Former Trump-Russia prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who emerged last week as a fundraiser for Joseph R. Biden, is a sidelight in the Justice Department inspector general’s report on FBI wiretap abuse.
The Weissmann story by Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz deals with a group of Justice Department and FBI personnel who met secretly during and after the election to try to rev up a stalled money laundering probe into Paul Manafort, briefly Donald Trump’s campaign chairman.
Mr. Weissmann, special counsel Robert Mueller’s former top gun, is hosting a virtual Biden money-raising event next month, a role stirring talk that he may win a top Justice spot if the presumed Democratic nominee is elected president. He also appears as a legal analyst on MSNBC, where he has given advice on how to oust President Trump.
As told by Mr. Horowitz, the anti-Manafort gaggles attracted the leading players in the Trump-Russia saga: FBI agent Peter Strzok; his then-lover, bureau counsel Lisa Page; and Bruce Ohr, then an associate deputy attorney general. Mr. Ohr became a freelance courier for a variety of anti-Trump claims from dossier-writer Christopher Steele and his handler, Glenn Simpson at Fusion GPS.
Mr. Horowitz veered into the Manafort matter because Mr. Weissmann, Mr. Strzok and others kept their meetings off-limits to the department’s political leaders, during both the Obama and the Trump administrations.
They also didn’t inform the chief of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, which had custody of the Manafort probe. Kendall Day, who ran MLARS, said the group had an “unusual level of interest” that could be interpreted as targeting Manafort for “inappropriate reasons.”
Criminal Division assistant AG Leslie Caldwell, one of those kept out of the loop, told the inspector general that the group’s secrecy was “a little bit paranoid.”
In all, the story shows that Mr. Weissmann focused on Manafort months before he joined the Mueller investigation, in which he successfully prosecuted the political consultant.
Kevin Downing, Manafort’s attorney, told The Washington Times that had the Russia probe not come along, his client had a good chance of resolving any tax issues with a non-criminal settlement. Manafort had met with the FBI and turned over his financial documents.
But the Russia election interference probe sealed Manafort’s fate. Besides his work for Mr. Trump, Manafort had earned big bucks as a consultant to a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine. That resume prompted Mr. Strzok to add Manafort to a target list with three other Trump associates in August 2016, after he opened a counterintelligence investigation called Crossfire Hurricane.
It is unclear whether Weissmann and his Justice Department allies knew from Mr. Strzok that the FBI already had opened Crossfire when they met in October, November and early 2017.
It became moot the following May. Mr. Mueller set up shop, and Manafort came along with the deal, as did Mr. Weissmann as a senior prosecutor.
Back in the fall, the Manafort club included Bruce Swartz, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division, and Zainab Ahmad, a division counsel who also joined the Mueller unit.
Said the Horowitz report: “The meetings involving Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann focused on their shared concern that MLARS was not moving quickly enough on the Manafort investigation and whether there were steps they could take to move the investigation forward. The meetings with Strzok and Page focused primarily on whether the FBI was aware of the Manafort investigation so that it could assess the case’s relevance, if any, to the FBI’s Russian interference investigation.”
Why the secrecy?
Said Mr. Horowitz: “Weissmann told us that at around the time of these meetings, he and Ahmad had a conversation in which Ahmad told him that she and Swartz were not going to tell the Department’s political leadership about their efforts to move the Manafort investigation forward. Weissmann said that he remembered thinking, at the time, that this was because Swartz and Ahmad wanted to insulate the political leadership from an allegation of politically targeting Manafort.”
The IG’s report also said: “Ohr and Swartz both told us that they felt an urgency to move the Manafort investigation forward because of Trump’s election and a concern that the new administration would shut the investigation down.”
The Manafort saga is another example of how Mr. Steele’s dossier, financed by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign, circulated in the Justice Department.
Mr. Ohr failed to inform his boss, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, of his Steele-Fusion freelancing. He met several times with Mr. Swartz and Ms. Ahmad about Mr. Steele’s various criminal allegations against Mr. Trump.
This meant that those two senior prosecutors were told that Mr. Trump was a Russian spy, financed Kremlin computer hacking and cavorted with prostitutes in Moscow. None of these dossier claims proved true. The Mueller probe found no Trump-Russia election conspiracy.
Mr. Weissmann had at least one more pre-Mueller foray into the Manafort matter: In March 2017, an Associated Press reporter contacted him and tipped him that Manafort maintained a storage locker in Virginia. Mr. Weissmann set up a meeting with four AP reporters and the FBI on April 11.
Manafort attorney Mr. Downing forced the prosecution to turn over two FBI memos on the session in pre-trial motions in which he alleged the government leaked grand jury testimony and false information about his client.
FBI agent Karen A. Greenaway wrote a memo on May 11 summarizing the session: “At the conclusion of the meeting, the AP reporters asked if we would be willing to tell them if they were off base or on the wrong track and they were advised that they appeared to have a good understanding of Manafort’s business dealings.”
As for Manafort, a federal jury in Virginia convicted him of tax fraud and foreign lobbying violations He later pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the government in a federal court in Washington, D.C.
Manafort always maintained there was no Trump campaign conspiracy. There was never any evidence he communicated with the Kremlin, though CNN erroneously reported that he did. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III suggested that Mr. Mueller brought the indictment to force Manafort to implicate the president.
Manafort, 71, was released to home confinement earlier this month because of the coronavirus health threat. He is due to finish his more than seven-year term in 2024.
Mr. Weissmann’s Democratic Party loyalties are well known. He has been a longtime donor to various candidates. He attended what was supposed to have been Hillary Clinton’s victory party in New York on Nov. 8, 2016.
On June 2, he will lead a “virtual fireside chat” fundraiser on Zoom with former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram. Both are New York University law professors. Mr. Weissmann is writing a book on his prosecutorial career.
On MSNBC, Mr. Weissmann has shown that he retains the Trump-Kremlin conspiracy bug.
Amid the Ukraine impeachment debate, Mr. Weissmann suggested in November 2019 there was an ulterior motive for Mr. Trump speaking on an unsecured telephone line with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who was in Kyiv, Ukraine.
“Here the question is why wasn’t the president and Ambassador Sondland worried about the fact that the Russians would undoubtedly in Ukraine be able to hear this conversation?” Mr. Weissmann said. “The issue would be because … if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t really care because the Russians are going to be siding with me in the 2020 election,’ then you’re all on the same team.”
Mr. Sondland had testified to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the call was unclassified. He said diplomats often conduct business on open lines and texts.
In February, after Mr. Trump held an acquittal celebration at the White House, Mr. Weissmann gave Democrats advice on how to throw out Mr. Trump, whom he called a “demigod” and “amoral.”
He said on MSNBC that Democrats should use the Italian method — the way opponents deposed Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, like Mr. Trump, a populist conservative.
“There was something very interesting when the Italians were trying to get rid of Berlusconi and they had very, very similar demigod who also was amoral,” Mr. Weissmann said. “And one of the ways they did it was you don’t just talk about his personal failings. You go to the facts. You talk about why his policies are wrong. I think that’s what the Democrats have to point out.”
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