Special counsel Robert Mueller has not publicly uttered a single word about the direction of his high-stakes Russia probe.
But the way he’s assigned the 17 federal prosecutors on his team — pieced together by POLITICO from court filings and interviews with lawyers familiar with the Russia cases — gives insight into how he’s conducting the investigation and what might be coming next.
His most experienced attorneys have discrete targets, such as former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and current White House aides. Mueller’s longtime chief of staff is coordinating all the lawyers, including some who cover multiple topics. Select FBI special agents have been tapped to question witnesses.
Spearheading the criminal case against Manafort and his longtime deputy Rick Gates are three prosecutors schooled in money laundering, fraud, foreign bribery and organized crime: Andrew Weissmann, Greg Andres and Kyle Freeny.
And at the center of the investigation into Flynn is Jeannie Rhee, a former Obama-era deputy assistant attorney general who most recently worked with Mueller at the WilmerHale law firm — and whose name has so far appeared only on publicly available court documents relating to the guilty plea of former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. Assisting Rhee on the Flynn case is Zainab Ahmad, an assistant U.S. attorney from New York with a specialty in prosecuting and collecting evidence in international criminal and terrorism cases — and whose name hasn’t yet appeared in Russia-related court filings at all.
Mueller’s org chart pulls back the curtain on how the special counsel’s relatively small team is handling an array of investigative targets ranging from campaign contacts with Russian operatives to possibly Trump himself.
“Division of labor is essential here,” said Samuel Buell, a Duke University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Weissmann in the prosecution of Enron executives in the early 2000s. “There’s got to be some carving up of this thing into nests of facts.”
Mueller’s investigation began with a focus on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, but he’s free to pursue any crimes he finds. Former Justice officials said the special counsel’s team needs to be flexible as it scrutinizes Trump aides’ contacts with Russians, Manafort’s overseas lobbying, Flynn’s firing due to his failure to disclose conversations with Russian officials, and the president’s decision to oust FBI Director James Comey. They could cast a still wider net; Trump and his lawyers have warned Mueller to stay away from the president’s real estate deals.
One lawyer in Mueller’s office has indicated publicly that the different parts of the special counsel’s work are interconnected. During Papadopoulos’ plea agreement hearing in October, Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky urged the federal judge to restrict Freedom of Information Act access to the court files because “there’s a large-scale ongoing investigation of which this case is a small part.”
While Mueller has assigned prosecutors to some of his biggest targets — some of whom, like Flynn, have not yet been publicly charged with a crime — they are still pulled in many directions. Rhee, the lead lawyer assigned to Manafort, was listed as the top attorney in the criminal charges and plea deal unsealed last month in the Papadopoulos case. Brandon Van Grack, a DOJ national security prosecutor who handled the Flynn investigation before Mueller’s appointment, represented the special counsel at the Papadopoulos arraignment hearing in July in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, the day after the Trump campaign aide’s arrest at Dulles International Airport.
One former DOJ prosecutor familiar with Mueller’s efforts said the special counsel’s lawyers don’t appear to be arranged in any kind of “rigidly hierarchical” manner. “I don’t discount the fact there might be an org chart in a drawer somewhere,” the former prosecutor said. “But it’s far less relevant to these cases. … I’d fully expect everyone on this team is mature enough and skilled enough to take contributions as they come. It’s not a case of, ‘I’m in charge. You’re second in command.’”
Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former FBI chief of staff, is helping coordinate the multiple lines of inquiry. Zebley has worked as an FBI special agent on counterterrorism cases, a top lawyer in Justice’s National Security Division and private practice work at WilmerHale on crisis management and cybersecurity issues.
Mueller’s liaison to the White House is James Quarles, a former Watergate prosecutor who has helped arrange an ongoing series of interviews with current and former Trump aides. Quarles was involved in the questioning of former press secretary Sean Spicer during a daylong interview last month, according to a person with knowledge of the interview, and he’s a primary point of contact for Trump’s personal attorney, John Dowd, as well as Ty Cobb, the lead White House lawyer handling the Russia investigation.
For all the complicated legal questions Mueller faces — from interpreting federal criminal statutes to the special counsel’s own boundaries for pursuing an obstruction of justice case against a sitting president — there’s Michael Dreeben, the deputy solicitor general and widely recognized criminal law expert who has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court.
“Dreeben is everywhere,” said the former federal prosecutor familiar with Mueller’s efforts. “Anything involving law will involve Dreeben.”
Mueller’s work isn’t just confined to his team of prosecutors, which special counsel spokesman Peter Carr said grew last week to 17 with the addition of an unnamed lawyer.
The FBI, which had opened an investigation into Russian election meddling in July 2016, continues to play a prominent behind-the-scenes role. FBI agents helped execute the no-knock, pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home this summer, and they’ve taken the lead questioning some of the key witnesses. A pair of special agents interviewed Papadopoulos about his Russia contacts in January after the president’s inauguration, a session that last month prompted the filing of a guilty plea on a charge of lying to the FBI, according to an affidavit filed by Robert Gibbs, an FBI agent and veteran counterespionage investigator.
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