In making Dana Boente acting attorney general, President Trump has elevated a longtime federal prosecutor best known for his handling of public corruption cases.
Boente, a 33-year veteran of the Justice Department, oversaw the prosecution of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose conviction was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court. Previously, Boente oversaw the government’s cases against former congressman William J. Jefferson (D-La.) and former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin (D).
Lawyers who have known Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said he has a reputation for being tough but evenhanded. Although he has not been vocal about his political views, they said, he would not have agreed to be thrust into the role of defending Trump’s controversial executive order banning some migrants unless he believed it is legally sound.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia said Tuesday that Boente will remain in his position there as he serves as acting attorney general.
“Dana was very circumspect about his politics,” said former assistant U.S. attorney Gene Rossi, now a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia. “I never saw Dana, in the 22 years I worked with him, make what I considered to a political decision. . . . He will try his best to enforce what he thinks is the law.”
But Rossi added, “If he thought that the executive order was illegal, I doubt very seriously he would have taken the position of acting attorney general.”
Longtime defense attorney John Zwerling shared that sentiment.
“I don’t think he would do it if he felt that it was morally wrong to do it,” Zwerling said. “I believe he looked inside himself and decided he could morally and legally defend the position. I don’t know how he votes, but he’s no liberal. The Eastern District of Virginia is a very tough jurisdiction, and he ran it as a very tough jurisdiction.”
Mike Dry, who worked as a prosecutor under Boente until he left recently for the firm Vinson & Elkins, said whatever Boente’s views on the memo were, they were likely not informed by politics. Dry, who led the McDonnell prosecution and was involved when the office was tasked with investigating former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, said, “the only guidance that I ever got from Dana on any case was, ‘We’re gonna follow the facts, we’re gonna follow the law, and we’re gonna do the right thing.’”
“He has a strongly held belief that [the Department of Justice] should not be politicized, and that senior leadership at [the Department of Justice], one of their primary roles is to ensure it’s not politicized,” Dry said. “Dana’s the least political guy I know. I think Dana’s view is he’s going to follow the law.”
The Trump administration said Boente, who replaced fired acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates, was sworn in about 9 p.m. Monday.
In an interview, Boente noted that his office had already begun supporting the president’s order against a challenge brought in a Virginia federal court.
“I was enforcing it this afternoon,” Boente said. “Our career department employees were defending the action in court, and I expect that’s what they’ll do tomorrow, appropriately and properly.”
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center, who filed a complaint on behalf of two Yemeni men sent away from Dulles International Airport under the executive order, said he had spoken with Boente about the case by phone Sunday and Monday.
It’s unclear why Trump chose Boente, a longtime Justice Department lawyer who seemed to hold no greater ambition than keeping his job as U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. President Obama had spelled out a succession order in January that listed the three other U.S. attorneys as being in line to succeed the attorney general should something happen, though Trump, of course, had the option to pick his own person.
Two in that line – U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon in Chicago and U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips in D.C. – were not asked, according to people familiar with the process. (Phillips, though, lacks Senate confirmation, which might have precluded him from serving).
The U.S. attorney’s job in the Eastern District of Virginia is an important and high-profile one. The Eastern District is home to the CIA and the Pentagon, and its prosecutors often handle terrorism cases. The office has about 300 lawyers and other employees working in Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.
Boente was sworn in to head the office in February 2016, but he had served in that post on an interim basis since replacing Neil MacBride in late 2013. He also served as acting U.S. attorney there in 2008 and 2009.
When Boente was sworn in, then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch called him one of the department’s “consummate utility players” and said he was “one you could always count on to be there for you.”
Under Boente’s leadership, prosecutors won corruption convictions against McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, although those outcomes were overturned by the Supreme Court. Boente’s office pushed to retry the McDonnells, but those moves were overruled by higher-ups at the Justice Department.
In their investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server; prosecutors in Boente’s office found little evidence that she intended to break classification rules.
Prosecutors working for Boente also won convictions of CIA leaker Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act and television news analyst Wayne Simmons for pretending to be a CIA agent. Boente has overseen 10 prosecutions of Americans accused of supporting the Islamic State, eight of which have yielded convictions. The other two are set for trial this year.
In the past several years, Boente’s office also has aggressively targeted opioid dealers implicated in fatal overdoses, taking on what Boente has described as a worsening epidemic in Virginia.
“I’m very concerned that we haven’t seen the worst of this,” Boente said at a forum late last year in Loudoun County. “If you don’t know someone who’s had a problem with addiction, you will.”
Boente was nominated to lead the U.S. attorney’s office in Virginia by President Barack Obama on Oct. 8, 2015, and confirmed by the Senate two months later.
Before he became a U.S. attorney, Boente worked in the tax division and as an interim attorney in both the Eastern District of Virginia and the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Boente, who is from Carlinville, Ill., lives in Northern Virginia. He said he expects to serve as acting attorney general until Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is confirmed.