‘She mas­ters the facts of ev­ery­thing’

Strauss emerges as act­ing US at­tor­ney after Trump fir­ing

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Ben­jamin Weiser, Ni­cole Hong and Ben Prot­ess

Wed­nes­day, June 24, 2020

NEW YORK — One Fri­day af­ter­noon in Au­gust 2018, lawyers for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s long­time fixer, Michael Co­hen, made a fi­nal bid for le­niency to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Man­hat­tan. He was fac­ing charges in­clud­ing that he paid hush money on Trump’s be­half to an adult film star dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign.

Au­drey Strauss, one of two se­nior pros­e­cu­tors in the room, lis­tened silently to the pitch, smil­ing at the lawyers but let­ting oth­ers do the talk­ing, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the meet­ing said. Over the next few days, how­ever, Strauss played a key role in the mo­men­tous de­ci­sion to pro­ceed against Co­hen, a move that in­fu­ri­ated the White House.

Now, Strauss, a 72-yearold for­mer de­fense lawyer known for her un­der­stated style, has been forced into the spot­light, tak­ing over as the act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney in the sto­ried prose­cu­tor’s of­fice, which con­tin­ues to find it­self in the pres­i­dent’s cross hairs. She will lead po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions into peo­ple in Trump’s or­bit in the run-up to the Nov. 3 elec­tion, and her de­ci­sions will be scru­ti­nized.

Strauss’ ap­point­ment hap­pened with dizzy­ing speed.

In the span of 24 chaotic hours this week­end, Trump and his at­tor­ney gen­eral, Wil­liam Barr, had tried to oust her boss, Ge­of­frey Ber­man, and re­place him with one of Barr’s al­lies.

When Ber­man ini­tially re­fused to step down, the plan fell apart.

Trump ended up fir­ing Ber­man on Satur­day, leav­ing Strauss — Ber­man’s top deputy — to emerge from the wreck­age as the of­fice’s new leader.

In that role, she will over­see a num­ber of in­ves­ti­ga­tions that have up­set the pres­i­dent, in­clud­ing the in­quiry into whether Rudy Gi­u­liani, Trump’s lawyer, broke lob­by­ing laws in his deal­ings in Ukraine.

Dur­ing the last two years as a top su­per­vi­sor in the South­ern District of New York, Strauss has be­come known for tak­ing a more cau­tious ap­proach than some of her pre­de­ces­sors when weigh­ing charg­ing de­ci­sions, for­mer col­leagues said. She spent three decades as a de­fense lawyer fac­ing off against pros­e­cu­tors in white-col­lar cases, they said, and she is at­tuned to holes in the gov­ern­ment’s ev­i­dence.

Her ap­proach — dis­till­ing ar­gu­ments, weigh­ing the ev­i­dence and then rul­ing de­ci­sively — was ev­i­dent in dis­cus­sions over the Co­hen case and is typ­i­cal for Strauss, ac­cord­ing to lawyers who have worked with her for decades.

Long­time friends say Strauss, a reg­is­tered Demo­crat, is un­likely to be in­flu­enced by po­lit­i­cal mo­tives.

“She is to­tally non­po­lit­i­cal in her de­ci­sion-mak­ing process,” said Jed Rakoff, a fed­eral judge in Man­hat­tan who worked with Strauss in the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in the 1970s and later at two pri­vate law firms.

“I’ve never met any­one who is more im­mune to the pas­sions of the mo­ment,” said Rakoff, who of­fi­ci­ated the wed­ding of Strauss’ son.

Strauss be­comes the sec­ond woman to lead the South­ern District in the of­fice’s 230-year his­tory after Mary Jo White, who led the of­fice from 1993 to 2002.

“She mas­ters the facts of ev­ery­thing she ever does,” White said of Strauss. “She fig­ures out how ev­ery­thing fits into the pic­ture, and she’s not sat­is­fied un­til she knows ev­ery­thing she can pos­si­bly know.”

Barr had an­nounced that the pres­i­dent in­tended to nom­i­nate Jay Clay­ton, head of the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion, as Ber­man’s per­ma­nent re­place­ment.

But Strauss is likely to re­main the act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney un­til at least the elec­tion.

The Se­nate goes out of ses­sion in Au­gust and is un­likely to hold a nom­i­na­tion hear­ing for any per­ma­nent re­place­ment be­fore Novem­ber.

Barr had ini­tially an­nounced in a news re­lease Fri­day night that Craig Carpen­ito, the U.S. at­tor­ney in New Jer­sey, would be­come the act­ing head in the South­ern District.

But the de­ci­sion caused an up­roar.

Ber­man re­fused to step down un­til Satur­day, when Strauss was named in­stead as his tem­po­rary re­place­ment.

When Ber­man took over as U.S. at­tor­ney in 2018, he brought Strauss out of re­tire­ment to be­come his se­nior coun­sel and later his deputy. She had worked as a South­ern District prose­cu­tor from 1976 to 1983, try­ing more than 20 cases and ris­ing to chief of crim­i­nal ap­peals and, later, the se­cu­ri­ties fraud unit.

Strauss and Ber­man have known each other for at least three decades. They worked to­gether in the late 1980s on the in­de­pen­dent coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Iran-Con­tra scan­dal.

“She is the smartest, most prin­ci­pled and ef­fec­tive lawyer with whom I have ever had the priv­i­lege of work­ing,” Ber­man said Satur­day when he an­nounced he would leave the of­fice.

Strauss’ hus­band, John “Rusty” Wing, a white-col­lar de­fense lawyer, is a reg­is­tered Re­pub­li­can, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent records from the New York state Board of Elec­tions. Their son, who pre­vi­ously worked as Gov. An­drew Cuomo’s press sec­re­tary, is mar­ried to a se­nior aide to Cuomo.

Cam­paign fi­nance records show that Strauss is a long­time donor to Demo­cratic can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2007 and Barack Obama’s re­elec­tion cam­paign in 2012. She con­tributed in 2006 to Joe Bi­den’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, RS.C., praised Strauss, say­ing she was “widely viewed as a highly com­pe­tent, highly ca­pa­ble deputy U.S. at­tor­ney with the knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to hit the ground run­ning.”

On Fri­day, Gra­ham, chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, had sig­naled that he would al­low New York’s Demo­cratic sen­a­tors to block Trump’s first choice, Clay­ton, to re­place Ber­man.

Lisa Zorn­berg, a for­mer chief of the South­ern District’s crim­i­nal di­vi­sion, said Strauss was an in­spi­ra­tion to younger lawyers, par­tic­u­larly women. Strauss once in­vited the of­fice’s fe­male pros­e­cu­tors to her home in Brook­lyn and talked proudly about how it had once been owned by one of the first fe­male physi­cians in the bor­ough.

“She’s a per­son of vast in­tel­lect and ex­pe­ri­ence from ev­ery an­gle as a lawyer,” Zorn­berg said.

Strauss was born and raised in Philadel­phia with an older brother, who re­tired from NASA, hav­ing been a doc­tor for as­tro­nauts, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who know her.

Her par­ents were the chil­dren of Rus­sian im­mi­grants — a shoe sales­man and a stay-at-home mother — and they died when she was young. Fam­ily friends took her in and made her part of their fam­ily; they re­main close to this day.

HIROKO MASUIKE/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ge­of­frey Ber­man calls Au­drey Strauss the most “ef­fec­tive lawyer with whom I have ever had the priv­i­lege of work­ing.”

Strauss

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