A veteran federal prosecutor recruited onto special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is known for a skill that may come in handy in the investigation of potential ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team: persuading witnesses to turn on friends, colleagues and superiors.
Andrew Weissmann, who headed the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal fraud section before joining Mueller’s team last month, is best known for two assignments – the investigation of now-defunct energy company Enron and organized crime cases in Brooklyn, New York – that depended heavily on gaining witness cooperation.
Securing the cooperation of people close to Trump, many of whom have been retaining their own lawyers, could be important for Mueller, who was named by the Justice Department as special counsel on May 17 and is investigating, among other issues, whether Trump himself has sought to obstruct justice. Trump has denied allegations of both collusion and obstruction.
“Flipping” witnesses is a common, although not always successful, tactic in criminal prosecutions.
Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel examining former President Bill Clinton, noted that Trump’s fired former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has already offered through his lawyer to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity, suggesting potential willingness to cooperate as a witness.
“It would seem to me the time is now to make some decisions about what you have and what leverage can be applied to get the things you don’t have,” Ray said, referring to Mueller’s team.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and others close to the president already have hired their own lawyers to help navigate Mueller’s expanding probe and ongoing congressional investigations.
Kathryn Ruemmler, who served as White House counsel under former President Barack Obama, said Weissmann is willing to take risks to secure witness testimony that other prosecutors might not. Ruemmler worked with Weissmann on the Justice Department’s Enron task force that investigated the massive corporate fraud that led to the company’s 2001 collapse.
Ruemmler recalled that Weissmann had a hunch that former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan would be willing to talk despite already having pleaded guilty without agreeing to cooperate. So Weissmann had U.S. marshals bring Glisan before the grand jury from prison, Ruemmler said.
‘NOT AFRAID TO LOSE’
Other prosecutors might have feared Glisan’s testimony could contradict their theory of the case, Ruemmler said, but Weissmann’s gamble paid off when the former executive became a key witness.
“He’s not afraid to lose, and that is sometimes an unusual quality,” Ruemmler said of Weissmann.