Andrew, I want to begin with the basic arguments you make in your book, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, for whom you were a lead prosecutor, could have done more in his investigation.
I'd like to ask you to focus in particular on the issue of President Trump's finances, which we're all thinking about in light of The New York Times revelatory story about the president's tax returns.
As we look back at this story, isn't it important that we know more about the president's finances, and why did Special Counsel Mueller observe the red line that President Trump announced that he said prevented the inquiry into his personal finances?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, first, let me thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
So, before I get to the direct answer to your question, which was a really good one and obviously incredibly topical in light of The New York Times revelations, it's worth noting that, as I outlined in my book, all of the terrific accomplishments that were undertaken by the Special Counsel investigation under Robert Mueller's leadership.
But that being said, there were areas where we didn't go and, you know, I have my own personal views as to what we should have done. But with respect to finances, it's a very interesting issue and it really goes to something that's very unusual in this case, which is we were investigating somebody who had the power to fire us.
I've been a prosecutor for many, many years. I've prosecuted Enron executives. In New York City, I've prosecuted organized crime figures. And those can be very challenging investigations, but one thing that those targets don't have is the ability to pull the plug on your investigation.
And as you recall, David, early on the White House had said that a red line was looking at the president's finances. Normally, as an investigator, of course, that's a bit of a red flag. And so, I recount in the book a scene where we had issued a subpoena with respect to Deutsche Bank, it was actually in connection with Manafort's finances, as to which we did do a financial investigation. And the Special Counsel had a difficult decision to make, one I actually ended up--I personally agreed with it, which was, at that point in the investigation, do you do the financial investigation and risk being fired and then not have the ability to do the great work that Team R, the Russia team did, in uncovering how Russia interfered with our election, how it hacked into the DNC; how, in the Manafort team, we discovered that Manafort had been given--had been giving internal polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian asset.
So, the decision at that time was to not do that investigation. Where I respectfully disagree is that I think that decision needed to be revisited so that we had a fuller picture of the president's potential links to Russia on the financial side and not just the matters that we had looked at.
MR. IGNATIUS: To be more specific, you note in your book that when the president and his lawyers talked about this red line after you had issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for records about Manafort, the response could have been, "Go pound sand. It's not your call. It's our call." As you say, you refrained from doing that.
Looking back, if the Special Counsel had issued subpoenas for wider records from Deutsche Bank which, at the time, we believed was the president's principal lender. What information do you think might have been obtained? Or to ask the question differently, what questions might have been answered that would have been relevant to understanding the issues that the Special Counsel was asked to look at?
MR. WEISSMANN: Well, we were tasked with looking at all links between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. That was in the appointment order from Rod Rosenstein, the acting Attorney General.
So, one of the questions is, were there any financial links. And we did look, when Michael Cohen cooperated with our investigation--we did at that point look at the financial links with respect to the Trump Moscow project, as to which there's been, you know, a lot of reporting. But we don't know the answer to whether there are--whether there's financing from Russia of various Trump projects. We don't know whether the president's indebted in some way to Russian oligarchs.
You know, one of the things that struck my attention in The New York Times reporting, and assuming it's accurate, is the Miss Universe pageant, there's information in The New York Times reporting that the money to sponsor that was put up by a Russian oligarch named Agalarov.
And David, you may recall that that same oligarch was behind the Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016. It was his emissaries who had set up that meeting to offer what they phrased in writing as dirt on Hillary Clinton. And so, one of the questions I had with respect to The New York Times reporting is, according to The New York Times, that Miss Universe pageant was unusually profitable, and yet the Agalarovs didn't seem to make any money off of it, even though they were people who put up the money. But then, private citizen Trump had made a couple million dollars off of that. So, that's something that, as an investigator, there certainly are questions that you'd want to answer on that.
MR. IGNATIUS: And Andrew, just to be clear, The New York Times says that the Trump Organization made--I believe it was $2.3 million from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. And I take it from what you said that that was not a matter that was investigated by the Special Counsel; am I right?
MR. WEISSMANN: That's correct.
MR. IGNATIUS: And why was that? In hindsight, it seems like a glaring, flashing light. Why wasn't there an effort to ask questions, given that you were interested in the New York meeting that the Agalarovs were involved in?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, as I mentioned, the decision early on was made by the Special Counsel to not go across that red line and, you know, this is an area where I have great respect for Robert Mueller. He certainly is motivated by all the right things, but I just have a disagreement as to that area not being gone into and not revisiting the issue once our investigation grew. And the risks of being fired, to me, at that point, did not outweigh needing to be more thorough with respect to this particular area.
MR. IGNATIUS: But just so I'm clear, did this issue of revisiting the financial matters come up later in the investigation? I understand that in the summer of 2017 when the president and his lawyers had enunciated the red line, decided not to cross it. Did you or did others specifically say later, before the investigation concluded, we need to go back and look at that?
MR. WEISSMANN: There were those discussions of needing to have a broader financial investigation and, at that point, the decision was made to wrap up the investigation without going into those things.
One of the things that I do think would have been important having made that decision--and again, just to be clear: I worked for somebody. It's their decision and, you know, I knew what I was getting into in that sense, and that happens all the time that people disagree. I do think that the report, the written report could have been clearer about what we did and didn't do.
As you know, David, I'm particularly critical of the Attorney General and the way he characterized the report. I think one of the things he was--he gave the impression that we had done sort of more than we had done, and I think it would have been useful if our report had been clearer about what we looked at and what we did not look at.
MR. IGNATIUS: On a question more broadly of the president's finances, as revealed by The New York Times investigation, you have, as General Counsel of the FBI, as a prosecutor, I'm sure had to obtain security clearances many times over the years.
MR. WEISSMANN: Yeah.
MR. IGNATIUS: If President Trump were an ordinary citizen, with the degree of indebtedness that we now know that he has--The New York Times figures $421 million in personally guaranteed debt--if he were a private citizen and not president, would he be able to obtain a security clearance without clear explanation about that debt, where it comes from, and how he's going to pay it off?
MR. WEISSMANN: No. You know, I'm not a security clearance expert, but you would have a substantial number of questions about--from just a simply a counterintelligence perspective, you'd want to know a lot more about whether a person--a standard question is whether the person lives within their means. You want to know what kind of financial leverage somebody might have with respect to that person. So, just for an average citizen, if you have any substantial debt, there are a whole series of standard questions that are asked to ascertain those kinds of risks. And then, of course, depending on the answers, that could or could not be--you know, you could get clearance, but you'd want to have--make sure that's fully vetted.
MR. IGNATIUS: And to be clear, was that question of the president's potential vulnerability because of his financial situation well known, that he had substantial debts--was that a subject that you looked into in the course of your investigation?
MR. WEISSMANN: No.
MR. IGNATIUS: Whether he was vulnerable and could be, in some way, pressured?
MR. WEISSMANN: That was not--as I mentioned, sort of a full financial investigation was not something that was done. There were aspects that were done, as I mentioned, with respect to, for instance, Michael Cohen and the Trump--so-called Trump Tower Moscow project, but a full financial investigation to look into those issues was not done.
I know the subject of whether there was a counterintelligence investigation is one that has received some, you know, attention. And just to be clear, there was a mechanism where, as we were doing what we were authorized to do within the parameters set by the Deputy Attorney General and Special Counsel Mueller, if there were counterintelligence leads, those were given to the FBI and their CI folks to follow up on.
MR. IGNATIUS: From a question of obstruction of justice, you said in the book, as I read it, that you think it was a mistake for Special Counsel Mueller not to come to a conclusion to say here's the evidence [unclear], but not to resolve it.
Do you think, in your own mind, as one of his lead prosecutors, that there was obstruction of justice, in your judgment?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, my personal judgment is that, if you look at the facts that were outlined in our investigation, that I don't think a reasonable prosecutor looking at those could conclude that there was not obstruction of justice. That's a fancy way of saying that, you know, I think that a reasonable prosecutor would conclude that there was obstruction.
I do think there's a potential legal issue that a court would need to resolve, whether the obstruction statute legally applies to the president. There are some academics who question that particular issue, although the statute, on its face, applies to any person, but I just want to flag that potential legal issue, but that's not a factual judgment.
MR. IGNATIUS: You mentioned earlier Attorney General Barr's rollout of your findings, which you argued was misleading--you say in your book that Special Counsel Mueller had spoken with Barr before the report was completed and told him the sort of non-conclusion he was going to come to on obstruction of justice.
Had Mueller also talked with Barr about the rollout and what Barr would say in presenting the findings?
MR. WEISSMANN: I don't--I don't know the answer to that. I don't believe so, based on what I know, but I don't know for sure the answer to that particular question.
I do know that I think everyone was very surprised by the four-page letter that was issued on March 24th, 2019 and the way it characterized the investigation and both what it said and what it didn't say.
MR. IGNATIUS: I should ask you to comment directly on Mueller's response this week to your book. He argued that it was based on, in his words, "incomplete information." And he defended his judgments and conclusions saying that, in effect, there were things that he knew that you didn't or didn't discuss in the book.
What's your reaction to his comment?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, I have no dispute with respect to the idea that I don't know everything that went on and I don't have--the idea that there may be additional facts that are relevant and material. And if that's the case, I think that's the kind of thing that any good investigator wants to consider all of the facts just the way a scientist would want to know additional facts.
And so, what I was trying to do was be as candid and objective as I could be with respect to both the--what we were facing from the outside, coming from either the White House or the president or Attorney General Barr; and then, with respect to what we did, how we met those challenges and pointing out where I thought that we were very successful and did a really good job. But I also didn't want to be pollyannish, and I knew that it meant that I had to sort of hold up a mirror to things I did and other people did to point out areas where I thought we could have done better.
And I think that conversation, particularly as it relates to the Special Counsel regulations, is an important one to have. And I think from a--if you step back and take it out of the political maelstrom that we're in right now and think about it from a systemic point of view in terms of are the Special Counsel rules working. This is a really good time for us to be thinking about do they need to change. And are there stumbling blocks and hurdles that were placed before us that really--it would behoove us to figure out how to make them better.
And just to be on a bit of a diatribe on this, you know, if you think about it historically, you can see where we are in terms of Watergate happening and the creation of the independent counsel rules in light of the Saturday Night Massacre, and then the Special Counsel rules being put in place in light of the experience with the independent counsel law, including the Ken Starr investigation. And this is a good time to reflect on whether the Special Counsel rules can work in this kind of situation, because God forbid, we're in this situation again. You really do want to have the best mechanisms to avoid--I think avoid the repetition of what happened here.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, if there are specific reform suggestions, tell us. But I want to ask you in the course of that to respond to another criticism that was made of your book in The Washington Post today by attorney Randall Eliason. He said he thought it was a betrayal of Mueller, your boss. But he also argued, I think, more broadly, that we should be concerned about overly aggressive or overly public discussions by prosecutors, that we've had experience--the Ken Starr investigation is an example, but there are others--and that discretion has its value for a prosecutor, just like a former intelligence official.
How would you respond to Eliason's critique?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, I think that's a good debate to have. I think that if we were talking about an investigation that was entirely secret and you were doing an investigation and nothing came of it, that that would make a lot of sense to me, that you would not malign somebody in that way. But this is a very different situation, because the Attorney General, with White House consent, had made the report public. And so, to my mind, I guess I don't view either dissent or debate or discussion about what worked and what didn't work as a betrayal. I think it's important for what I would call the public education function of the justice system for people to understand what happened.
You know, I was brought up as--with a lot of history in my background and I studied it in college, and I really thought it was necessary to record for the historical record what happened in the same way that there were numerous precedents for this going back to Watergate and other celebrated investigations and trials and I thought that if there wasn't an accounting from the inside, we were going to be left with speculation and conspiracy theories. And I thought it was important to try to have a sober reflection on what worked, what challenges there were, and what might work better going forward.
MR. IGNATIUS: I should say that I, as a reader of your book, and somebody who has followed this story from the beginning, found this discussion very helpful. Journalists always want more information, not less.
I want to ask you about a criticism that the president's defenders have made repeatedly in different ways, and that is the argument that the FBI overstepped proper investigation bounds in aspects of this investigation going back to 2016. One particular that's been cited is the way in which the foreign intelligence surveillance warrant on Carter Page was obtained. The record is pretty clear that some of the information that was used was inaccurate and that the FBI's standards were not what we would expect.
You used to be General Counsel to the FBI. I want to ask you, were you troubled by any of the information that surfaced about how the FBI conducted its investigation in the beginning, before the Mueller investigation was chartered back in 2016?
MR. WEISSMANN: That's a great question. So, I'm going to put on my, you know, former General Counsel hat. This is an area I really care deeply about, and I'm--of course I'm very concerned. I think that any time you're making representations to the court, you need to be meticulous and scrupulous and you need to front both the positive and negative evidence.
And that's particularly true in ex parte applications, meaning ones where there's no adversary. And one thing that I am a huge proponent of is, particularly when it comes to national security applications where those may never see the light of day, they may never be subjected to adversary challenge, I think it's very, very useful to have another voice there. And you know, there is an amicus process in the FISA court, but I think it would be really useful to have that expanded in a way that has more rigor and more routine adversary process by lawyers who are, you know, prescreened in order to--so they have the necessary clearance.
And I'm sorry, we talked about my dog and the fact that I have his bed in the shot. So, I hope that's not too distracting.
MR. IGNATIUS: Well, we're happy to see your dog.
One final thing I want to ask you about that Republican Senators and others have questioned, is whether the Mueller prosecution team wiped its cellphones in a way that was inappropriate during or at the conclusion of the investigation.
I'm sure you've seen these allegations. What about them? Were the phones wiped? Why? What's the quick response to that?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, the quick response is--and I really would hope that the Department of Justice would get out in front of this, because as I write about in my book, we had every concern about retaining as much evidence as possible. And we were very concerned, having looked at Watergate, about what would happen if we were summarily fired. And we did all sorts of things to make sure that our records, both electronic and hard copy, would be preserved in various locations.
So, I actually think this is kind of--I mean, I understand why there's this story, because there's a document that says phones, you know, needed to be reset and the material on the phone was erased. But everything was backed up. And I know personally my stuff was backed up because there were numerous FOIA requests for everything on my phones for four years. And I remember having to go through with FBI lawyers all of my calendars.
So, you know, whether something is on a particular handheld device, it all was on--you know, in my case, I know it was on my computer. So, I think, ultimately, at the end of the day, this will prove to be a nonstory.
MR. IGNATIUS: Thanks. Thanks for responding to that. We have just a little bit of time, left. I'm just going to ask you a simple, straightforward question. You, I'm told, are a lifelong Republican. And I want to ask you why it is that Republicans have been so reluctant, in some cases unwilling, to hold President Trump accountable for some of his actions, the actions that you investigated carefully along with Special Counsel Mueller. Why is that?
MR. WEISSMANN: So, that goes beyond my expertise, but one thing I do write about and I've experienced and I think about is when I was involved in the Enron prosecution. I used to think about the Enron case that it was not good for the media to focus on the more salacious aspects of it, in terms of what Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow were doing. To me, the story was, how did they get away with this? Who were the people that were enabling or complicit or didn't speak up? It was about those enablers. Where were the guardrails? And I think there is an analogy here because there can be people who, you know, do things that are improper or even illegal, but we're supposed to have checks and balances, and people are supposed to stand up for, you know, the rule of law. As somebody who has been in the Department of Justice for over two decades, it's dispiriting to see those guardrails not being adhered to.
MR. IGNATIUS: Helpful answer. Very interesting conversation. I want to thank our guest, Andrew Weissmann. His new book, "Where Law Ends" is, rightly, getting a lot of discussion around the country. We're really glad to have had some of that discussion today on Washington Post Live. So, thank you to Andrew.
I'll be back on Monday for an interview with Dara Khosrowshahi, who is the CEO of Uber, a company that we all know well. Enjoy the rest of the week and the weekend. We look forward to seeing you on Monday.
[End recorded session.]