Trump defense struggles in city with Mueller connections
‘Swamp’ holds power
The Trump-Russia investigation, with its dynamic cast of judges, defenders and prosecutors, can have the look of an exclusive club.
Checks of official biographies and legal sources reveal a maze of professional connections that, while not unethical, show that the Washington establishment thrives inside the Justice Department. What President Trump called “the swamp” is often controlling legal maneuvers — and possibly his fate.
“Personnel is power in D.C., and Trump advocated an Andrew Jackson takeover [of] the government with half measures and bad hiring,” said a former Justice Department lawyer who asked not to be named for career reasons.
When defense counsel Eric A. Dubelier filed an argument Dec. 20 for his Russian client, he attacked special counsel Robert Mueller, the top Russia
investigation prosecutor and longtime Washington figure, by harking back to a major Justice Department conviction that failed.
On the surface, the reference to the defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen appeared to be pure legal arguing.
But a closer look shows that the U.S. District Court judge to whom Mr. Dubelier was arguing, Dabney Friedrich, has a connection to the Andersen case. Her husband, Matthew W. Friedrich, was one of the lead prosecutors. He persuaded the jury to convict Arthur Andersen of obstruction of justice in the Enron financial scandal.
His co-counsel was Andrew Weissmann, who today is one of Mr. Mueller’s senior prosecutors.
The Arthur Andersen case ended in failure for the Friedrich-Weissmann, et al., task force. In 2005, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction in a 9-0 ruling, essentially saying there was no crime.
In his Dec. 20 argument, Mr. Dubelier chastised the Mueller team for withholding evidence on national security grounds from his client, Concord Management and Consulting. Judge Friedrich, one of Mr. Trump’s early District Court nominees, so far has sided with Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Dubelier accused Mr. Mueller of trying to gain a temporary political victory without worrying about an appeals reversal. He specifically cited the ghost of Arthur Andersen. In essence, he was criticizing the judge’s husband, Mr. Friedrich, now a corporate lawyer, and Mr. Weissmann, without mentioning their names.
The Judge Friedrich connection is an example of how the lives of Justice lawyers intersect.
Russia investigation connections
● U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell oversees the Mueller grand jury. She recently granted the special counsel’s request to extend the jury another six months.
Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, Judge Howell worked alongside Mr. Weissmann in Brooklyn in the early 1990s when both were assistant U.S. attorneys.
Writing of the Howell-Weissmann friendship in 2017, the Daily Beast said, “Federal prosecutors often form close, life-long relationships with their fellow assistant U.S. attorneys.”
They not only prosecuted together, but they also wrote together. Judge Howell and Mr. Weissmann co-authored a New York Law Journal article in June 2006 on obstruction of justice.
Judge Howell would have to approve for release any report the grand jury writes.
● FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, a Trump appointee, is an integral player in the Mueller investigation. His agents do the groundwork, trying to create cases for perjury, obstruction of justice or Russia election interference. Agents recommend to Mr. Mueller whether to prosecute.
Mr. Wray also played an important role in Mr. Weissmann’s career.
In 2004, as assistant U.S. attorney general, Mr. Wray promoted Mr. Weissmann to chief of the Enron task force. In a press release, Mr. Wray praised Mr. Weissmann for winning convictions against Arthur Andersen and five Merrill Lynch executives. The Merrill Lynch case, like Arthur Andersen, also lay in shambles once appellate judges were finished. The same legal problem: There wasn’t a crime.
● Mr. Wray is a longtime friend of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another Trump appointee. Mr. Rosenstein, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, is the man who created the Robert Mueller express train when he appointed him special counsel in May 2017. Mr. Rosenstein didn’t consult first with the White House.
Mr. Wray signed an endorsement letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee for Mr. Rosenstein as deputy. Mr. Rosenstein backed Mr. Wray to succeed FBI Director James B. Comey, who was fired by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Wray’s FBI general counsel is Dana Boente, who came from Mr. Rosenstein’s office as an assistant attorney general.
“Trump would have been better served air-dropping random Kansans into D.C.,” said the former Justice Department lawyer. “Instead, he empowered Rod and Rod’s cronies.”
● One of Mr. Mueller’s first moves was to bring in Mr. Weissmann, who then led Justice’s fraud division. The special counsel quickly assigned Mr. Weissmann the job of prosecuting former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and getting him to talk.
Mr. Mueller has a long working relationship with Mr. Weissmann. As FBI director, he appointed him as FBI special counsel and then general counsel in the 2000s.
Mr. Mueller also coaxed Jeannie Rhee from Wilmer Hale, his just-vacated law firm.
She, like Mr. Weissmann, has ties to Mr. Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. Ms. Rhee defended the Clinton Foundation and Mrs. Clinton in two civil cases. She contributed the maximum amount to the Democrat’s campaign. Mr. Weissmann attended what was supposed to be Mrs. Clinton’s victory party in New York.
● Former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who wrote a string of anti-Trump messages to his lover, provided a peek into how some agents view judges. He suggested in one missive that he invite U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras to a “cocktail” party. Mr. Strzok sent the July 25, 2016, text just as he was opening an investigation into suspected Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
Mr. Strzok’s messaging included a discussion that Judge Contreras sits on the panel that approves wiretaps, known as Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. “Rudy is on the FISC! Did you know that?” texted his lover, then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
“We talked about it before and after,” Mr. Strzok responded. “I need to get together with him.”
Mr. Strzok told the Justice Department inspector general that no such party was held.
Judge Contreras, without explanation, suddenly recused himself from the Michael Flynn perjury case in December 2017 after he was assigned as Flynn’s judge and accepted his guilty plea.
● Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz investigated how the department handled the Clinton email scandal. He now is investigating how the FBI relied on a Democratic Party-financed dossier to target the Trump campaign and obtain wiretaps.
Mr. Horowitz sat from 2003 to 2008 on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which issues guidelines to judges and can be a springboard to judgeships and other top appointments. Among his fellow commissioners: Judges Beryl A. Howell and Dabney Friedrich.
● Mr. Trump’s pick to head the Justice Department, William Barr, has expressed complete confidence in Mr. Mueller.
He should know the special counsel well. They are “best friends,” the Daily Mail reported.
“Their wives attend the same Bible study together, and Mueller has attended the weddings of two of Barr’s daughters,” the Mail said.
The former Justice Department lawyer, who knows many of its players and who spoke to The Washington Times, was asked to assess the personal and profession connections.
“As an outsider, Trump needed to turn this town upside down but failed to do so and made money for all the wrong people,” the lawyer said. “The result of his bad hiring is a huge, gaping self-inflicted wound, with collateral damage to loyalists that has made him look weak and vulnerable to the insiders of the place he said he was going to drain.”
Judge Friedrich and her husband were Justice Department prosecutors when they met and married in 2001. Both traveled in blue-blood Republican circles. Judge Friedrich had a stint in the George W. Bush White House.
“I have spent a large portion of my career as a federal prosecutor,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee in her confirmation hearing.
Mr. Friedrich left the Justice Department in 2009. He is now general counsel for the technology firm Cognizant.
That the Concord Management and Consulting case is being contested is surprising. Legal pundits suggested that none of the Russian individuals or firms indicted by Mr. Mueller’s grand jury would appear in Washington to face charges.
But Concord, which is accused of financing Russian social media trolling during the election, did appear — in the person of defense attorney Eric A. Dubelier.
Mr. Dubelier has launched an aggressive courtroom strategy against Mr. Mueller — and the judge.
Like Judge Friedrich, Mr. Dubelier is an alumnus of the Justice Department’s prosecutor class. He is incensed that the judge is backing Mr. Mueller’s position that he can keep hidden sensitive pieces of evidence so it won’t fall into the hands of Moscow.
Mr. Dubelier has a flair for injecting colorful prose into otherwise legalistic motions. In his Dec. 20 brief, he cited the specter of Arthur Andersen by accusing Mr. Mueller of playing politics with Concord.
“Specially, the short-term political value of a conviction far outweighs a reversal by a higher court years from now,” he said. “This tactic, though rare, is not new.”
His Jan. 4 filing triggered Judge Friedrich’s anger. He called her evidence decisions “onerous and unprecedented.” He quoted a line from the frat-boy comedy “Animal House” to describe motives for what he believes is possible misconduct by Mr. Mueller’s team.
At a Monday hearing, Judge Friedrich vented — and defended Mr. Mueller.
“Meritless personal attacks on the special counsel, his attorneys, other members of the trial team, and firewall counsel will play no role in my decision on your motion, nor will inappropriate and what you clearly believe to be clever quotes from movies, cartoons, and elsewhere,” the judge said. “Your strategy is ineffective. It’s undermining your credibility in this courthouse. I will say it plain and simple: Knock it off.”
Mr. Dubelier didn’t back off. The next day, he filed a brief accusing Judge Friedrich of triggering a wave of hate messages in emails and voicemails against him and his co-counsel.
“For a reason unknown to undersigned counsel, the court [judge] took it upon itself to defend the special counsel, creating at a minimum an appearance of bias or prejudice in favor of the government,” he said.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, has deep professional connections that show the Washington legal establishment thrives inside the Justice Department.