ANDREW WEISSMANN: Well, when I sat down to write the book, I started by thinking about it — having read a lot of books about Watergate, I thought it was going to be really necessary to have an inside account, as opposed to people from the outside speculating about what happened.
[LIGHT, ETHEREAL MUSIC PLAYS]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: This is Andrew Weissmann, a former top-level prosecutor for the Special Counsel’s Office. His book is: Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation. It marks the first time anyone on Robert Mueller’s team has spoken in detail about the mechanics of the investigation.
WEISSMANN: But as I wrote it, um, as much as I do talk about the challenges coming from the White House and from Attorney General Barr and the challenge of dealing with a target who has the power to fire us and had the power to pardon or dangle pardons, um, I realized that I really wanted to be completely candid and forthright about how we met those challenges, and realized that I was going to have to write a harder book that looked at what we did well, and what we didn't do as well.
BERNSTEIN: Mueller divided his investigators into three groups: Team M focused on Paul Manafort, Team R for Russia, and Team 600, which was looking into the possible obstruction of justice by the President. Weissmann was in charge of Team M.
In his book, Weissmann writes about the decisions Mueller made to try and play by the rules, while Trump clearly was not. Weissmann is particularly critical of Mueller’s decision not to subpoena Trump. In the end, Weissmann says, Trump used the system against itself to block a full accounting.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business of Trump. I’m Andrea Bernstein. Today on the show, my co-host Ilya Marritz and I speak with Andrew Weissmann about the places where Mueller’s investigation fell short of its mission: to get a complete picture of President Trump and his relationship to Russia.
ILYA MARRITZ: Um, yeah, so, Andrew Weissmann, you are choosing in this book to say a lot of things that can't be unsaid. You’re pretty critical of some of the people you worked with, including Robert Mueller. And it just seems like this is somebody who made a decision to speak freely. And I'm wondering what that feels like.
WEISSMANN: There aren't many advantages in aging, but one of the things that's nice about being 62 years old is, you sort of make decisions in your life about what's important.
One thing I would say is the book is very admiring of lots and lots of people in terms of the situation they were in and work that they did. And I understand that the press has, you know, covered things that where I think we could have done better. But I — I do think it's important to remember all of the positive work that was done, um, within the, the investigation.
BERNSTEIN: So, Andrew, I don't know if you know the story of how Ilya and I started investigating Trump.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: WNYC’S Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz report …
BERNSTEIN: It was after the election. And we were like, let's figure out everybody who lives in Trump Tower. [LAUGHS]
BERNSTEIN: For three decades, Trump … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: So we started at the 29th floor and we had this big Google data sheet and we were putting in, um, like everything we could figure out about who all of the limited liability companies were, actually. And we got to apartment 43G —
BERNSTEIN: … apartment 43G in Trump Tower …
BERNSTEIN: —which, as you know, it was owned by John Hannah, LLC. —
BERNSTEIN: … John Hannah, LLC.
BERNSTEIN: — and, um —
WEISSMANN: That rings a bell, Andrea. [LAUGHS]
BERNSTEIN: Manafort’s middle name is John. [INDISTINCT] middle name is Hannah. The two names are combined into a shell company name.
BERNSTEIN: And then we were sitting in front of Ilya’s computer. And we were like, let's look at all his other apartments on ACRIS, which is the New York City real estate disclosure portal. And we see that he’s done this same pattern in Brooklyn and in SoHo.
MARRITZ: Manafort transfers the deed into his own name for zero dollars.
BERNSTEIN: So that's how we got interested in Manafort, and how we started investigating Manafort. But what made you realize from the get-go — I mean, you were the head of Team M, Team Manafort — what made you realize from the get-go that understanding what Manafort did would be central to this whole thing?
WEISSMANN: One of the key possibilities — if you’re looking for connectivity, um, to the Trump campaign — not knowing if it's there or not — but if you're looking for that, that Manafort would be a prime suspect. Um, and that was not so much because of his financial deeds, in other words, they — all the things that we looked at and made, you know, criminal cases. It had to do with his work in Ukraine for a pro-Russian president.
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BERNSTEIN: So Weissman’s Team M starts investigating Manafort in June 2017, and, just four months later, hands up an indictment of Manafort, and his deputy, Rick Gates, for working secretly as lobbyists for the pro-Russian strongman President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich — for years. And then routing the tens of millions they made through accounts in Cyprus to real estate in New York and other big-ticket purchases, to avoid paying taxes. The theory of the investigation was this: Manafort’s and Gates’ illicit financial deals could lead to Russia.
MARRITZ: Months later, there are more indictments, for tax and bank fraud. And then the Mueller team gets a break. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, flips. He starts cooperating with prosecutors. And he fills out the details of a key meeting between himself, Manafort, and a person we now know to be a Russian military officer: Konstantin Kilimnik, or “KK,” as Manafort and Gates called him. KK had worked with Manafort and Gates in Ukraine. This meeting is in New York on August 2, 2016 — just after the Democratic and Republican conventions have concluded.
BERNSTEIN: The August 2nd meeting, which is this meeting at the time in the Grand Havana room, which is a cigar bar, steak-and-martinis place at the top of 666 Fifth Avenue, which — no script writer would accept this because it's so obvious, [WEISSMANN LAUGHS] but it's Jared Kushner's family-owned skyscraper. And Konstantin Kilimnik, who you guys describe as an Russian asset, and the bipartisan Senate committee describes as a Russian military officer, has to come from Moscow.
WEISSMANN: When we learned of that meeting and read the emails setting it up, uh, our antennae were up. It was incredibly suspicious. I mean, this was happening at a time that -- usually the campaign manager has a lot of other things to do. And yet, here's this in-person meeting, understanding that Konstantin Kilimnik and Paul Manafort are communicating in email and other ways.
So, what you want to know is, what happened? Why is this meeting happening at this time? Why does this have to be in-person? And what was the discussion? So, step one was, when Rick Gates cooperates, he tells us about the part of the meeting that he was at. He was late to the meeting, and we corroborated that through emails and texts that showed that he was running late. So we don't know what happened at the part of the meeting that he was not there for.
But we do have, from him, that he had been passing on, at Paul Manafort's direction, internal campaign polling data during the campaign to Konstantin Kilimnik. He also describes that when he was at the meeting there was a discussion of so-called battleground states — four states — and one of which, you know, caught my attention ‘cause it was Wisconsin, which, I don't think at the time people thought of as a battleground state.
BERNSTEIN: The list of battleground states was a tell: Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. The latter three, Trump won, by the narrowest of margins. Which raises the question: What did Russia do with the data? Did they use it to target their disinformation efforts?
WEISSMANN: And the next thing we tried to do is figure out, “Okay, well, what else happened? This — that doesn't really seem to explain why you would fly all the way from Moscow to have that conversation. Um, it — it didn't seem like that could be the whole story.
[PERCUSSIVE MUSICAL FLOURISH PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Late in its Investigation of this meeting, Team M got a Break.
WEISSMANN: We got a series of very interesting communications between Paul Manafort and a pollster named Tony Fabrizio, who he used to work with very closely on Ukraine work. And there were a number of discussions between Tony Fabrizio, Konstantin Kilimnik, and Paul Manafort about a proposal to split Ukraine in two.
MARRITZ: Okay, so I want to jump in here because, to me, this was one of the revelations of your book, is, you're talking with Tony Fabrizio and now we're talking about communications in 2018, correct? When Manafort is under indictment and facing trial?
MARRITZ: And he’s — continues to talk with Konstantin Kilimnik who, I think the shorthand for him now would be “Russian spy,” uh, about doing political polling work in Ukraine. I mean, my head was exploding as I read this. [AS AN ASIDE] To be clear, pollster Tony Fabrizio was not charged or implicated in wrongdoing.
WEISSMANN: Yeah. We then continued pursuing this. We found an email where Konstantin Kilimnik talked about the splitting of Ukraine in two. And just so your listeners understand, the proposal was to have Russia take over the eastern half of Ukraine. That's the profitable part. And think of this as, Russia had taken over Crimea, and this was basically saying how would the United States — and, particularly, Donald Trump feel if we were to take over the eastern part of Ukraine? And the phrase, in writing, that was used is, “We would need the Trump administration to be on board. We’d need a wink that this was okay.”
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BERNSTEIN: In August of 2018, Manafort is convicted of eight felonies in Virginia. He has another trial coming up, on still more charges, in D.C. Looking at his situation, Manafort decides to avoid another trial and strike a cooperation agreement. To get an agreement, Manafort visits prosecutors in their offices. And the biggest thing Weissmann wants to know from him is, what was up with that August 2nd meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik? Why were they discussing a carve-up of Ukraine?
WEISSMANN: Paul Manafort ultimately conceded that that topic came up at the August 2nd meeting. He initially denied it, and then ultimately said, when he was sharing these documents — communications — said, “Yes, that was the topic that was raised.” There's a discussion of what it is that Russia wants. But you don't have that kind of ask without — that — you — it’s a quid pro quo where we know the “quid,” but we don't know the “quo.”
So you have Russia asking to take over half of a country. In order to make that ask — these are transactional people. The thing that we don't know is, what was Russia offering to get that wink? What was it that Konstantin Kilimnik was coming to say?
And we don't know whether it was, you know, “We're helping you in the election.” Obviously that's one theory. We don't know if it's personal to Paul Manafort. “If you do this, we're going to pay you back money that, you know, oligarchs owe you,” or, “We're going to resolve the lawsuit between you and Oleg Deripaska that —“ we don't know if it's a sort of a personal financial interest. We just don't know the answer to that.
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MARRITZ: The reason we don’t know is that Manafort broke his promise to tell the truth after pleading guilty. The cooperation agreement fell apart. There were no more strands left to pull. During this time, Manafort continued to communicate with the White House.
BERNSTEIN: We know from your report that Russia was, uh, targeting both disinformation and the dissemination of the emails that were stolen and dumped. And we also know that Konstantin Kilimnik had been given polling data about very sensitive states.
So can you just walk through, like, what your theory was, what you were looking for, what you think the nature of that transaction that you were not able to prove might've been?
WEISSMANN: It's speculative. I mean, the — the first thing you have is something that's highly, highly irregular, which is internal campaign polling data is something that's supposed to stay internal, right? I mean, if you know anybody who works on a campaign, that's not something that they want to have disseminated outside of the campaign.
So you have this evidence that Paul Manafort is sending internal Trump campaign polling data to somebody who is a Russian who the Senate Intel Committee is, you know, colloquially has described as a — as a Russian spy. Uh, that's not the term they use, but I'm just going to use that for purposes of — of this.
And so the question is why? And the most benign theory would be that he was back-dooring the Trump campaign by, without authorization, sending this data to show Ukraine and Russian oligarchs repeatedly, you know, “Look how Trump is doing, and I'm in a position of power, and this would be useful in terms of business development going forward.”
That's a theory. There's a lot of questions about that theory because, why would you need to send polling repeatedly? Why wouldn’t you just send the most favorable polls? You know, the most nefarious theory would be that Paul Manafort was doing this and that people in the Trump campaign were aware of it. And I should say there's no evidence at all that we uncovered that anyone above or to the side of Paul Manafort was aware of this. We just — we just never uncovered it — that at all. But, you know, the most nefarious theory would be that it was that people were aware of it and that it could be operationalized by people in Russia who were trying to assist the campaign.
‘Cause obviously we do have that piece of it. We know that Russia was trying to assist the Trump campaign. One possibility that sort of mixes the two is that this wasn't an either-or. You could have a motive that would help Paul Manafort financially, but that it also — to the extent that Russia was going to operationalize it — so be it.
[PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS FOR A MOMENT]
BERNSTEIN: The hope of the Mueller investigation was that the full truth would be revealed. That did not happen.
WEISSMANN: Sometimes you can pursue an investigation. We did pursue the Paul Manafort investigation, I think, assiduously. And sometimes you just — you don't get to the end and we ended up flipping Rick Gates, and he cooperated. And then Paul Manafort said he was going to cooperate and didn't, and so at some point you run out of tools and you can just not have the answers, even though you follow all of the steps. But what I try to lay out in the book is, at least in my personal assessment is, you know, we could have done more.
[FUTURISTIC PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
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ANDREA: We’re back, speaking with top Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann about his book, Where Law Ends. Weissman speaks to us about the things he did well, including investigating and convicting Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, of financial crimes. But, also, he talks of the limits of his investigation.
MARRITZ: You were working in the government — for the government in this period when Donald Trump is in the White House and he's busting norms and really putting pressure on all different parts of the government in a lot of ways that we have neve, ever seen before.
But I think, of all the departments and agencies where Trump's impact has been felt, my sense is that it may be the greatest in the Justice Department, and — and just, there’s a million examples, but the one that really sticks in my mind is the fact that the Justice Department is now representing, uh, President Trump in E. Jean Carroll's defamation suit against him, which — I’m not a lawyer, but that goes against, sort of, my entire sense of sort of how the Justice Department is supposed to work, representing the President sort of in a — in a entirely private matter that very much predates his presidency.
You described the Justice Department — where you worked for many, many years — as being staffed with lots of very principled, hard-driving men and women. And I just wonder how you make sense of what has happened there.
WEISSMANN: So in terms of, like, who I'm, I think, extremely critical of in my book, it’s, I mean, the Attorney General — as Attorney General Barr — is somebody who I think has really up-ended the role and goals of the Justice Department. The Justice Department is supposed to be not taking actions based on whether somebody is a friend or foe of the White House.
He is imposing a different standard for people who are aligned with the White House. And I'd say the Roger Stone sentencing submission, and the Michael Flynn motion to dismiss are two really prime examples of that. Um, and I think for people who've worked in the department for decades, that’s a — it’s really dispiriting.
To relate it to Ukraine, that we've been spending a lot of time talking about— President Yanukovych, when he came into power, endorsed a prosecution of his political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko.
And that was a huge deal in the United States where both Republicans and Democrats condemned that as a selective prosecution, and using the rule of law to just go after a political opponent. That was one of the main things that Rick Gates and Paul Manafort were working on, is trying to figure out ways to make that more palatable in the United States.
MARRITZ: So I want to ask you about one of the areas where, in retrospect, you are very critical of your own investigation. And that has to do with the decision to only go so far in the investigation of Trump's own finances and — and the finances of the Trump Organization. You describe several inflection points where you could have taken a different path.
WEISSMANN: In the June/July 2017 time period, when we issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank to get financial records, and the White House got wind of that and wanted to know whether we were looking at the President’s, or the Trump Organization’s, financial records — and, as you recall publicly, it had been stated that was a red line, and that was, again, repeated to us. And there, there was a difficult decision about “What do you do?” By the way, the facts were that the subpoena had to do with Paul Manafort's finances, as to which we did do a traditional, follow-the-money investigation.
And there, there's a tough decision and it's useful, I think, for your listeners to think about what you would do at that point in the investigation. Do you risk going forward and doing a financial investigation of the President at that point with the idea that that might increase the risk that you have you're fired, and there may or may not be a blowback with respect to that decision, or do you go — decide “We're going to put that off for now, and go forward with the work of Team M and Team R and Team 600”? The Special Counsel went — chose the latter. I actually agree with that, at that point, but I think reasonable minds can differ.
My issue was that that decision, I think, should have been revisited once you had so much more accomplished by Team M and Team R in terms of having established what Russia was up to, having established that Rick Gates and Paul Manafort are guilty. At that point, it seemed to me that we needed to be more thorough — understanding it would be within the construct of what the Deputy Attorney General had tasked us with doing. In other words, it wasn’t — it's not a free-for-all. Um, you had to keep it within the appointment order. But that's where I have my difference with the decision made by the Special Counsel.
MARRITZ: Right. I mean, I think all of it matters because of this question of leverage and, um, and kompromat. And the fact that — that Donald Trump publicly said one thing about having no business in Russia, and yet, during the campaign, he clearly was attempting to do business in Russia at a very high level. And so I wonder if you could sketch out for me what a — a true investigation of the Trump business might have looked like. This is a hypothetical. It's not really covered in your book, but, like, what would be the initial steps that you might take? What would be some of the things that you would do? Some of the places that you might look?
WEISSMANN: So I think they're two buckets. One would be whether Russian money made its way into the campaign or a Pac. That’s sort of one piece. The second bucket is what I would call sort of the, what we did with Paul Manafort. What you're looking to see is, what is being told to banks? What is being told to the IRS? ‘Cause, you know, you have, uh, different incentives there. Um, with the IRS, your incentive is to lower your income and inflate your debts, and with banks, to get loans, it’s the reverse. You want to show that you have lots of income and very few debts.
And then one of the reasons I think there's been so much attention from the Manhattan D.A.’s office on the Mazars subpoena, which is the accounting records, is that that tends to be extremely useful information because you're getting an inside look at what people are telling their accountants. What are they reporting to their accountants about their assets and their income? In Paul Manafort's case, I described that, when we got those records, it was a real “A-ha” moment, because they had asked Paul Manafort direct questions about, for instance, “Do you have foreign bank accounts?”
And he personally responded, “No.”
BERNSTEIN: You never got there with Trump. I mean, one of the things that was so very interesting to me about reading your book was that [PAUSE, LAUGHS] I think at one point during the investigation, I used the words “subpoena envy,” because it seemed like our tools were so inadequate to throw ourselves against this incredibly complex maze of nesting limited liability companies and international finances with Trump.
We thought, okay, we may not get there as journalists. We can sort of, you know, keep spotlighting this issue. We've had this open investigation for the past almost four years into Trump finances. But we thought you were going to get there, and it really sort of did come like a bucket of cold water on the head just to realize how many lingering questions not only do we still have, but that were never addressed by the Mueller investigation.
WEISSMANN: So that's, you know, that was the hard part of when you — at the outset, when you said, “What’s it like writing this?” is that I — I wanted to write [PAUSE] a sort of candid assessment of what I thought we did right. Um, and there are many things. But also, um, what I thought we could have done better. Just to give you the one example, even if someone thought it was justified not to do a full financial investigation — um, and I explain why I disagreed with that — I also thought that it wasn't particularly well-articulated in our report as to what was we did. And, you know, we're public officials paid for by taxpayers and I thought it should've been spelled out. Um, and that's one where Ilya had said, you know, “You're particularly critical,” and that — there are areas where I'm not trying to be particularly critical. I'm trying to just point out things that we didn't do. But that's one area where I am particularly critical.
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MARRITZ: Um, I really enjoyed this book. Thank you so much for talking with us. I mean, I have like — like 20 more questions, but we'll save that for the paperback of your book. [ALL LAUGH]
BERNSTEIN: Thanks so much.
WEISSMANN: Thank you for having me!
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BERNSTEIN: Andrew Weissmann is a former senior prosecutor for Robert Mueller. He now teaches at New York University Law School. His book is Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation.
This episode of Trump, Inc. was produced by Matt Collette with technical production by Jared Paul. Hannis Brown wrote our theme and additional music. Nick Varchaver was the editor. I’m Andrea Bernstein.
MARRITZ: I’m Ilya Marritz. Thank you for listening.
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WEISSMANN: And I think that, you know, that had a —
[DOG BARKS IN THE BACKGROUND]
WEISSMANN: — a big influence on, sort of, you know, my trajectory.
MARRITZ: You have a very well-behaved dog, that's sat still for over an hour.
WEISSMANN: Yes, I do. I do.