Skip to main content

A Lead Prosecutor On Mueller's Team Weighs In On Where The Investigation Fell Short

Since the release of the Mueller report in April 2019, it's been analyzed, praised and criticized — and cited by President Trump as proof that there was no collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.

Andrew Weissmann was one of the lead prosecutors on special counsel Robert Mueller's team. In his new book, Where Law Ends, Weissmann looks back on where the Mueller investigation succeeded — and where it fell short.


Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2020: Interview with Andrew Weissmann.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.

Since the release of the Mueller report a year and a half ago, it's been analyzed, praised and criticized and cited by President Trump as proof that there was no collusion with Russia and no obstruction of justice in the special counsel investigation. Our guest, Andrew Weissmann, has a new book that's both illuminating and sharply critical of the investigation. And he's in a position to know something about the subject. Weissmann was one of the lead prosecutors on the Mueller team. Weissmann shares fascinating accounts of the work of the investigators, who he says were sharp, experienced and determined. But he argues that at key moments, Mueller was timid when he should have been aggressive in getting information and testimony. And he says the report should have been far clearer in its conclusions about the president's conduct.

Andrew Weissmann is a veteran federal prosecutor who handled major mob cases in New York, directed the task force investigating the collapse of Enron and served as general counsel for the FBI when Mueller was its director. Weissmann's new book is "Where Law Ends: Inside The Mueller Investigation."

Well, Andrew Weissmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. When did you decide that you had to write this book?

ANDREW WEISSMANN: The moment where I knew that I was going to put down on paper what had happened was March 24, 2019. And you might be asking, why do I remember that exact moment and that date? And it's because that's the date that Attorney General Barr issued what was purported to be, by him, a four-page summary of our report. And it was so shocking to me because the four-page letter bore no resemblance to our report in substance or in conclusions. And I realized at that point that it was going to be a real benefit to the American public to have an insider record as candidly as possible what had happened and what it was like to investigate the president for 22 months, what were the challenges and what were the challenges that we met well and what were challenges that I thought we could have done better.

DAVIES: You'd had experience working with Bob Mueller. Tell us a little bit about his style.

WEISSMANN: Bob Mueller is a wonderful leader. What I think I'd like people to understand, because there's a persona that's been created, I think, by the media that he is sort of a classic, cold WASP (laughter) - and while there is a side of him that's like that, he is, in fact, quite warm and just a wonderful person to deal with. But having said that, there also is a side of him that is a meticulous sort of trenchant thinker and is constantly asking questions.

A story about Bob Mueller that everyone at the FBI knows is right after the 9/11 attacks, someone was reporting on the latest that had been uncovered in an investigation. And in his typical style, he was asking question after question after question, and the investigators were answering them. And finally, the director said, and what color was the car? And his point was not that he really cared about the color, it was driving home that you needed to be meticulous and details matter. And that is classic Bob Mueller.

DAVIES: Yeah, he said he wanted people on the team with pizzazz. And by that, he didn't mean, you know, flair. He meant people who would be aggressive. He wanted people to get information and get after it quickly. He also felt it was important that the product of the investigation be the work itself - prosecutions, not bluster. Right?

WEISSMANN: Absolutely. You know, he is all about the work and make - letting the facts speak for themselves. You know, we're in an age where adjectives tend to be used instead of facts and logical argument. And that is just not Bob Mueller. It is all about the facts.

DAVIES: And when you joined the special counsel investigative team, you were one of three - I guess, three team leaders. The prosecutors were organized into three teams. One of them would look into the - to Russian interference, and another would look into the issue of obstruction of justice. Yours looks - was specifically focused on Paul Manafort. Why one team just for Manafort?

WEISSMANN: The Team M - we had very creative names, Team M for Team Manafort and Team R for Team Russia - were in many ways the same in that Team M was a component of the Russian investigation. But it was carved out because, at the time, it appeared that there was a lot to do and a lot to focus on. And it seemed quite promising. So everything Manafort related was carved out. And as Jeannie and I - Jeannie Rhee, who led the Team R investigation - looked at it, we looked at this as to whether the Team Manafort investigation and the Team R - Russia investigation - were ever going to merge, meaning, would there be a point where Manafort was, in fact, the link connecting what was clear Russian interference in the election to efforts by Mr. Manafort or people working for him?

DAVIES: There was a lot of effort to look into the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort and, I believe, Jared Kushner with the Russian attorney at which - you know, this has been widely reported - there was a suggestion that there was information about Hillary Clinton. When you looked at the efforts - and you, I mean the investigators - looked at the efforts by the president and his team to explain the meeting and make it seem benign, did you conclude that he and others had lied about what had happened and had withheld documents that would have illuminated the process?

WEISSMANN: There's no question that the statement that was put out by the White House was, to put it charitably, misleading. To say that the meeting was primarily about adoptions is a misleading statement. The meeting, as we know from all of the witnesses who testified about it as well as the written communications, was the - Russians coming to a meeting with Paul Manafort, the president's son and Jared Kushner to provide what they described as dirt with respect to Hillary Clinton. And Don Jr. responded that he would love that information.

So the statement that this was primarily just about adoptions is a misleading statement. For people to understand what's really going on, to say some things about adoptions is really to say it was about the Magnitsky Act. The history is that the Magnitsky Act was imposing sanctions on Russia. And Russia, of course, hated that act. And what they did in retaliation after the United States passed the Magnitsky Act is they said, we are not going to allow any American adoptions of Russian babies. So to say that the Russians came because they only wanted to talk about adoptions is masking what was really going on, which was the Russians were asking to have the Magnitsky Act repealed.

DAVIES: And were there documents that suggested that the president in his statements had misled investigators about this?

ANDREW WEISSMAN: Yes, there was - as we set out in our report, there was a lot of evidence about the president personally being involved and how the press release would read to make it as benign as possible even though the facts were anything but benign because what you had here unquestionably in writing was Russia offering assistance to the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign saying, yes, we are willing to accept it. Those are the clear underlying facts, but the statement was one that was trying to mask that.

DAVIES: Now, when you looked at this, you write in the book that the team that was working on this decided they could not conclude that the deception here amounted to obstruction of justice. And you write that you disagreed with this timorous conclusion of your earnest and well-meaning colleagues. Why?

WEISSMAN: One of the grounds that was put forth for why this could be viewed not as obstruction was that it was a press statement that was only aimed at the public and not at either the congressional investigation or our investigation. Under the law, a statement that is solely to mislead the public, while that may seem like something that should be a crime, it isn't. People are free to lie to you, for instance, without it being a criminal act. But what I disagreed with is the argument that the statement that the president and his team put out being something that was solely aimed at public opinion as opposed to being aimed at Congress or our investigation. And if any part of it was aimed at affecting our investigation or a congressional investigation, then that is something that is covered by a criminal statute.

DAVIES: You say that this is a theme that would develop where the team would pull its punches, not be as aggressive as it should be, in part because there were ongoing threats that Trump would fire Mueller and shut down the investigation. How seriously did Mueller and you and others in the team take that threat?

WEISSMAN: We had no idea initially just how serious it was. We didn't know initially about the conversations between Don McGahn and the president in June of 2017. So just as we were starting where just as we were getting off the ground, the president was interested in pulling the plug. In my book, what I try and talk about is what is it like to investigate someone for 22 months where every day you go into the office and you don't know if that's going to be your last day? And unlike other cases that I've investigated involving Enron or organized crime, here the person that you're investigating has the ability to fire you. Enron executives and organized crime figures don't have that. That can be extremely destabilizing. And one way that it was very destabilizing - and I actually in the least initially agreed with the judgment - was having to do with the investigation of the president's finances. Early on, we issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank in connection with Paul Manafort's finances, and the White House got wind of that and demanded to know whether we were investigating the president's finances. As you recall, he had very publicly said that was a red line, that if there was an investigation to his finances, that was something that was intolerable and should not happen. Obviously, that's quite a red flag that there may be something there and obviously based on The New York Times reporting this past week, there may be a very good reason that the president drew that red line.

So early on with that admonition from the president with respect to Deutsche Bank, the decision was made that we will not cross that red line, that it wasn't worth it as we were first starting out to risk our being fired. And I could go along with that, and I thought that that was an unusual situation, but you could understand the tension between do you pull your punches early to proceed with the rest of the investigation or do you not? What I - my disagreement with the special counsel is that as we progressed, I thought that it was necessary to revisit that decision and that there should have been an investigation into the president's finances as it related to the Russia investigation.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Andrew Weissman. He is a veteran federal prosecutor who was one of three lead prosecutors in the Robert Mueller investigation. He has a new book called "Where Law Ends." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Andrew Weissman. He was one of three lead prosecutors in the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller. He has a new book about the experience. It's called "Where Law Ends: Inside The Mueller Investigation."

There was a moment, a really dramatic moment, in the investigation, and this was when the indictment of Russian hacking and election interference was filed with all that, you know, deeply troubling information. And this happens just as the president is going to Helsinki where he will meet with Vladimir Putin. And that leads to this bizarre news conference in which Trump is asked about Russian interference in the election. And he essentially accepts Putin's assurance that they weren't involved, doesn't see any reason why they would have been involved. And you tell a little story about Bob Mueller reacting to that, trying to figure out why Trump would do this. Share that with us.

WEISSMANN: That was such a surreal moment for all of us. A lot of us who have experience investigating cases are used to a defendant, when they're caught, just saying that didn't happen, or, I deny it. But that doesn't mean you go away. That's something that you test to see whether their denial is truthful or not. And here, we were all watching that, knowing that there was dispositive proof that Russia had interfered with the election. They had interfered not just to sow discord, but they had interfered to assist candidate Trump. And special counsel Mueller and we were listening to the news with our jaws somewhat agape as to why the president would be defending President Putin's view of this over the clear evidence of the intelligence community that was in black and white.

And the issue that Bob Mueller had was, you know, what's going on? And he specifically said and theorized that this was something that had to do with a financial incentive as to - you know, in trying to figure out what would motivate the president to be doing this. You know, does it have to do with finances? And based on The New York Times reporting from this past week, we see that the president has hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. And the question is, who is he in debt to? You also have Eric Trump in 2014 having said, we don't rely on American banks because we have plenty of funding that comes from Russian sources. So there was very good reason to have a more searching examination as to whether the president had financial ties to Russia and Russian oligarchs.

DAVIES: Right. So the investigation was supposed to look into Russian interference and whether the Trump campaign had collaborated or colluded with them in any way. And if there's a financial motive for President Trump to be close to Russia, it would seem that that would bring it within the charge of the investigation, right?

WEISSMANN: That's absolutely right. So one example of that is just taking the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. That's a pageant that was funded by a Russian oligarch, the Agalarovs, who also were the people who set up the June 2016 so-called Trump Tower meeting. And as we now know from The New York Times, there's something quite odd about that 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which is not only was it unusually profitable compared to other Miss Universe pageants, but Donald Trump himself made millions of dollars from it. But the Agalarovs, the Russian oligarchs who financed it, apparently made no money. So that raises, obviously, a host of concerns as an investigator as to what was different that could justify this being so different than prior Miss Universe pageants. But also, why was it that Donald Trump was making money, whereas the people who funded it were not making money?

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Andrew Weissmann. He's a veteran federal prosecutor who served as one of the lead attorneys in the special counsel investigation. His new book is "Where Law Ends: Inside The Mueller Investigation." He'll talk more about the investigation after this break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Andrew Weissman, one of the lead prosecutors in the special counsel investigation headed by Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His new book is "Where Law Ends: Inside The Muller Investigation." We were talking about how the question of whether to directly investigate President Trump's finances was one that Mueller and the team hesitated to pursue that issue. And over time, it ripened. I mean, there were revelations involving Michael Cohen and the payments to Stormy Daniels. And, you know, you could have gotten some information. You could have gotten President Trump's tax returns. And one thing that may have affected these judgments was the threat to fire Mueller and shut down the investigation. It hung over everyone all the time. There was another, which was that, at the time, the office was negotiating with the president's lawyers over getting him to agree to an interview. How did that factor into all of this?

WEISSMAN: There are two powers, I think, that it's important for your listeners to understand were very unusual in this case - two powers that the president had with respect to the investigation that do not exist in any other criminal investigation that any of us had ever been involved in. One is the ability to fire us, and the other is that the president had the ability to pardon people who we were trying to flip. That is, people we wanted to cooperate with us. And the president had the power to pardon, and he also had the power to dangle pardons. Those two powers were destabilizing and proposed real challenges to what we were doing.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, you describe how when you were, for example, dealing with Paul Manafort and Rich Gates, his associate, that it was clear that a possible pardon was on their minds, and it affected their decisions about how truthful to be. There was also this matter of trying to get the president to tell his story in an interview or in an appearance before the grand jury. How did that go? And did that affect decisions about how aggressive to be in seeking information?

WEISSMAN: So we had the power to issue a grand jury subpoena to the president. And Bob Mueller, correctly in my view, tried all sorts of ways to accommodate the president in ways that had been done in the past in other investigations like this, whether it's Ken Starr or others. But once the president basically said, I'm not doing it, the decision had to be made. In our case, were we going to issue this subpoena or not? In my view - and again this is where, you know, I was - I worked for Bob Mueller. He's a wonderful, incredible guy. And I just respectfully disagree with the ultimate call, which was that I think that we should have issued the subpoena if we were not getting the information we needed. My analogy to Bob Mueller, as I said, this is like "Hamlet" without Hamlet. And by that I meant, how do you determine the president's intent, what it is that he was seeking to do, without interviewing him and hearing from him and asking follow-up questions and not just getting written answers that are hedged and couched by lawyers and all sorts of so-called weasel words without really being able to do follow-ups?

And it is true that that may have led to litigation. It is also true that it may have led to our being fired. But by our pulling our punches and making that decision on our own, we owned it. We made that decision. It wasn't being made by anyone else. And at some point, the view I had and others had was, you know what? If we're fired, so be it. We have to do our job. Our job is to be as thorough as possible, and hearing from the president and being able to ask follow-up questions was something that was necessary in my view.

DAVIES: It was my impression in reading the book that you felt that the efforts to get him to agree to an on-the-record, under oath interview might have, again, caused the investigators to pull their punches in other ways, like not seeking his tax returns. And the fact is that Trump was publicly saying I can't wait to get in there and tell my story. The impression from the lawyers was probably that's not going to happen, right?

WEISSMAN: There was a complete disconnect between the president's public statements saying I'm happy to meet with Bob Mueller and give my story and, you know, what we were hearing from his counsel, which was that's never going to happen. And I recount the same thing was true with respect to Don Jr. We asked him to come to be interviewed, and he never did that, even though he found - you know, he had enough time to go to Fox News and answer their questions. But he, in fact, never sat for an interview with us. And to me, we, in our report, give two reasons for not subpoenaing the president. And I don't - that's where I probably have some of my sharpest disagreements with what we did because one of the reasons that we put in our report was that if you look at the decision as of March of 2019 not to subpoena the president, we say, well, if we did it at that point, it would have caused the investigation to drag out because it could have taken extensive time to litigate that. But I don't really think that's fair because the issue isn't whether we would issue the subpoena in March of 2019. We could have issued the subpoena a year before then. So the delay is true, but it didn't have to start so late.

The other reason we give in the report is that we basically say it was sort of unnecessary. We didn't really need to hear from the president. And while that is a somewhat correct statement, that's only correct if you're then going to make a conclusion with respect to whether he obstructed justice, meaning we don't need to hear because the proof is so overwhelming that he obstructed justice, but we don't actually come out and say that. So to say we don't really need it but not say what he did I think is one of the reasons that Attorney General Barr was able to take advantage of the report and I think the American public frankly, there was a bit of a disservice to them because we weren't being very clear about what we had concluded. And so we missed what I would call the educational function of the special counsel report.

DAVIES: We'll take a break here, so let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Andrew Weissman. He was one of the lead prosecutors in the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has a new book about the experience called "Where Law Ends." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Andrew Weissmann. He was one of the lead prosecutors in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. His new book is called "Where Law Ends."

The special counsel's office never did investigate Trump's finances. And you felt there was ample reason to do so. And that didn't happen maybe because they were concerned about being shut down or were concerned about pardons or other pressures. One of the things you noted is that the report could have made clear the areas that they didn't go into, right? I mean, you could have said, this - we didn't investigate the president's finances. Was that a failing?

WEISSMANN: I do think that was a failing. And that goes to my point that the special counsel rules, I think, need to be revised. The special counsel rules currently say that the special counsel is part of the Department of Justice, that they write an internal report that goes to the attorney general. But for most Americans, they thought that we were going to, I think, operate more like the 9/11 Commission. We're going to have an independent fact-finding, and then there is going to be a public report that we issued and that we could also explain.

I think it would have been very beneficial to have rules that made it clear that we were authorized to speak publicly, that the report could be made public, that we would make factual findings. I thought it was very important for people to know what we did and what we didn't do. After all, we are paid by the taxpayers, and we have an obligation to be as truthful and candid about what we did or didn't do. And my goal in writing this book was to lay that out for the American public and for future generations. And I tried to be as clear as I could and as candid as I could about things that I thought we did well and things that I thought we could do better.

DAVIES: So what was the harm in not saying in the report, look - we didn't get into Trump's finances in detail? What was the harm in that?

WEISSMANN: The harm is that you create the impression that the attorney general gave, which was that we did a completely thorough and exhaustive investigation, and nothing was there. It's important for people to know what we did and didn't do and what questions we asked and answered and what questions we didn't answer. So that there's absolutely no, you know, misconception about what it is that we were tasked with doing. As I recount in the book, Attorney General Barr, I think, took advantage of that by trying to say that, you know, if we didn't find it, it didn't exist. But that's not really fair because we didn't have either authority to do a sort of plenary financial investigation, and we certainly didn't do one.

DAVIES: So the report didn't say the president obstructed justice, and it didn't explain that they didn't investigate the president's finances. But remember that Mueller's conviction all along was that, you know, you stick to the information and that - I think his belief and the belief of others was that the power of the factual presentation would carry the day. That would make very, very clear, of course, what the president had done. The problem here, of course, was that for several weeks, nobody saw the actual report that anyone had written. What they saw was the summary presented by Attorney General Barr. And in a section at the end of the book, you undertake a careful review of Barr's statements. And, essentially, you're saying he didn't just spin this. I mean, he - you say that the attorney general shouldn't be an enabler, a fixer for the president. Give us a couple of the most troubling examples of what he did.

WEISSMANN: Sure, because I think that's a wonderful question because I spent 20 years at the Department of Justice. And seeing the attorney general behave in this way - and this was the first example - we've now seen many, many examples - is something that is really soul-crushing for many of us who are either at the department now or alumni of the department. And here's just a few examples. So Attorney General Barr says, in my view, there was no obstruction of justice. He gives zero specifics. He doesn't engage in any of the facts. And the reason is the facts were incredibly damaging. And it would've raised a ton of issues if he had started discussing them.

Here are a couple. One, he completely ignored the evidence from Don McGahn that had the president asking Don McGahn to deny that the president had ever sought to fire Bob Mueller and to actually write a fake memo - not fake news - a fake memo saying that that the president had never done that. And Don McGahn refused to do it and was going to resign his position. You don't do that unless you're absolutely sure that didn't happen. Attorney General Barr also said that the White House fully cooperated with the investigation. And that just wasn't the case. And a clear example of that is the president refused to be interviewed. I mean, that's the most fundamental way in which he didn't fully cooperate. Of course, the president doesn't have to be interviewed. But you don't ascribe that as full cooperation.

And a third is that the attorney general, in describing what Russia was up to, which was just such an important part of our investigation, which was detailing how Russia had interfered with the election. We made it absolutely clear that what Russia was up to was it wanted to see Donald Trump elected. It supported Donald Trump in the primaries over his opponents, and it supported Donald Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton. But in describing that, Attorney General Barr only said that Russia interfered to sow discord, leaving out that they actually took one side or the other. So those are three examples of ways in which the attorney general I thought was less than forthright, which is something that is really not appropriate for somebody who is a public servant. To me, it really gets the relationship of public service backwards, which is that as a public servant, I felt like I worked for the public not vice versa.

DAVIES: The title of your book, "Where Law Ends," is part of a quotation from philosopher John Locke. You want to explain the rest and why you chose to use it in the title of your book?

WEISSMAN: So John Locke's quote is wherever law ends, tyranny begins. And the shortened version of that, where law ends, tyranny begins, is inscribed in the limestone walls of the Department of Justice. I chose it because I spent over 20 years of my life devoted to the Department of Justice that I love and cherish. And I'm a lawyer, and I like being a lawyer, and I like being a public servant. I think that in the last few years, we have seen the erosion of norms and the rule of law. And I thought that was a title that was evocative and that this book is about.

DAVIES: Do you think we're seeing the beginning of tyranny?

WEISSMAN: I think that if you look at the actions of the attorney general in providing beneficial treatment to friends of the president, whether it be Roger Stone or Michael Flynn to take two examples, and then to claim that he is applying the rule of law and to subject enemies to heightened scrutiny, I think that that is the antithesis of the rule of law. And it is what we for years have tried to thwart in foreign countries. My Princeton classmate Marie Yovanovitch made this point in her testimony, which was that we were trying to emulate for Ukraine the rule of law and not having a system where you go after your political opponents. But now, unfortunately, we are now acting in ways that are completely antithetical to the values that we were trying to inculcate in many other countries and to be a shining city on the hill in terms of our values.

DAVIES: Well, Andrew Weissman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEISSMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Andrew Weissman is a veteran federal prosecutor who served as one of the lead attorneys in the special counsel investigation. His new book is "Where Law Ends: Inside The Mueller Investigation." Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel from Rumaan Alam. This is FRESH AIR.


You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue