- Insider held a wide-ranging interview with the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s lead prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, following the release of his book, “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.”
- Weissmann discussed the most challenging aspects of working for Mueller; how prosecuting Enron and the New York mafia made him uniquely qualified to investigate Donald Trump; and whether Russia was successful in its efforts to destabilize US democracy.
- Weissmann said Russia’s election interference in 2016 was “arguably much worse” than the attack on Pearl Harbor, and that he had “grave” concerns about the politicization of intelligence under Trump.
- He also skewered Attorney General William Barr over his decisions related to the president and his allies, saying it was “dispiriting” to see what’s happened at the Justice Department under his leadership.
- Scroll down to read the full interview.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Andrew Weissmann, who served as the special counsel Robert Mueller’s right-hand man during the FBI’s Russia investigation, released a book this week titled, “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.”
Weissmann had a reputation as a no-holds-barred prosecutor even before joining Mueller’s office and was once described as the special counsel’s “legal pit bull” because of his scorched-earth tactics.
He rose to prominence in the 1990s as an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York. In 1992, he successfully convinced Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the underboss of the Gambino crime family, to flip and testify against his boss and the US’s most powerful mobster, John Gotti. Several years later, Weissmann’s team pulled Gravano out of witness protection and convinced him to flip again and testify against Gotti’s rival, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, the head of the Genovese crime family.
Weissmann again made headlines in the early 2000s as the head of the FBI’s Enron Task Force, which was formed while Mueller was FBI director. The team, under Weissmann’s leadership, employed some of the same tactics he’d used to fight organized crime: convincing lower-level employees to flip against bigger fish. Ultimately, the investigation was the most complex white-collar criminal probe in FBI history and resulted in the convictions of 22 people, including Enron’s CEO, COO, CFO, and others.
Weissmann’s memoir about the Russia probe offers the most detailed window yet into the inner workings of Mueller’s team as it conducted an unprecedented investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether the sitting president’s campaign conspired with a foreign power to tilt the race in his favor.
Insider conducted a wide-ranging interview with Weissmann about the most challenging aspects of his job; how tackling financial fraud and organized crime made him uniquely qualified to delve into the Trump-Russia controversy; whether Russia was ultimately successful in its efforts to destabilize American democracy, and more.
Read the interview below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
You documented a slew of factors, both external and internal, that you said hampered your work. What was the most challenging aspect of the job for you?
There are two things that were really challenging, because they were things that neither I, nor anyone else, had ever experienced before in conducting a criminal investigation: the president had the power to fire us, and the president had the power to pardon people.
One of the most dramatic moments in the book and in real life was bringing the case against [former deputy Trump campaign chairman] Rick Gates and the process of getting his cooperation. We realized there was a huge tug-of-war, where people were whispering in his ear, “Even though there’s a strong case against you, on the other hand, you may get pardoned.” And normally, you don’t have that kind of challenge. That was the last time we really won that battle in terms of convincing somebody to cooperate in spite of the pardons being dangled.
Another challenge was the president’s ability to fire us, and how that affected a decision early on with respect to whether we were going to do a full financial investigation of the president and any ties he might have to Russia. It’s useful for people to think about that trade-off and the decision — which I agreed with — that special counsel Mueller had to make early on: do you go forward with that type of investigation at the risk of being fired?
Instead, Team R, the Russia team that [Mueller prosecutor] Jeannie Rhee led, had these two incredible indictments that proved what Russia was doing by trying to interfere in the election and supporting Trump. And our team, Team M, shared that [former Trump campaign chairman] Paul Manafort was giving internal Trump campaign polling data to a Russian operative. There were all sorts of incredible things that agents and analysts and prosecutors put together.
And that’s because of a trade-off we made in terms of risking getting fired. But we needed to revisit that decision as the investigation went forward. At some point, it was necessary — if it was up to me, which it wasn’t — to do a financial investigation, even though we could have been fired. Because at some point, you just have to say, if we’re fired, we’re fired.
The decision not to conduct a financial investigation was especially surprising because you write in your book that Mueller himself voiced a suspicion, after Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, that Trump had financial interests linked to Russia.
When you think about why people do things, money can be a motivator. That seemed like a logical thing to explore.
And if we were not going to look at it, our report should have been clearer as to what we did and did not look at. One of the things we had to deal with — going back to your first question about what challenges we faced — was that once we handed in our report, the attorney general severely mischaracterized it. He was able to give the impression that we, for 22 months, had done an exhaustive search and investigation of everything.
And I think it would have been harder for him to say that if we had been clear about what didn’t do. That’s part of the reason why I wrote the book. I wanted to be clear-eyed about the challenges externally, and also hold up a mirror to what I did, what our successes were, how we met those challenges, and things that we could do differently.
There were several high-profile cases you worked on that you mentioned in your book, like the Enron investigation and the cases against the New York mafia bosses John Gotti and Vinny Gigante. How did these cases shape your approach to the Russia probe and the Manafort investigation?
That’s a great question, no one’s asked me that. When I think about Enron, it’s really easy to say that case is about Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, the three leaders of the Enron Corporation, and their wrongdoing. And it’s true they did a lot of terrible things and they were held to account. But I think the bigger picture is how they were able to get away with that, given all of the people who were supposed to be watchdogs, whether it’s accountants, lawyers, compliance people, and other people at Enron.
The big picture lesson was about enablers: people who were either complicit or closed their eyes. And that was very much an analogy that could be used in connection with the situation we’re in now. We’re seeing that a lot of the guardrails that we thought protected our system of checks and balances are more norms than things that are written in stone. So that’s one reason why I talk about Enron.
The other is to point out a tool that we didn’t have in the special counsel’s investigation. Normally as a US attorney, you have the authority to look at all of the crimes that somebody committed, and very often, your toehold into a case is not direct. I did a case involving the Colombo family where our first real leverage into the case was somebody who committed a drug crime that was unrelated to the Colombo war that was going on. In Enron, one of our big breaks was discovering that Andrew Fastow’s right-hand man committed crimes unrelated to Enron. That gave us the ability to charge him and use that to gain his cooperation.
The relevance of special counsel is that in the appointment order from the acting attorney general [establishing Mueller’s office], we didn’t have that kind of authority to look at things that might be unrelated to the core mandate.
I had a little bit more authority in Team M, because the way the appointment order read, I could look at any crimes related to — and I’m paraphrasing — Mr. Manafort’s work in Ukraine because of its connection to Russia. So I had more ability to use the traditional tools that had been successful in making cases against Enron executives and mobsters.
Do you think Trump will pardon Manafort after the election?
I don’t know. The Constitution says the president has the power to pardon. But I don’t know, and I’m not going to speculate about what the president’s going to do. It’s public that Mr. Manafort was released to home confinement purportedly because of the pandemic. I think there’s some issue as to whether he met the criteria for that release that may lessen the present concern over a pardon, but that’s not my issue to speculate on.
You wrote in your book that the work Team R did — investigating Russia’s interference in 2016 — was the most important thread of the inquiry. How, if at all, do you think Russia’s tactics have changed this time around?
I was just floored by the work that Jeannie’s team did. It was truly amazing. And in terms of the lasting legacy of the special counsel investigation, it was so important to have documented what Russia was doing and how it was doing it, to say that in black and white.
I don’t want to get into the details of how I think foreign governments may be changing their approach because I don’t think that’s helpful to our ability to thwart that interference. I tried very hard in my book to explain what was done and how, but you don’t want to give up what’s called methods and means because it makes it easier for an adversary to know how to avoid detection.
Recent media reports have said that intelligence about Russia’s ongoing interference is being suppressed or manipulated because of Trump’s sensitivity on this issue. What are the risks associated with that?
One of the grave things that’s happened in the last few years is the politicization of intelligence agencies and information. When I was at the FBI under Director Mueller, one of the palpable things you felt was just how apolitical the institution was. It didn’t matter whether somebody was a Democrat or Republican, didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, it was just about the facts.
During the special counsel investigation, the first and most important part of our work was to document what Russia had done in attacking our election. That’s something that everybody should be able to get behind. I analogized it to Pearl Harbor. Obviously, Pearl Harbor had a loss of life, and I’m not trying to say that’s comparable, but in terms of the effect and undermining our democracy, it’s arguably much worse.
And that, unfortunately, has been tied to the second issue, which is, did anybody in the United States conspire or were they complicit in that effort. The second question should not affect the first one. It’s wrong to think about being attacked by foreign government in the light of whether that undermines someone’s legitimacy as president. That’s not the issue. The issue is how do we protect our democracy from foreign interference, something which the founders were very concerned about and in the cyber age, we need to be vigilant about.
Domestic disinformation is on the rise right now and a lot of it is coming from the president himself. How big of a threat do you think that is to the upcoming election? Is it something the DOJ and FBI should focus more on?
That’s a little outside my purview and outside of what we did in the special counsel investigation. But one thing I write in my book, as an aside, is that it’s against the law to lie in a material way to federal investigators, but it’s not a crime for politicians to say something that’s false to the press.
I’m not saying the law should be different. There are a lot of First Amendment issues at play and you don’t want prosecutors to be the arbiters of that kind of political discourse, and there’s a judgment that can be made at the ballot box. But as a prosecutor, it’s curious that you have that difference.
I understand why it’s not illegal for politicians to do that, but it has become a consequence that something that can be more pernicious doesn’t have a natural check, other than the intelligence and wisdom of the electorate.
And I’m not addressing that to any particular politician because it’s a systemic issue.
Since the special counsel’s office issued its report, the DOJ under Barr’s leadership has tried to dismiss its own case against Michael Flynn and sought a more lenient sentence for Roger Stone. What was your reaction to these developments?
There are a number of things that are extremely concerning to me about the rule of law at the Department of Justice. It’s part of the reason for the title of my book. The concern I have with what the attorney general’s done in the Flynn case and in the Stone case, or even just releasing Manafort under a standard that’s different for other people, is that he’s not applying the rules equally to everyone, whether the person is a friend or foe of the White House.
No one is saying the attorney general doesn’t have the power and ability and right, if he thinks something’s wrong, to overrule people who work for him. The issue is what he’s doing. In the Flynn case, for example, the legal standard that the government put forward there with respect to materiality is directly contrary to the materiality standard that the government argues for every other case.
That is the antithesis of the rule of law. And as somebody who worked with the Department of Justice for over 20 years, under Republicans and Democrats who I completely respect, it’s very dispiriting to see what’s happened.
Do you believe that Russia has been successful in its efforts to destabilize American democracy?
That’s a complicated question because causality is a really hard thing to determine. I was a history major, and one of the things that historians have moved away from is trying to deal with what causes something because it can be so many different things.
Russia definitely has contributed. And there obviously would have to be receptivity within our own society to those messages. So it could be a situation where they’re taking advantage and exploiting and exacerbating something that’s already there. But the extent of that is something I don’t have an answer to.
Do you believe it’s something that the president is enabling?
I think there are a lot of people who are not doing enough to combat foreign interference in our elections.