He added: “I have always been an ‘in-the-weeds’ guy — when I was a prosecutor and when I was at my law firm and where I am now. At the end of the day, it’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ It’s a collaborative approach: when we listen, when we talk. I think maybe there was some resistance early to that, because it is just something that is new. But I think people have really bought into it.”
The position is coveted by any number of politically active lawyers, and few U.S. attorneys stick around for a second term. Machen denied talk that he is expected to step down in September to give Cohen, his longtime friend, a chance to be acting U.S. attorney.
Downside of zeal
Machen’s zeal has drawbacks, according to current and former prosecutors. Numerous current and former staff members complained that his intensity wears down subordinates, that he meddles too much in cases and that he doesn’t seem to trust the supervisors who work for him.
Some complained that Machen runs the office like he was a partner at his old law firm, treating employees like associates and pushing them to work outrageous hours while he gets all the glory.
Machen said he sees himself as like a coach — a leader who sets the game plan, picks the players, and bears responsibility for wins and losses. His approach contrasts with that of Jeffrey A. Taylor, a recent U.S. attorney who said in an interview that he saw his role as helping teammates achieve their own successes. Numerous prosecutors have said Taylor was demanding but more trusting of his supervisors than Machen is.
Although overall attrition has held steady, Machen has lost at least a half-dozen experienced and respected supervisors.
In recent weeks, at least six prosecutors have said they will leave the 35-lawyer homicide unit.
A federal hiring freeze has made it difficult to replace those prosecutors, and those remaining are beginning to complain of burnout.
Desire to achieve
Machen, a 43-year-old father of three, has close-cropped hair and an earring piercing in his left ear. He says he and his sister were instilled with a desire to achieve by their father, a chemist at Ford. Machen attended the elite Cranbrook School in Michigan, the same prep academy that graduated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
He played wide receiver as a walk-on at Stanford University. Upon graduation, he contemplated going on scholarship to the University of Michigan’s law school. But his father told him not to settle for the prestigious Big Ten university, and he went to Harvard instead.
Machen worked as a federal prosecutor in the District from 1997 to 2001, when he joined WilmerHale. He quickly became a partner.
An admirer of President Obama, he donated more than $4,000 to the Illinois Democrat’s various campaigns and worked as a volunteer on the 2008 campaign, helping to vet potential vice presidential candidates.
A spokesman for Machen said the prosecutor would not allow his respect for the president to affect his judgment as he helps lead an investigation into leaks of highly classified information that appeared in news stories.
Those articles highlighted the Obama administration’s active role in clandestine operations against al-Qaeda and other adversaries. Machen and Maryland’s U.S. attorney, Rod J. Rosenstein, were appointed to investigate the matter last week by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Holder was under pressure from congressional Republicans, who wanted an independent counsel to lead the investigations.
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.