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 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.
More recently, FBI special agents Walter Giardina and William Barnett conducted an interview with Hank Cox, a freelance editor from suburban Washington, D.C., who helped Flynn publish a pro-Turkey essay on Election Day 2016, Cox confirmed in an email.
Like a U.S. attorney’s office, Mueller has the power to reach across Justice, the FBI and other federal departments to solicit issue experts on everything from cybersecurity to counterintelligence. He’s getting help from financial record and tax specialists at the Treasury Department and IRS, as evidenced by the indictment charging Manafort and Gates with 12 criminal counts, including money laundering and failing to disclose overseas bank accounts.
Carr said earlier this year that Mueller could increase his staff depending on “the needs of the investigation,” and he may need to bulk up in preparation for a Manafort-Gates criminal trial. A federal judge has proposed a May 7 start date. While that schedule has not been formalized yet, it will eventually require full-time preparation from the attorneys assigned to the case, likely Weissmann, Andres and Freeny. Any indictments involving Flynn would also be an additional weight on the Mueller team if it had to handle a second trial.
Mueller’s team is already larger than that of its most immediate predecessor: Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney tasked during the George W. Bush administration to be a special counsel investigating who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Only a half-dozen Justice lawyers, plus FBI agents, worked on that case, which was far smaller in scope and led to only one criminal trial, involving I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Russia special counsel’s office, however, is nowhere near the size of the multipronged Clinton-era investigation that started out as a probe of the president and first lady’s Whitewater real estate deals in Arkansas but then took several unexpected turns, ending with congressional impeachment proceedings over the president’s sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
That Clinton investigation — most famously led by independent counsel Kenneth Starr — ballooned over the course of eight years to include more than 225 employees from DOJ and other federal agencies, including at least 65 consultants and outside advisers, according to a final report released in 2002. Jay Apperson, a former deputy independent counsel under Starr, said he could envision Mueller’s probe growing significantly in size “depending on the scope of the investigation.”
Mueller’s Manafort indictment “certainly suggests a broadened scope involving conduct well before his role in the Trump campaign,” he said. But Apperson also cautioned that any kind of major expansion likely will “depend on whether the targets of the investigation are cooperative and forthcoming, and that remains to be seen."