Top Mueller Prosecutor Stepping Down In Latest Clue Russia Inquiry May Be Ending

Mar 14, 2019
Originally published on March 14, 2019 9:00 am

One of the most prominent members of special counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election will soon leave the office and the Justice Department, two sources close to the matter tell NPR.

Andrew Weissmann, the architect of the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, will study and teach at New York University and work on a variety of public service projects, including his longstanding interest in preventing wrongful convictions by shoring up forensic science standards used in courts, the sources added.

The departure is the strongest sign yet that Mueller and his team have all but concluded their work.

Manafort has been sentenced to about 7 1/2 years in federal prison following two cases that stemmed from Mueller's investigation, although neither case involved alleged collusion with the Russians who interfered in the election.

Weissmann has borne the brunt of attacks from critics such as Rush Limbaugh and conservative legal interest groups.

They cited his attendance at Hillary Clinton's election night party in 2016 and a positive email he wrote to former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend the Trump administration's first Muslim travel ban.

A later version of that ban was eventually upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon also issued a warning about Weissmann and other senior members of the special counsel team when they were named in 2017.

Trump and his aides would be facing off against a group of "killers," Bannon reportedly said. Author Michael Wolff wrote that Bannon told him that Weissmann was like "the LeBron James of money laundering investigations."

Former Enron prosecutor Kathryn Ruemmler said there's a reason for the attacks on Weissmann.

"Andrew is attacked because he is feared; those under investigation know just how effective he is," Ruemmler said. "He has not only peerless technical skills, but the fearlessness necessary for pursuing high profile, complex cases and a passionate commitment to seeing justice is done."

Departures from the special counsel's office

Weissmann's move offers a potent signal that the special counsel investigation is all but done, one source said.

His leaving will follow the departure of the senior-most FBI agent working on the Mueller probe, who has taken his own next step. Special Agent in Charge David Archey started a new job on March 4 as head of the FBI's office in Richmond, Va.

Earlier this month, another special counsel prosecutor, Brandon Van Grack, moved on to lead a Justice Department effort to enforce compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that has become the subject of intense interest following charges against Manafort, his right-hand-man Richard Gates, and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

And WilmerHale, the law firm that Mueller and several other prosecutors left to help create the special counsel team, is preparing for the return of some of its onetime law partners, three lawyers have told NPR in recent weeks.

Veteran prosecutor

Weissmann has a long history of unraveling complex financial ties and securing cooperation from people inside corporations or mob enterprises to build criminal cases against higher-ups.

As a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Weissmann won a conviction against the head of the Gambino crime family, using testimony from Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and others.

He went on to lead the Justice Department task force investigating fraud at Enron Corp., a high-flying energy company whose chief executives, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, were convicted by a jury in Houston.

Lay died before he could be sentenced. Skilling served 12 years behind bars before his recent release.

At the time, critics said Weissmann deployed hard-nosed tactics and a "win-at-all-costs" mentality. They pointed out that his conviction against the accounting firm that did Enron's books, Arthur Andersen, was unanimously reversed by the Supreme Court, which cited faulty jury instructions.

The case helped prompt Congress to pass a new obstruction of justice statute, but it remains to be seen whether that law will prove fruitful in the ongoing Mueller probe.

Leslie Caldwell worked alongside Weissmann in Brooklyn and at the Justice Department in Washington. She said he has a reputation for getting results.

"Throughout his career, Andrew has had unparalleled success in building case after case against the most sophisticated criminals in the world," Caldwell said. "He took on New York's most feared organized crime families, unraveled the incredibly ornate frauds at Enron, and has tracked international criminals, exposing their carefully concealed financial dealings in many dark corners of the world."

Weissmann has moved in and out of public service several times throughout his legal career. He did high-profile legal work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate clients before rejoining the Justice Department as general counsel at the FBI when it was led by Mueller.

During that stint, Weissmann worked closely with the Innocence Project to institute a wide-ranging review of cases in which defendants might have been wrongfully convicted based on bad testimony from FBI forensic experts.

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And I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif. Good morning. NPR has learned new information suggesting that the special counsel's Russia investigation is done. A key prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, is leaving the office. He helped build the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort was sentenced yesterday to serve 7 1/2 years in prison. Now with us to walk through her exclusive reporting, here is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with what you've learned about Robert Mueller's legal team. This long process might be coming to an end here, it sounds like.

JOHNSON: Yeah, nearly two years long - it's the strongest sign yet the special counsel is done investigating. It's that a prominent lawyer on the team, Andrew Weissmann, is leaving the special counsel unit and the Justice Department. Two sources are telling me Weissmann's leaving to go teach and do some scholarship at New York University. And they say he wouldn't be leaving unless the Russia investigation was complete. I'm hearing, also, to expect more signs of wrapping up in the next two weeks maximum.

Remember, David, the lead FBI agent assigned to this probe started a new job in Virginia this month. And other lawyers have been moving off the team, too. But Andrew Weissmann was, in some ways, aside from Robert Mueller, the most well-known. He's been attacked by conservative talk radio hosts. And he was called a killer by Steve Bannon, one of Trump's former advisers, who also called him the LeBron James of money laundering investigations.

GREENE: The thinking being that, I mean, once the important work is done, you're going to let your investigators move on, even if you're putting the finishing touches on the report or whatever is happening.

JOHNSON: That's exactly right. And we're seeing more high-level departures by the day.

GREENE: So the prosecutor you're talking about, Andrew Weissmann, I mean, really played a central role in the case against Paul Manafort. And we're seeing a lot of news in that case over the past 24 hours with the sentencing. What exactly is happening?

JOHNSON: Yeah, David. Last week, the judge in Virginia basically said Paul Manafort had led an otherwise blameless life aside from his financial crimes. Yesterday, the judge in Washington, D.C., Amy Berman Jackson, had a lot more criticism for Paul Manafort. She sentenced him to serve almost four years in prison. Add that to the time Manafort got in Virginia last week; it totals up to about 7 1/2 years in prison total.

The D.C. judge, Amy Jackson, was not buying Paul Manafort's remorse. She basically said he used other people's money to support his own lifestyle - too many houses for one family to enjoy, too many suits for one man to wear. She also said Manafort spent his whole life spinning. He treated the legal process the same way. She said courts are one place where facts still matter. And she said saying I'm sorry I got caught is not an effective plea for leniency - very tough language from this D.C. judge.

GREENE: Tough language, indeed. I mean, we should say the first federal prison term Manafort was given, a lot of people criticized it for not being long enough. Different reaction to this one?

JOHNSON: You know, it's been mixed. Some former prosecutors say, in all, 7 1/2 years seems about right for Paul Manafort. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill were saying it was too lenient. And of course, Paul Manafort's allies are continuing to say that he never should have been prosecuted in the first place for some of this and he would not have been prosecuted if not for his work with President Trump on the 2016 campaign.

GREENE: What about the idea of a presidential pardon, Carrie Johnson? I mean, that seems to be looming over a case like this. Isn't that possibility why prosecutors in New York have moved to bring their own charges against Manafort?

JOHNSON: Indeed. Paul Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, told people outside the courthouse yesterday there was no collusion, which the judge had explicitly said was not one of her findings. The judge suggested that Paul Manafort's lawyer, Downing, was actually speaking to another audience. And President Trump, shortly after the sentencing, said he feels very badly for Paul Manafort. He said he hasn't given a pardon for Manafort any thought.

But clearly, state prosecutors - the Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance - has. And that's why he slapped Paul Manafort with 16 charges only an hour or so after this federal sentencing concluded. And the key point there, David, is that a president cannot pardon someone on state charges, only federal charges.

GREENE: And just coming back full circle - Carrie, we might not know exactly if the special counsel's investigation is over. Will there be a clear end moment that we, the public, will know or maybe not?

JOHNSON: At some point, the attorney general of the United States, Bill Barr, is going to have to come out and make a statement about this.

GREENE: OK. So we'll learn something. Exclusive reporting this morning from NPR's Carrie Johnson - we appreciate it, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.