  And the same for Barr’s assertion that Trump had formed a “sincere belief” that his presidency was being undermined by the investigation, a claim whose provenance was never explained and in any case was irrelevant to the question whether Trump had obstructed justice.  Weissmann rips Barr’s claim that the Russian active measures were directed at “social discord” rather than helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Lie after lie after lie.

Weissman concludes with some recommendations for ways to strengthen the Special Counsel regulations but, more importantly, disputes compellingly the DOJ policy, adhered to strictly by Mueller, that if the president could not be indicted, it was improper to accuse him of wrongdoing. Weissman at 342. A sitting president can indeed defend himself if he chooses to do so. The policy makes no sense. I addressed the no-indictment policy in a prior post on this blog.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Weissman notes that the presidential pardon power in the Constitution should not be used to protect the president personally by, in effect, covering up the crimes of others who would, absent the pardon power, have incriminating information on the sitting president. He argues that it should be unconstitutional for a president to use the pardon power to protect himself, independent of whether that power could be used to directly pardon himself. Weissmann at 344. That seems exactly right to me, although I have some doubts that the “conservative” majority now on the Supreme Court wouldn’t just take the simple-minded approach that the words conferring the pardon authority contain no limitations and therefore are absolute. That is a view that would further cement the anti-Constitutional idea of the imperial presidency that Trump tried to impose on the country. We can see in the events of January 6, among many other examples, where that leads.

*********

Links to Posts re Mueller Investigation:

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers   https://bit.ly/3gQe7Xb    July 13, 2018

Mueller’s Indictment of Russia Hackers – Updated  https:://bit.ly/3h33lvl July 14, 2018

The Mueller Report – Where From Here? https://bit.ly/3gZQElm   March 24, 2019

Semi-Final Thoughts on Mueller Report https://bit.ly/3j8gVRh  March 25, 2019

Issues raised by Mueller/Barr/Rosenstein https://bit.ly/3wSPjni March 27, 2019

Redactions of Mueller Report Must Be Coded  https://bit.ly/3j8nX8q April 6, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA https://bit.ly/3jeBNGr  July 9, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I — TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – A https://bit.ly/3dagOkk  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – B https://bit.ly/3zNATqe  July 10, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – C  https://bit.ly/3xTRsPI  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – D  https://bit.ly/3vUR1D9  July 11, 2019

MUELLER REPORT PART I – TRUMP CANOODLING WITH RUSSIA – E https://bit.ly/2U46bIX  July 11, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-A   https://bit.ly/3gQAXOu   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-B, C  https://bit.ly/3A5gf5l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – D    https://bit.ly/3wVcw8l   July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-E   https://bit.ly/3gRyKlW  July 23, 2019

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F   https://bit.ly/3gRHR61  July 23, 2019

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