By early Tuesday evening, more than 720 former federal prosecutors who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations had signed a letter asserting that President Trump would have been charged with obstructing justice based on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings — if Trump were not the president.
The signers included some left-leaning lawyers who have gained prominence from their frequent TV appearances, but also a significant number of career prosecutors and high-profile conservatives who bristle at the suggestion they were motivated by anti-Trump bias.
A handful interviewed by The Post on Tuesday said they hoped for little else than to make public their view that Attorney General William P. Barr had mischaracterized Mueller’s report in asserting it laid out insufficient evidence to make an obstruction case. They said they did not sign hoping to spark impeachment proceedings.
The group’s views stand in stark contrast to those of Barr’s — who has offered detailed defenses of his decision that there was not a case to be made — and to many Republican lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) declared in a speech Tuesday that Democrats should move on from the investigations into Trump, asserting bluntly, “case closed.”
Mueller himself left the question open, saying a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted prevented him from saying even in a confidential report whether he believed the president committed a crime.
Among the notable names in the group of letter signers was Elkan Abramowitz, a former federal prosecutor in New York who has gained attention recently for representing David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc. (AMI).
Trump and Pecker had been longtime friends, though their relationship collapsed as federal authorities explored AMI’s role in hush-money payments Trump arranged to be sent to women to keep quiet about alleged affairs. Pecker was involved in the effort, and AMI ultimately acknowledged its role.
Abramowitz, a Democrat, said he signed the letter because he found Barr’s statements about Mueller’s report “so unbelievably misleading that I thought a clear statement of what the report said was in order.” He said his signature had “nothing to do” with Pecker or any other client.
“The line in his testimony where he said that the president, ‘if he thought any investigation of him was not fair he could stop it,’ was really — not only destructive and wrong — it was stupid,” Abramowitz said, referring to Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Everybody I represent says that the investigation of them is unfair, and they have very sincerely held beliefs that the investigation is unfair. It was just an absurd statement.”
Jeffrey Harris, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in New York and longtime friend of Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he first saw the letter when it was blasted out to an email group for former federal prosecutors. He said he signed because if he had a case involving even one of the incidents Mueller described, “I would have clearly prosecuted that person or persons, and I can tell you, when Rudy was a prosecutor, he would’ve done the same thing.”
“Whether to prosecute this kind of conduct was not a close prosecutorial call,” Harris said. “This was a no brainer.”
Harris served as Giuliani’s top deputy when Giuliani served as the No. 3 Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and said the two once socialized regularly, though they haven’t been in touch in recent years, Harris said. Giuliani said in a text message: “I would not bring a case where there is no underlying crime and nothing actually obstructed. Jeff was a Dem, I believe, and I doubt he voted for Trump. Indeed I’m not sure any of them, Rs or Ds. supported Trump. What prosecutors would offer a gratuitous opinion on a case they didn’t investigate.”
He said while he has “great affection” for Harris, his former colleague was ignoring critical aspects of Mueller’s report. For example, Giuliani said, Mueller’s assertion that he could not “exonerate” Trump was “a perversion of the 2,000 year old burden in any case.”
“Prosecutors don’t exonerate,” he said.
“That requires proving a negative that most often is impossible.”
Harris said he is a longtime Republican but registered as a Democrat to vote in primary elections when he moved to Washington, which picks most of its officeholders in primaries because its voters are overwhelmingly Democratic.
Harris said the letter already seems to have accomplished its main mission, alerting the public “that there are a large number of former professional prosecutors and Department of Justice attorneys who think that the public statements of Barr and Giuliani and the like that there’s nothing to see here is absolutely wrong.” He said he is ambivalent about the letter’s potential impact on possible impeachment efforts — because he knows the Senate would not vote to remove Trump from office.
“I would like to see this guy leave office at the soonest opportunity by any legal means. Do I think impeachment is going to accomplish that? I don’t. Do I think this will help in the next election cycle? I hope it does,” Harris said.
Paul Rosenzweig, who served as senior counsel to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, said he signed the letter to present a “counterpoint” to the narrative Barr had advanced that the evidence was insufficient to accuse Trump of obstructing justice.
Rosenzweig — a longtime member of the conservative Federalist Society group who said his “views on substantive issues are as far from liberal as you can imagine on most things” — said while he supported Bill Clinton’s impeachment, he was not in as strong a position to judge whether lawmakers should pursue the same result for Trump.
Signing the letter, he said, was “more about the public, and it was more about correcting what I think was the erroneous record that was created by the attorney general.”
“I don’t have any hopes,” he said. “I think it’s important to say that Trump’s conduct violated criminal law, and that if he were another person, he’d be prosecuted.” He added he hopes people “take that into account when they cast their next ballot.”
Donald Ayer, a deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, said he saw the statement in a draft form last week, and he soon began circulating it among other former prosecutors who felt Barr’s characterization of Mueller’s report belied its content.
“We just felt a need to tell the American people from the perspective of unbiased observers who at different times in our lives have done this for a living that there really is a case here,” he said, adding later, “I sort of feel like, if you’re in a position to say something that anybody might care about you saying — and it’s important — a lot of the time you probably ought to say it.”
As to what happens next, though, Ayer said he takes no position.
“I don’t really have a specific aspiration, other than that I hope people will pay some attention and maybe themselves read the report and think about what would happen to an ordinary person who had done the things that were shown to be done here.” Ayer said.