Will Whoever Fires Bob Mueller Please Turn Off the Lights

by Victoria Bassetti

*Victoria Bassetti is leading ACS' analysis of US Attorneys.

** View the full graphic here.

If Donald Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it could be a lot harder than people think.

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he won’t do it.

Last Monday, she was asked: “Is the President going to rule out, once and for all, firing [Special Prosecutor] Robert Mueller.” 

“There's no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel,” she replied.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), fresh off warning that the President might start World War III, can’t imagine he’ll do it.

Last Tuesday, a reporter cornered the president’s harshest Senate critic in a hallway and posed the following: “There are stories that the President is thinking about firing Mueller. Do you think that’s appropriate?”

The tired-looking Corker replied: “I can't imagine there’s any truth or veracity to the president thinking that he would consider firing Mueller. ... Hopefully the question being asked is a question about something that cannot possibly be reality.”

Yet, all last week the President reportedly “seethed” in his third-floor private residence as he watched cable television reports of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictments. Firing Mueller, the AP reported, is “a possibility that has weighed on him in recent weeks.”

Indeed, as far back as July, Trump mused about firing Mueller. In a New York Times interview, Trump was asked if he would fire the special counsel if he started looking at subjects unrelated to the Russia probe, such as his finances.

“I would say yeah,” Trump first replied. Then he added more forcefully, “I would say yes.”

But suppose the president decided to ignore the advice of Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer in charge of the Russia probe, and John Kelly, his chief of staff, and decided to fire Mueller?

Just for fun, let’s see how a Trump move to fire Mueller could play out.

His first call would be to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Sorry, Mr.President,” Session might begin. “No can do. I recused myself from this investigation, remember? Surely you recall saying you never would have hired me as attorney general if you had known I would recuse myself. Why don’t you try Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general? He’s the one in charge of Mueller. Hold on while I find his number.”

So Trump would then call Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, a career Justice Department official, summa cum laude graduate of Penn, and former Harvard Law Review editor.

“Mr. President, as I explained in Senate testimony in June, ‘I am not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders.’ The special counsel can only be fired for good cause. With all due respect sir, you’ve put nothing in writing that proves good cause exists to dismiss the special counsel.

“Moreover, as I’m sure your lawyer can tell you, I have been interviewed as part of the investigation into the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. So I feel like I need to decline your order.  I’m sure you understand.”

At this point, the call likely ends in one of two ways: either Rosenstein is fired or he quits.

Next up on Trump’s phone tree: the third highest-ranking official at Justice, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, a Harvard Law School graduate and former clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“Mr. President, as I’m sure you know, I can only fire Bob Mueller for ‘misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies.’ And the law also says that the Special Counsel must be informed ‘in writing of the specific reason for his or her removal.’

‘Sir, if I may speak freely, why don’t you have your lawyers draw something up, and I’ll take a look at it?”

At this point, Brand would probably be fishing in her purse for her office keys to hand to Justice Department security on her way out.

Trump, increasingly anxious because he might miss the opening of Sean Hannity, would then reach out to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, a former Justice Antonin Scalia clerk and University of Chicago Law School graduate.

“Well, you see Mr. President, I’ve got a problem here,” Francisco might say. “Before you brought me into the Solicitor General’s office, (thanks for that, by the way), I worked for Jones Day in D.C. where I was a partner with your White House Counsel, Don McGahn. And sir, you know how hard it is to unwind all these partnership things – I have money tied up in the firm. And your 2020 campaign paid Jones Day $800,000 in the third quarter alone. I need to call the department’s ethics director, Cynthia Shaw. Can I get back to you in a few days? Oh also, do you have anything in writing why there’s good cause to fire him?”

Now here is where things get even stranger. According to a March 31 Executive Order on Justice Department succession, the next three officials in line are the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia, the Eastern District of North Carolina, and the Northern District of Texas.

So the president’s next call is to Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Boente has had a wild ride in the Trump administration. He was appointed to his current post by President Obama. But when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired in February for refusing to defend the President’s travel ban, Boente was named to replace her. He served as Acting Attorney General for ten days before Jeff Sessions was sworn in. 

Boente then served as Acting Deputy Attorney General, the no. 2 post, for 75 days until Rod Rosenstein took over. Then Boente was one of 46 U.S. Attorneys in March who Sessions ordered to resign. Yet, Trump rejected his resignation. Now, Boente is serving as acting head of the Department’s National Security Division until Trump’s nominee is confirmed. A 33-year Department veteran, Boente is known for his mild manner and intense devotion to work.

“Dude, don’t you read the papers? I announced my resignation Friday before last. I’m sticking around until you guys name a successor. Anyway, permit me to remind you that I was the guy who worked with Jim Comey investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s lobbying deals. I empaneled grand juries that subpoenaed his business records. Those grand juries are now being run by Mueller. And you want me to fire the guy?”

It is now 8:54 p.m. Only six minutes left before Hannity.

On to Robert “Bobby” Higdon, Jr., the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon spent nearly 25 years as a federal prosecutor, working in both North Carolina’s Eastern and Western districts. Yet, his record is hardly unblemished. He led the campaign finance fraud prosecution of former North Carolina Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards, which resulted in an acquittal on one charge and the dismissal of the remaining five after a hung jury. (Full disclosure: I worked as Edwards’ Senate legislative director.)  

In 2013, Higdon was removed as head of the Eastern District’s criminal division after two federal appellate judges delivered a blistering critique of the section, saying that it had frequently withheld evidence and failed to correct false trial testimony.

Higdon was sworn-in as U.S. Attorney October 10.

People behave unpredictably in unprecedented circumstances. It’s entirely possible Higdon may prove no more malleable than the other recipients of the president’s calls. As Trump himself likes to say: Stay tuned.

Will Whoever Fires Bob Mueller Please Turn Off the Lights

by Victoria Bassetti

*This piece was originally posted by Brennan Center for Justice

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he won’t do it.

Last Monday, she was asked: “Is the President going to rule out, once and for all, firing [Special Prosecutor] Robert Mueller.”

“There's no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel,” she replied.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), fresh off warning that the President might start World War III, can’t imagine he’ll do it.

Last Tuesday, a reporter cornered the president’s harshest Senate critic in a hallway and posed the following: “There are stories that the President is thinking about firing Mueller. Do you think that’s appropriate?”

Continue reading "Will Whoever Fires Bob Mueller Please Turn Off the Lights"

"A" Ratings from the NRA

by Victoria Bassetti

*Victoria Bassetti is leading ACS' analysis of US Attorneys.

While campaigning for office, President Trump actively courted National Rifle Association members. "The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end,” President Trump said during a speech earlier this year at the NRA’s leadership forum. "[You] have a true friend and champion in the White House," he told them.

His nominees to be U.S. Attorneys, the top federal law enforcement officers throughout the states, show he meant it.

Eight of the 46 men and women President Trump has selected thus far to be a U.S. Attorney have either worked with or for the National Rifle Association or have received “pro-gun” ratings from it.

The Trump U.S. Attorneys include a man who was described as a “key player” in crafting the NRA’s answer to the Newtown shootings, a woman who helped author the NRA’s amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark 2008 Supreme Court Second Amendment decision, and a man who sought out promotion by the “Shooter’s Bar” website which bills itself as the “oldest publicly available list of pro-Right to Keep and Bear Arms (RKBA) attorneys.”

Another five either held or sought elected office and were endorsed or given “A” ratings from the NRA.

The presence of NRA-supported prosecutors in the ranks of President Trump’s Department of Justice nominees comes as no surprise. Sessions, the President’s pick to be Attorney General, voted with the Gun Owners of America 90 percent of the time during his last two years in the U.S. Senate. He was heralded by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action as a “true defender of our rights.”

But as they take office and begin to enforce federal laws, the question is how much of an impact will their views have on their prosecutorial and policy decisions?

They are stepping into a fraught environment.

The recent mass shooting to Las Vegas has turned up the pressure on Congress and the Administration to act on gun violence. It has even resulted in the rare legislative proposal that the NRA can back – a ban on so-called bump stocks, a gun accessory that for all intents and purposes enables a gun to fire automatically or like a machine gun.

On a prosecutorial front, this spring, Sessions announced an increased federal focus on addressing violent crime and using gun prosecutions to do so. “This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes,” he said.

U.S. Attorneys have substantial say in helping shape Department prosecutorial priorities and in determining what sorts of legislative or policy proposals to support. They also conduct the day-in-and-day-out work of investigating violent crime and enforcing current gun laws.

More than anyone, they know whether and how directives from Washington, D.C. are practical or are having a real impact. After all they are the men and women on the ground, meeting with the local community and bringing real cases in court.

In the three months following Sessions announcement, federal gun prosecutions jumped 23 percent. A large portion of the jump could be attributed to state cases being transferred over to federal prosecutors. It is a bureaucratic, numerical answer to gun violence rather than a strategic or innovative approach.

Observers warned: “Researchers, in fact, long ago concluded that the long prison sentences and elevated incarceration rates that result from increasing federal prosecutions have scant influence on violent crime rates.”

Addressing gun violence in America is going to take a lot more than banning one piece of gun equipment and taking over more state criminal prosecutions.

Many of President Trump’s nominees to be the top federal law enforcement officer in their local communities have embraced NRA positions. They have supported expanding the ability of people to carry concealed weapons or arming school administrators and teachers in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.

These are the people who will have the Attorney General and President’s ears when it comes to dealing with gun violence in America. Will any of them come to the table with new or pioneering solutions? Or will they be content with following their boss’s lead, embracing NRA positions come what may? Thus far too many seem to fall into the latter category.

Diversity of One

by Victoria Bassetti

*Victoria Bassetti is leading ACS' analysis of US Attorneys.

On September 21, when Louis V. Franklin, Sr., raised his hand to take the oath as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, he could not have known that Donald J. Trump, the man who had appointed him, would launch an attack the next day on black football players who take the knee.

What Franklin surely knew, however, was that he is the only African-American President Trump has selected thus far to be a U.S. Attorney or indeed to hold any senior position at the Department of Justice.

President Trump has nominated 46 people to be U.S. Attorneys to date. Of them, three are women; two are Asian American; and one is Native American. And one, Franklin, is the only African American.

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors are concerned about the lack of diversity in the Trump class of US Attorneys.

“I can probably tell you that the vast majority of people they are going to be serving or prosecuting are going to be black or brown people. So, it’s troubling,” said William Jorden, president of the National Black Prosecutors Association. “How can you say you represent the people. You can’t represent the people if you don’t look like the people.”

“This coincides with the troubling regularity of divisive rhetoric and with the violence [of Charlottesville]. It all has to go in one large melting pot of concern,” said Jorden.

“It’s important to have confidence in the system, especially at this point in time. A diverse corps enhances the credibility of the system,” said Ron Weich, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law. “There is a crisis of faith in the criminal justice system, and we need law enforcement officials who represent the full range of community members,” he said.

Overall, two percent of Trump’s nominees are black. Seventeen percent of President Barrack Obama’s nominees for the top prosecutor posts were African American. There are 93 US Attorneys in the United States, serving in each of the judicial districts.

The 59-year-old Franklin has spent almost his entire legal career at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Alabama. He started with the office as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1990 and eventually rose to be its Criminal Chief. He was briefly in private practice from 1996 to 1998. The Senate confirmed him as U.S. Attorney on September 14 by voice vote.

The Middle District of Alabama covers the southeastern corner of the state and includes the state’s capital, Montgomery.

In 2006, as head of the office’s criminal division, Franklin led the headline making prosecution of Alabama’s then-Governor Don Siegelman on corruption charges. Siegelman, the last Democrat to hold statewide office in Alabama, was convicted on bribery and obstruction of justice charges. The jury found that Siegelman had sold a seat on a state regulatory board in exchange for a $500,000 donation to a campaign he was associated with.

The Siegelman case was quickly embroiled in controversy, with charges that the prosecution was politically motivated, that it had been strongly influenced or even driven by then White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove, and that it had little legal justification. More than 50 state attorneys general from both parties pushed for a congressional investigation of the matter shortly after Siegelman’s conviction. "I haven't seen a case with this many red flags on it that pointed towards a real injustice being done," Grant Woods, the former Republican attorney general of Arizona told a CBS reporter at the time. The House Judiciary Committee opened an investigation into the prosecution.

Franklin himself came under fire from observers for offering multiple and conflicting explanations for the decision to investigate and then prosecute Siegelman. An investigation by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that the investigation was not politically motivated.

The 93 U.S. Attorneys President Trump appoints will be at the forefront of his Administration’s efforts to set law enforcement priorities

Department of Justice watchers worried that the lack of African Americans in prominent positions would also affect the process by which future policy decision would be made. Historically, the Attorney General has an Advisory Committee composed of U.S. Attorneys that provide him or her feedback. In the early days of the Obama Administration, when the Department was headed by Eric Holder, that committee was chaired by Loretta Lynch, then the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and an African American. There was always “an array of views and perspectives in that room,” said Weich who was the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs under Holder.

“I was in many meetings with U.S. Attorneys at DOJ, and I was always struck by the diversity of viewpoints and experience in the room. That was so valuable,” Weich said. “African American U.S. Attorneys were strong advocates for the Department’s positions on sentencing reform and hate crime legislation.”

The lack of African Americans “is concerning because not only is the U.S. Attorney the lead law enforcement offices for the district” but because of their role in advising Attorney General said Barbara McQuade, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan for seven years in the Obama Administration. Under Attorney General Holder, the U.S. Attorneys met as a group eight times a year and in addition served on several DOJ working groups including one on racial diversity. “It’s useful to have diverse perspectives at the table for the administration of justice,” McQuade said.

In the eight months since Jeff Sessions became Attorney General, he has reversed course on many Obama-era prosecutorial objectives. In May, he directed local DOJ offices, led by the U.S. Attorneys, to bring the most serious charges and seek the most severe penalties possible in criminal cases with an emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences. The directive reversed an Obama-era initiative that urged prosecutors to avoid bringing charges that could trigger mandatory minimum sentences against non-violent drug offenders.

Sessions also announced a renewed use of civil asset forfeiture at the Department this summer. “We will continue to encourage civil-asset forfeiture whenever appropriate in order to hit organized crime in the wallet,” he said. Civil asset forfeiture is a technique used by law enforcement to seize property involved in criminal activity. In many cases, the property can be taken before a criminal conviction has been secured. Sessions revived a program put to rest by Attorney General Eric Holder that allowed state and local governments to seize assets under the auspices of federal law. Federal agencies later shared the bounty back with them. That program was viewed as enabling abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws.

Washington Post analysis of the program found that more than $2.5 billion in assets had been taken under the program in a thirteen-year period from late 2001 to 2014. It found that “local and state police routinely pulled over drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressed them to agree to warrantless searches and seized large amounts of cash without evidence of wrongdoing.”

The absence of African Americans at the Department could “retard the growth and development of what National Black Prosecutors Association have been pushing for – more inclusion of black and brown people in the prosecutorial ranks,” said Jorden.

The reason for the lack of African-American nominees is unclear. Traditionally, responsibility for selecting U.S. Attorneys is diffuse. Nominees are selected on a state-by-state basis with Senators, especially those of the President’s party, playing a dominant role in suggesting the nominees to the White House and Department of Justice. “I’m not sure if it’s fair to lay [responsibility for the lack of diversity] at the President and Session’s door. No one’s looking at the whole field,” said McQuade. She noted that there is a tendency for Senators to pick people they know. “There is an old boy’s network. If that’s what’s going on, instead of a merit selection process, that could account for the difference,” between the diversity of Obama and Trump’s picks.

One reason for the lack of African-American appointees could be because African Americans are reluctant to work for an Administration that is seen as “hustling backwards,” Jorden said. “Some people may not want to serve.” He also added that qualified African-American candidates might be overlooked because they are not viewed as law enforcement leaders. “Either way, I know it’s troubling.”

Jorden said, however that there were many qualified African-American prosecutors who would be interested in being U.S. Attorneys. “All they have to do is reach out and ask.”

One Senate staffer who worked on the nominations process at the beginning of the Obama Administration, who asked not to be named, said that he recalled clear input from the White House pushing Senators to actively seek minority and women candidates for the post.

Overall, African-Americans are underrepresented in prosecutors’ offices. A 2014 survey of 2,400 elected prosecutors nationwide found that 95% of them were white and 79% were men.

BREAKING NEWS: Trump announces women to be US Attorney nominees

by Victoria Bassetti, Brennan Center Contributor

In a departure from pattern, President Donald J. Trump announced his intent to nominate women to be US Attorneys on Friday. 

Before today, President Trump had selected only one woman and 41 men for positions as the top federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice's district offices. He had come under criticism for not nominating women as US Attorneys.  

In the president’s defense, his daughter Ivanka Trump earlier this year made headlines when she told CNN’s Gloria Borger, “There's no way I could be the person I am today if my father was a sexist.”

Friday's announcement of four new candidates included two women bringing President Trump's total to 46. It tripled the number of women set to assume the critical prosecutor jobs. Nevertheless, the proportion of prospective female US Attorneys lags significantly behind the proportion (22 percent) who held those positions in the Obama Administration. 

Indeed the lack of women put up for a US Attorney position mirrors a trend among all of this administration's nominees. A recent Newsweek report indicated that 80 percent of top federal posts are going to men in the Trump Administration, with 327 of 408 nominees President Trump has sent to the Senate being men. Ninety-three percent of all US Attorneys proposed by the president thus far are men. 

Friday's batch of prospective US Attorneys were Erin Nealy Cox for the Northern District of Texas, Duane A. Kees for the Western District of Arkansas, Matthew D. Krueger of Wisconsin for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, and Christina E. Nolan of Vermont for the District of Vermont.  

Cox and Nolan join Jessie Liu in the rarified ranks of women President Trump has selected to be a top prosecutor. Liu was nominated on June 12 to be the US Attorney for the District of Columbia and was confirmed to her post by the Senate in September.

If confirmed, Cox would be the top prosecutor in the district that includes the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, the fourth largest in the United States with more than 7 million residents. Nolan would head up federal prosecutions in Vermont, the second-smallest state in the nation by population, with fewer than 630,000 residents. 

All four prospective nominees announced Friday have substantial prosecutorial experience. 

If the president wanted to achieve anything like parity in the ranks of US Attorneys with the nation's population, every single remaining nominee to come would have to be a woman. If he wanted to match President Obama's mark for women in the posts, 37 percent of the remaining slots would have to go to women.