Band of Brothers or Harbingers of Doom? Mueller’s Team Enigma

If you’ve been paying attention, there is a lot of media furor being focused on the enigma that is Special Counsel Mueller and the team of investigators, lawyers, and FBI veterans that he has gathered for his probe into, well, something about Russia, something about the election, and collusion? What exactly he is supposed to be investigating seems to change every time its being mentioned by a different outlet, but the one thing that every group agrees on is that the scope of his investigation can turn basically whichever direction he sees fit with only a little oversight from the DoJ that appointed him. Its not clear who exactly he answers to, if he answers to anyone at all, or whether he even pays attention to requests and demands for how the investigation should go. Its not even entirely clear whether the myriad of other election investigations in the House, Senate, FBI, and however many other agencies, overlap and feed into Mueller’s investigation or if he’s even following those developments.

With all this confusion, the only thing that can realistically be done is to look at the exact makeup that is the Mueller Team Enigma. This article won’t try to sell any prognostications or predictions or theories or hypotheses, this is just what is actually known about the team itself and its roster, though expect a tiny bit of speculator commentary on the roles and experience the various members bring to the table.

First to bat, the namesake of the MTE, there is Robert Mueller himself. A 12 year head of the FBI, he took the helm the week after 9/11 through to 2013 before handing the reigns over to his protégé James Comey. Mueller is noted for being respected on both sides of the aisle. But in some circles he is reviled as a resident ‘swamp creature’ having been FBI director during the tenures of both Bush and Obama, both presidencies having vastly expanded the domestic surveillance apparatus that the FBI had full access to, though Mueller and Comey both opposed parts of it. He was an officer in the Marines for three years during Vietnam, in which he received a purple heart, and as a lawyer worked in public practice, served in various state attorney positions, and headed the DoJ criminal division. In a notable twist, after President Trump fired James Comey, Mueller was actually interviewed again for the role of FBI director by President Trump himself in a little-reported meeting literally the day before he was appointed as Special Counsel. There is a question to be asked about why exactly Trump was bringing Mueller into an interview for a job that he had already served the full term plus a few years for, especially since Trump had fired his protégé Comey. But again, this article will not contain speculation, only information.

Aaron Zebley, an FBI terrorist hunter from the years before 9/11 when the FBI’s terrorist pursuit team consisted of a single-digit roster, also served as the chief of staff to Robert Mueller when Mueller was given a 2 year extension on his term as director. He followed Mueller to the law firm WilmerHale after Mueller’s tenure at the FBI ended. His inclusion on the MTE is no surprise, given that besides James Comey there are only a handful that have worked with Mueller as closely in the FBI, and, since he left government work to follow Mueller, it is logical he would follow Mueller again into this latest adventure.

James Quarles III, one of the prosecutors from Watergate himself, is one of the inclusions in the MTE that is giving pundits all the ammo they want for comparing the probe to Watergate. He also is following Mueller from WilmerHale, and is a specialist in campaign finance research, a potential area of interest given the accusations from across the spectrum of financial malfeasance by campaigns, campaign staffers and advisors, and foundations.

Jeannie Rhee, a final addition from WilmerHale to Mueller’s team, is a veteran of the DoJ, having served in a variety of roles both at the federal level and as an attorney in Washington DC itself. Reported to be a specialist in white collar crimes, her wins in court include the successful prosecution of officers of the Washington Teachers Union in which she flipped several embezzlement and corruption conspirators within the union into witnesses.

Andrew Weissman, prosecutor of the Genovese, Colombo, and Gambino crime families as well as the director of the task force in charge of investigating Enron. Another big-name pick in a team full of big names, with the most experience so far in prosecuting crime families apparently.

Michael Dreeben, the deputy solicitor general and the second person in history to have argued 100 cases before the Supreme Court. In his first case before the Supreme Court, he was mocked by Scalia (yes, that Scalia) and schooled by John Roberts (yes, Chief Justice John Roberts) in a 9-0 decision. It seems likely that at least some aspect of this case will probably make it to the Supreme Court, so having the person with the most experience arguing in front of those justices on the team is a logical move.

Peter Carr, experienced as a spokesperson for the DoJ and other roles, including (unremarked by the media) a 5 year stint as the spokesperson for Orrin Hatch, a Republican Senator out of Utah. He is, of course, enlisted as a spokesperson for the MTE, not that they’ve been releasing much information yet.

Rush Atkinson, noted by many articles to be in the DoJ’s criminal fraud division, but if this is the same one as found in the cited article it would appear he was initially recruited into the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, in the Office of Intelligence. So who we might be looking at is a young early 30’s researcher, which is a lot more intriguing than simply being out of the criminal fraud division. If this is the same Rush Atkinson, then he also is the youngest member of the MTE thus far.

Zainab Ahmad is a bit of a doozy. She is a noted specialist in counterterrorism cases and extraterritorial cases. The latter makes sense given the international scope of the investigation, but the former seems a bit out of place, though no further out of place than Aaron Zebley whose career was also based around the hunting of terrorists. She has prosecuted foreign and US terrorists alike, and has racked up an impressive amount of wins against them. It should be noted in 2016 she was moved at the direction of Loretta Lynch to dealing with transnational organized crime, returning briefly back to DC before being recruited by Mueller into the MTE.

Lisa Page, another veteran of the FBI and an expert in money laundering an organized crime. While she’s the first to be noted as a specialist by any media organizations in money laundering, there is a surprising number of organized crime specialists. It is almost like the MTE is getting staffed up to go after an international crime ring with financial ties to terrorist organizations, not a campaign collusion interference we’re-not-really-sure-so-we’re-going-to-scream-treason investigation.

Elizabeth Prelogar is the first member of the team so far to have notable ties to Democrats outside of campaign contributions, given she clerked for both the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Elena Kagan. She also comes from the solicitor general’s office, probably following Michael Dreeben. Despite her probable partisan leanings, it would make sense to bring her on for her connections to two current sitting Supreme Court Justices from the liberal wing of the court in case the investigation starts entangling Democrats in its litigation.

Aaron Zelinsky, an attorney out of the Maryland Attorney General’s office and the first real evidence that current administration officials have some sway over the Mueller probe, or at least personal connections to it. Aaron Zelinsky served in Maryland under Rosenstein for 12 years, and was probably recommended for the MTE by Rosenstein himself. Rosenstein was the one who appointed Mueller special counsel, after all, it might very well be Zelinsky was added to the team so Rosenstein had someone he trusted personally inside of it.

Andrew Goldstein, another VERY interesting pick for the MTE, notable because of his status as the leader of one of New York’s Public Corruption Units. I will  “Prosecutors on the public integrity side of the Unit are responsible for investigating and prosecuting all types of crimes committed by public employees, elected officials, candidates for public office, and others who hold the public trust.” While there is an obvious public corruption angle to the election investigation, its notable that his office under his leadership has successfully prosecuted top Democrats AND Republicans in New York, making him a somewhat nonpartisan pick in terms of his pursuit of justice, and if former administration officials start getting swept up by the MTE Goldstein is another recruit who will doubtlessly come in handy.

Adam Jed joins as apparently the second youngest member of the MTE after Rush Atkinson.  His experience that he brings to the team is rather unique, given that he’s been arguing civil cases in front of a variety of lower courts over recent topics like the ACA, providing contraception as part of the ACA, and implementation of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.  Its possible his inclusion is to provide more legal muscle for any cases the MTE has to work through lower courts, or it could be he is spending his time reading up on FEC opinions and rulings to work as a pinch hitter if the investigation has to deal with laws and rules from the FEC.

Brandon Van Grack, who as recently as May was already involved in probes from the Department of Justice national security division as a prosecutor with a specialization in espionage investigations.  Probes he was involved in according to the New York Times revolve around Flynn and the Flynn Intel Group over lobbying work done for Turkey’s Erdogan as apparently confirmed by acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.  McCabe, of course, is noted for having a longstanding grudge against Flynn over Flynn coming to the aid of a junior FBI agent in a sexual discrimination case. His recruitment into the team for now seems to be the only addition with notable experience in the influence of foreign governments on elections, the 2016 election in particular.

Finally, the latest member of the MTE which has apparently grown to over 25 members and support staff since it began though many of those names haven’t been released is Peter Strzok, a leading member of the FBI Clinton Email investigation which looked into Hillary’s private email server and found “that Clinton exchanged nearly two-dozen top secret emails from her private server in 2011 and 2012 with her deputy chief of staff, Jacob Sullivan, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The State Department said the contents of the 22 emails were so highly classified that not even the subject matter could be disclosed.”  He also apparently was a part of the initial Russian probe after the Clinton Email investigation closed down, making him only the second official link to the rest of the government’s Russian investigations to be added to the team, and the first to have been directly tied to an investigation of Hillary Clinton.

The latest word is that the MTE may grow further in the future, but in the meantime what has been assembled at face value is an absolutely terrifying group of legal veterans and workhorses with specializations in virtually every aspect of law that might be used against a criminal organization, though with notably few mentions of anyone specialized in election law or in prosecuting or investigating interactions with foreign governments, with an exception or two.  Of note, as well, is the much-covered bias involving donations to political parties, with donations to Democrats over Republicans occurring at a 10-1 ratio, though it is notably this is over a 10 year period and involved less than half of the members of the MTE.  At best count for this article, there’s around $54000 donated to Democrats over that 10 year period, with many of those donations going towards Democrat organizations and Obama’s campaigns, a small fraction of those having been to the Clinton campaign, and many of the Republican donations having been made by those who also donated to Democrats.  Of note is also the several Republicans including Mueller himself who are on the MTE.

Really, with this much legal firepower assembled under one tight organization and filled with highly experienced and battle-tested (in Mueller’s case quite literally battle-tested) leadership, who a few of the individuals threw money at isn’t really important.  The important question is why does a team assembled under the mandate to investigate foreign influence in the 2016 elections seem to be less of a panel of election law experts and more of a legal hit team assembled to tear to pieces an international crime ring stuffed to the brim with expertise in financial, corruption, terrorism, and white collar crimes?

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