A new book by one of the special counsel’s top deputies, Andrew Weissmann, is the first inside account of the investigation.

WASHINGTON — The team led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, failed to do everything it could to determine what happened in the 2016 election, shying away from steps like subpoenaing President Trump and scrutinizing his finances out of fear he would fire them, one of Mr. Mueller’s top lieutenants argued in the first insider account of the inquiry.

“Had we used all available tools to uncover the truth, undeterred by the onslaught of the president’s unique powers to undermine our efforts?” wrote the former prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, in a new book, adding, “I know the hard answer to that simple question: We could have done more.”

The team took elaborate steps to protect its files of evidence from the risk that the Justice Department might destroy them if Mr. Trump fired them and worked to keep reporters and the public from learning what they were up to, Mr. Weissmann wrote in “Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation,” which Random House will publish next week.

While he speaks reverently of Mr. Mueller, he also says his boss’s diffidence made him ill-suited for aspects of shepherding the politically charged investigation. He saw Mr. Mueller and his deputy, Aaron M. Zebley, as overly cautious.

Mr. Weissmann also defended against accusations by the president and his allies that he and other investigators were politically biased “angry Democrats”; Mr. Weissmann said his personal views had no bearing on the crimes that Russian operatives and Trump aides committed.

And he revealed new details — for example, writing that the same business account that sent hush payments to an adult film star who alleged an extramarital affair with Mr. Trump had also received “payments linked to a Russian oligarch.” The president has denied the affair; his former lawyer Michael D. Cohen controlled the account. Mr. Mueller transferred the Cohen matter to prosecutors in New York, and Mr. Weissmann provided no further details about the Russian payments.

Previously a mafia and Enron prosecutor and then a lawyer at the F.B.I. for Mr. Mueller, who was the bureau’s director for 12 years, Mr. Weissmann ran one of three major units for the special counsel’s office. His “Team M” prosecuted Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort for numerous financial crimes. The goal was to flip him and learn whatever he knew about any Trump campaign links to Russia.

Mr. Manafort had worked for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, and the investigation uncovered ties by his business partner, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, to Russian intelligence. The book builds toward investigators’ discovery that Mr. Manafort had shared internal campaign polling data with Mr. Kilimnik, who flew to the United States to meet with Mr. Manafort during the campaign, asking whether Mr. Trump would permit a peace plan for Russia to essentially take over all of eastern Ukraine.

But while admitting this much, Mr. Manafort — seeing the dangle of a potential pardon from Mr. Trump — refused to cooperate further. Investigators did not obtain any final puzzle pieces and lacked the evidence to charge anyone in the campaign with a criminal conspiracy involving Russia’s covert electoral assistance.

“It would seem to require significant audacity — or else, leverage — for another nation to even put such a request before a presidential candidate,” Mr. Weissmann wrote of Mr. Kilimnik’s request. “This made what we didn’t know, and still don’t know to this day, monumentally disconcerting: Namely, why would Trump ever agree to this? Why would Trump ever agree to this Russian proposal if the candidate were not getting something from Russia in return?”

Mr. Weissmann explained the significance of Mr. Manafort’s interactions with Mr. Kilimnik — also a major focus of a recent bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, which explicitly labeled Mr. Kilimnik a Russian intelligence agent — more clearly than the Mueller report did.

Mr. Mueller had strictly forbidden leaks, and the special counsel team took extraordinary care to protect the high-profile, high-stakes investigation, Mr. Weissmann wrote. They kept window blind slats tilted at an angle to keep out prying eyes, shutting out natural light. They concocted an “almost comically elaborate and surreal” plan to sneak in “through the many hidden arteries of the courthouse” to obtain a grand jury indictment without tipping off reporters.

And worried about the possibility that Mr. Trump would fire them and the Justice Department would then seal off or destroy their evidence, the Mueller team members packed their numerous applications to judges for search warrants with extensive, up-to-date details about their investigation — ensuring they backed up their work beyond the reach of the executive branch.

Ty Cobb, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, also privately promised to be a “canary in the coal mine” and provide a heads up if Mr. Trump was going to fire the special counsel team, according to Mr. Weissmann. Mr. Cobb did not respond to a request for comment.

The investigation played out against the backdrop of regular vilification of the Mueller team by Mr. Trump and his allies like Fox News’s Sean Hannity — who turned out to be in regular contact with Mr. Manafort cooking up a “smear campaign” over text messages. Mr. Weissmann, a major target, wrote that such “ad hominem” insinuations of bias appealed to emotion rather than reason.

“I am a registered Democrat,” he wrote. “Does this make Paul Manafort or any of the other 32 people our office charged any less guilty? Did Russia not attack our democracy and disrupt our election with its self-described online information warfare operation? Which facts that we alleged in our various indictments — and to which many of those we indicted, including Manafort, would plead guilty — did our attackers believe were invented as a result of our alleged bias as ‘angry Democrats?’”

Mr. Trump’s allies have recently pointed with alarm to documents showing that cellphones issued to Mr. Mueller’s team were erased during the investigation; Mr. Weissmann twice entered an incorrect passcode too often, triggering a security measure that erased his phone. In an interview, he portrayed the concerns as a “tempest in a teapot” and said his understanding was that all emails and other such data from phones were backed up. He called on the Justice Department to release information about the special counsel’s data backup system.

Mr. Weissmann also wrote that he is not “anti-Trump” but rather “pro the rule of law.” Still, the distinction is less than clear in a book that also portrays Mr. Trump as a liar and a dangerous demagogue trying “to peel the world around him away from the rule of law — away from reason itself — and mold it to accommodate his desire for unchecked power.”

Mr. Weissmann was equally scathing about Attorney General William P. Barr, calling him an enabler and likening his misleading letter last spring about the then-still-secret Mueller report as a betrayal and “gut punch.”

Mr. Weissmann also criticized colleagues, portraying the special counsel team as divided between aggressive investigators like him, the F.B.I. special agent Omer Meisel and the prosecutor Jeannie Rhee — who headed “Team R,” which investigated Russian issues other than those centered on Manafort — and far more risk-averse law enforcement officials like Mr. Zebley who pulled punches.

In one episode in 2017, the Mueller team issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for information about Mr. Manafort’s income in Ukraine. Deutsche Bank had also lent large sums to the Trump Organization, and the White House somehow found out about the still-secret subpoenas — though not their focus. The White House demanded to know what investigators were doing, and Mr. Mueller authorized Mr. Zebley to tell the White House that they had not been seeking Mr. Trump’s financial information.

“At that point, any financial investigation of Trump was put on hold,” Mr. Weissmann writes. “That is, we backed down — the issue was simply too incendiary; the risk, too severe.”

The book provides many other examples of concessions large and small. Investigators did not try to question Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka — who had spoken in the lobby to a delegation of Russians who came to Trump Tower in June 2016 to meet with campaign leaders who had been promised that they were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

They “feared that hauling her in for an interview would play badly to the already antagonistic right-wing press — look how they’re roughing up the president’s daughter — and risk enraging Trump, provoking him to shut down the special counsel’s office once and for all,” he wrote.

Similarly, they did not subpoena the Trump Organization for emails about its efforts to develop a Trump-branded building in Moscow, which were active deep into the 2016 campaign.

And they did not immunize Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., a step that would have prevented him from being able to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying about matters like the Trump Tower meeting. Bound by grand-jury secrecy rules, Mr. Weissmann did not come out and say whether Donald Trump Jr. was threatened with or actually issued a subpoena and used his right against self-incrimination to repel it.

Mr. Weissmann laid much of the blame for what he saw as a pattern of timidity on Mr. Zebley, portraying him as a primary decision maker. “Repeatedly during our 22 months in operation, we would reach some critical juncture in our investigation only to have Aaron say that we could not take a particular action because it risked aggravating the president beyond some undefined breaking point.”

Mr. Weissmann acknowledged, but did not clearly address, concerns that the aging Mr. Mueller had lost a step, both declaring that he was capable of making the tough decisions despite “speculative concerns” about his health but also describing him in one scene as looking drained and worn down by his years of grueling public service.

While Mr. Zebley obtained Mr. Mueller’s sanction for many of his cautious directives, in one striking episode, Mr. Zebley appeared in Mr. Weissmann’s telling to have unilaterally agreed — without Mr. Mueller’s knowledge — to a request by the office of the deputy attorney general overseeing them, Rod J. Rosenstein, not to coordinate with state prosecutors “as it would undermine the president’s pardon power.”

Two other former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disputed the account. Mr. Rosenstein did not decline any request to share information with state prosecutors, a person familiar with his thinking wrote in an email.

Another person familiar with how the special counsel’s office interacted with Mr. Rosenstein’s office denied that there had been any agreement about sharing evidence with or withholding it from state prosecutors, and said Mr. Zebley had consulted with Mr. Mueller on every material decision.

On the failure to subpoena Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller was determined to avoid “any public disagreements” with Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. Weissmann wrote. Because the special counsel regulations required telling Congress about any instance in which Mr. Rosenstein overruled him, Mr. Mueller never actually proposed subpoenaing Mr. Trump, instead coyly asking what Mr. Rosenstein’s reaction would be. Mr. Rosenstein just kept demurring.

In the end, Mr. Weissmann said in an interview, the caution was more justified early on to avoid provoking Mr. Trump into firing them before they could get going. But he and Ms. Rhee, among others, believed the office should have been willing to be more aggressive later on, after they had learned much of what Russia had done and had already used indictments to drag it into public view.

“We would have subpoenaed the president after he refused our accommodations, even if that risked us being fired,” he wrote. “It just didn’t sit right. We were left feeling like we had let down the American public, who were counting on us to give it our all.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/us/politics/andrew-weissmann-mueller.html

News – Mueller’s Team Should Have Done More to Investigate Trump-Russia Links, Top Aide Says