There has been massive bipartisan support in the announcement that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump team. But there may be one pretty significant hurdle in the race to get this investigation going. The law firm that Mueller has worked at since 2014 has represented some prominent players in the president’s administration and family.
Former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are all clients of Wilmer Hale; the firm Mueller is leaving to assume the position of special prosecutor overseeing the Russian election meddling investigation. An expert on government ethics and rules said on Wednesday that lawyers entering federal service would usually be asked to recuse themselves from taking cases where there were former clients involved.
“It’s a possible wrinkle in all of this,” said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “Usually, there would be a one-year cooling off period.” Painter continued by saying that requirement can be waived by the Justice Department ethics officials. “I would support them using that authority,” Painter said. “It doesn’t really make sense for him to oversee one part of the investigation and recuse from others….The real risk here is interference by the White House or by [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions’ appointees, not some issue involving Wilmer Hale.” After noting the ethics issue, Painter praised Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s choice of Mueller. “He’s a brilliant choice…. He’s as close to an Archie Cox as you’re going to find,” Painter said, referring to the respected lawyer who served as special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation.
The co-managing director for Wilmer Hale, Robert Novick, said that he could not comment on the government ethics rules, but he did say that Mueller did not play any part in the firm’s work for Paul Manafort, Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner. “He had absolutely nothing to do with any of those representations,” Novick said Wednesday night.
It was already known that congressional investigators of the Russian probe were seeking to talk to Manafort about his involvement with the Ukraine as well as Russia-friendly business leaders and political figures. There were also plans to speak with Kushner about why he omitted meetings with Russian officials and business leaders from his security clearance forms. Kushner’s attorneys have called this omission an error.
So is this an issue or a non-issue? Should any government ethics and rules issues be waived for Mueller?