Vice President Pence became the latest member of the Trump administration to lawyer up Thursday, announcing that he had hired an outside attorney, Richard Cullen, to deal with the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
News reports described the sterling reputation of Cullen, 69, a former Virginia attorney general and longtime Washington insider who played crucial roles in some of the most high-profile political investigations of the last several decades.
But other parts of his resume attracted even more interest. For three years, Cullen worked at a Richmond law firm with a central figure of the Russia investigation: FBI Director James B. Comey, who was just fired by Pence’s boss, President Trump.
Outside of President Trump’s chosen personal attorney, a New York-based corporate lawyer, the legal minds affiliated with the Russia probe are indeed all part of the same web — or dwellers in the same swamp, if that’s how you see Washington.
Though Trump spent his campaign pledging to “drain the swamp,” the phrase is not his invention. Elected officials on both sides have deployed it for decades. Think of the swamp as the ecosystem it is, inhabited by particular species that thrive on its food-chain, few so cooperatively as politicians and their lawyers.
In such a place, it would be tough to assemble a team of people that hadn’t shared a cubicle at least once or twice, or passed one another going through revolving doors and revolving scandals.
A relatively small group of people specialize in this type of work and their names come up, depending on their age, across some the biggest Washington controversies from Watergate on.
Even in the earliest stages of the Russia investigation, as more and more members of the Trump administration lawyer up and the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, assembles its own team, the pattern is once again repeating itself.
The origin of many of these connections is the investigation of the Watergate break in, 45 years ago this coming weekend.
Cullen, fresh out of college in the 1970s, was involved with Watergate from the sidelines. He served on the campaign staff for Republican Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“And lo and behold, there’s the impeachment,” Cullen recalled in a 2007 profile in Richmond Law Magazine.
As a swing vote, Butler played a crucial role in Nixon’s impeachment hearings, and Cullen often fielded questions from reporters covering it. Years later, he served as special counsel to then Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) in the Iran-contra investigations.
As the Richmond Law magazine profile stated it, “Cullen has frequently crossed paths with the powerful, the famous and the infamous.”
Comey and Cullen worked together at law firm McGuireWoods between 1993 and 1996. And although they did not overlap, both served in the U.S. attorney’s Office in Richmond.
Cullen, who is now chairman of McGuireWoods, has often spoken highly of Comey in the press. When Comey was named FBI Director in 2013, Cullen told the Richmond Times Dispatch that his former colleague would “be a great director. There are many people in Richmond who remember him and his family fondly and are very pleased that the president has chosen him for such a vitally important position.”
But two years later, Cullen and Comey’s ties became news. Cullen was hired to represent FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in the corruption investigation into soccer’s governing body, a probe led by the agency of his “close associate” — then FBI director Comey.
Comey also has a long personal history with Mueller. Soon after Mueller was appointed special counsel, questions were raised about his close relationship with Comey during their time together working for the Department of Justice, Mueller as FBI director and Comey as deputy attorney general, where together they intervened to block President George W. Bush’s domestic surveillance program.
Some Republicans have insisted that their friendship constitutes a conflict of interest, as Comey’s status as a likely star witness in Mueller’s probe becomes more clear. Some Trump supporters are using that, and the fact that some of Mueller’s hires have been Democratic contributors, in an effort to justify the firing of Mueller by Trump, a possibility considered by the president, according to his friend Christopher Ruddy.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
Beyond his friendship with Comey, Mueller’s appointment drew skepticism from some when it was reported that the law firm he left for the special prosecutor role, WilmerHale, was representing other key players in the investigation: former Trump aide Paul Manafort and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
The Department of Justice ultimately ruled that Mueller’s past connection to WilmerHale would not impede his judgment since he was not connected to the other three clients. Mueller resigned and took with him at least three others from the firm to join his “dream team” of lawyers for the probe.
Manafort, whose dealings with a Russia-aligned Ukrainian political party are at the center of the probe, is being represented by WilmerHale partner Reginald Brown. Brown worked in the Bush White House and runs the firm’s financial institutions group and congressional investigations practice.
Brown’s WilmerHale partner, Jamie Gorelick, a staunch liberal who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton years and was a favorite for attorney general had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, is being lambasted by a few as a turncoat for taking on as clients Ivanka Trump and Kushner.
She told Politico she was still recovering from the loss of the Clinton campaign, which she worked on, when she was approached about working for the Trumps.
Like Cullen, she has ties to Watergate. Her first case as a lawyer was helping represent former president Nixon before the Supreme Court protecting his papers.
As a member of the commission tasked with investigating the 9/11 attacks, Gorelick frequently met with then-FBI Director Mueller, according to a 2004 article in the Chicago Tribune, which reported the FBI was “intensely lobbying commission members in an effort to convince them it’s up to the task of protecting the nation.”
“I’ve had lunch with him, I’m sure everybody has had lunch with him,” Gorelick said of Mueller at the time, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The only lawyer who seems to have few, if any, ties to the Washington establishment is Marc Kasowitz, who has long defended the business mogul but brings to the table little experience in matters of criminal justice.
It’s a disconnect that bids an oh-so-DC question — does an outsider thrive in the swamp or drown in it?
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