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Do Russia probe attorneys’ donations to Democrats threaten their independence?

President Trump suggested the special prosecutor's team might not be fair, impartial investigators. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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“The people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters. Some of them worked for Hillary Clinton. I mean the whole thing is ridiculous, if you want to know the truth, from that standpoint.”
— President Trump, interview with “Fox & Friends,” June 23, 2017

“Then who does Mueller select to help lead the ‘independent’ investigation? Four top lawyers, all major donors to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Party. One of them even worked for the Clinton Foundation. … Only in Washington could a rigged game like this be called independent.”
— Pro-Trump group Great America Alliance, political ad, June 23, 2017

There’s a newer version of this column which can be found via this link

President Trump and his surrogates are attacking the judgment and independence of former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation and related matters. They are criticizing the political contributions of some of the attorneys hired to Mueller’s team, questioning the investigators’ independence.

Trump claimed the attorneys are all supporters of Hillary Clinton and worked for her. The ad described the hires as a part of a “rigged game.” Let’s dig into it.

The Facts

The attacks aimed at discrediting Mueller one month into his special investigation are similar to efforts by former president Bill Clinton’s supporters two decades ago. Democrats at the time worked to undermine Kenneth Starr, special counsel whose investigations ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment in the House. They painted Starr as an unethical investigator with a conflict of interest conducting a partisan “witch hunt.”

Mueller has hired 13 attorneys and is expected to hire more. Most are veteran attorneys at the Justice Department or the FBI, or attorneys Mueller worked with at the WilmerHale law firm, which he left in May when he was appointed special counsel. The members who have been made public:

  • Michael R. Dreeben, deputy solicitor general
  • James Quarles III, WilmerHale attorney, former Watergate prosecutor
  • Aaron Zebley, WilmerHale attorney, former FBI counterterrorism special agent
  • Andrew Weissmann, head of the Justice Department’s fraud section and former FBI general counsel under Mueller
  • Lisa Page, former DOJ trial attorney and formerly of the FBI general counsel office
  • Jeannie Rhee, WilmerHale attorney, formerly DOJ Office of Legal Counsel, former assistant United States attorney in the District of Columbia
  • Elizabeth Prelogar, attorney in the Solicitor General’s office
  • Adam Jed, DOJ attorney

Four (Quarles, Weissmann, Rhee, Prelogar) have made political contributions to Democrats and four (Zebley, Dreeben, Page, Jed) have no record of making political contributions. Previous news reports incorrectly identified Dreeben as a Democratic donor, mistaking him for a furniture designer in Chicago named Michael W. Dreeben.

Quarles gave the most political donations out of the four — nearly $33,000 to various Democrats since 1999, Federal Election Commission records show. Recipients included Obama for America, Hillary for America and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Quarles is the only one who donated to Republicans. In 2005, he gave $250 to then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia. In 2015, he gave $2,500 to Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight Committee who later would investigate Hillary Clinton’s private email server use.

Weissmann donated $4,300 total to the Obama Victory Fund in 2008, $2,300 to the Clinton campaign in 2007, and the Democratic National Committee in 2006. Rhee gave $5,400 total to Hillary for America in 2015 and 2016; $4,800 total in 2008 and 2011 to the Obama Victory Fund; and $250 to the DNC in 2004. (Quarles and Rhee gave maximum contributions of $2,700 to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.) Prelogar donated $500 total to Obama Victory fund in 2012 and Hillary for America in 2016. (Note: We corrected an error in the calculation for Rhee’s donations to the Obama Victory Fund.)

Rhee was a partner on the defense team representing the Clinton Foundation in a lawsuit over Clinton’s use of her private email server. Zebley once represented a Clinton aide at WilmerHale, PolitiFact found.

So Trump twisted the facts: Not all of Mueller’s hires supported Clinton, and none of them worked for Clinton directly. The White House did not provide an explanation of Trump’s claim.

A Great America Alliance spokesman said the ad’s message is that hiring four high-profile attorneys who contributed to Democrats means Mueller cannot credibly claim to conduct an investigation without some inherent bias or conflict.

“An independent investigation should actually be independent and Mr. Mueller is failing to achieve that standard,” the spokesman said. “Stacking the investigative team with political opponents of the president will not achieve an unbiased result and we are committed to exposing this reality.”

But that overlooks important context. Federal regulations prohibit the Justice Department from considering the political affiliation or political contributions of career appointees, including those appointed to the Special Counsel’s Office. So the implication that Mueller is making politically motivated hires is quite a stretch, as he is legally prohibited from considering their political affiliations.

“Under the Rules of Professional Responsibility, attorneys are permitted to participate in matters involving their former firm’s clients so long as they have no confidential information about the client and did not participate in the representation,” said Peter Carr, spokesman for the Special Counsel’s Office. Moreover, attorneys are bound by confidentiality rules and may not use information they learned from one client (say, Clinton Foundation) and divulge it in another case (say, the Russia probe).

The Justice Department’s ethics experts found Mueller and those he hired from his former firm are consistent with DOJ rules, Carr said. This was despite concerns over WilmerHale’s representation of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump.

Mueller reports to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. In a June 13 Senate hearing, Rosenstein said it is not a disqualification for a lawyer in the Special Counsel’s Office to have made a political donation, and that “as a general matter,” it is not a disqualification for a lawyer to have represented Clinton in the past. 

That Rhee represented the Clinton Foundation is irrelevant, said Stephen Gillers, expert in legal ethics at the New York University School of Law: “The Mueller investigation is not about Clinton’s emails. The two matters are apples and oranges. A lawyer could work on both.”

In fact, the lead defense attorney that Rhee worked with on the Clinton Foundation case now represents Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump mischaracterized the donations from Mueller’s attorneys and falsely claimed some even worked for Hillary Clinton. Four out of eight attorneys made public so far have contributed to Democrats, including Clinton and Obama. The other four have no record of political contributions.

One attorney who donated the maximum amount to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign represented the Clinton Foundation in a 2015 lawsuit. Another attorney who made no political donations represented a Clinton aide at one point. Both attorneys worked for WilmerHale, a firm that also represents Trump’s former campaign manager, daughter and son-in-law.

Further, Trump and the ad use these political contributions to suggest bias or conflict of interest. But that twists the facts that misleads the public to believe there is something nefarious going on. Legally and under federal ethics rules, there is no conflict of interest. The DOJ is legally barred from discriminating career appointees based on political affiliation, so Mueller can’t decide his team based on their contributions. That half of the publicly named special counsel attorneys donated to Democrats is not an indication that Mueller has failed to achieve a standard of independence. We award Three Pinocchios.

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