The sentencing documents for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn have been heavily redacted, enough so that exactly what Flynn shared with Special Counsel Robert Mueller can be difficult to deduce. But while people have parsed every word of the rather cryptic remains in an effort to peer behind all that black ink, there are some words at the very bottom that many overlooked.
Those other names at the bottom of the document are lawyers who have been part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel team, so to find their names on the document isn’t surprising. However, the focus of these two attorneys is interesting.
CNN reported that Brandon Van Grack left the special counsel’s office in October, after taking part in the questioning of Paul Manafort. He left to “return to his job in the National Security Division of the Justice Department” where he’s a specialist in international espionage. However, it was known at his departure that Van Grack would continue to be involved in matters related to Flynn. But what’s most interesting about Van Grack is his history before Mueller added him to the operations. As Daily Beast reported, Van Grack’s experience is in counter-espionage cases.
He’s gone after a member of the Assad-aligned Syrian Electronic Army, helped lock up an Iranian national who tried to smuggle sophisticated technology out of the U.S., and helped successfully prosecute a Michigander who tried to spy for China.
All of that could argue that Van Grack is a good fit whether Flynn was talking about his work for Turkey, or the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. But there’s another case that seems particularly relevant: Van Grack successfully prosecuted a hacker who shared stolen U.S. documents with ISIS.
The second name following Robert Mueller’s is Zainab Ahmad. She came onto Mueller’s team already somewhat famous for her prosecution of international terrorists. The New Yorker profiled her and noted that she has never lost when going after international criminals.
Ahmad’s specialty is counterterrorism, her subspecialty “extraterritorial” cases, which means that she spends a great deal of time overseas, negotiating with foreign officials, interviewing witnesses, often in prison, and combing the ground for evidence in terror-related crimes against Americans.
Pursuit of international criminals also seems like a good specialty when going after the connections of the Trump campaign. But there a certain regional specificity to Ahmad’ work that might raise a few eyebrows. She’s worked in West Africa, in Niger and Mali, and in the Middle East, including Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. She’s also done work in East Africa, including Nigeria and Kenya.
One place that’s not on her list of previous cases: Turkey. That, of course, doesn’t mean that she wasn’t on the team to assist with Trump’s connections to Turkish strongman Recep Erdoğan and his attempts to pry a old friend turned rival out of Pennsylvania. Ahmad’s extensive background and whirlwind of cases show that she has the flexibility to deal with a variety of conditions and governments. There might be no one in the whole DOJ better suited for that task.
On the other hand, there is somewhere that Ahmad has visited in the past, that might be even more interesting.
Zainab Ahmad had a small disaster in Saudi Arabia. “I always borrowed an abaya from the legat in Riyadh,” she said. An abaya is the full-length robe that is required dress for women and girls in Saudi Arabia. “Legat” is short for the legal-attaché office, the F.B.I. presence in an American Embassy. Ahmad is an Assistant United States Attorney with the Eastern District of New York. “A button came undone during a meeting, and suddenly it was like something out of ‘Showgirls.’ ” Ahmad laughed. The Saudis were unamused. “After that, I went and bought my own abaya on Atlantic Ave.”
Just as her previous lack of experience in Turkey doesn’t rule out that Ahmad was on the team to follow up on those connections, her extensive experience in Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean that she was assigned to work with Flynn to follow up on a potential Saudi connection. However, Quartz has reported that the Saudi government has been surprisingly generous to former members of Trump’s campaign and the Washington Post reported that Saudi officials have been rushing to run up tabs at Trump hotels. The entire 45th floor of Trump Tower belongs to Saudi Arabia, and Donald Trump made his very first overseas trip into a visit with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Just as Donald Trump Jr. famously said that most of the Trump Organization’s finance was coming from Russia, Donald Trump Sr. had an equally famous line about Saudi Arabia during his presidential campaign.
Trump: I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!
Did Michael Flynn have something to add about why Saudi Arabia was at the top of Donald Trump—and Jared Kushner’s—“must see” list? That’s purely speculative. It’s much more likely that Ahmad and Van Grack were both focused on Turkey and Russia, two foreign connections where Flynn and the Trump campaign already have plenty of issues.
Considering the recent high-five between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, and the demonstrated ability that both men have to make Donald Trump dance like a puppet on strings, it’s tempting to think that there may be some threads that lead back to Riaydh as well as Moscow.
And no matter what, the focus of the two attorneys who signed the document along with Mueller suggest that when it comes to Flynn, the focus of the special counsel’s office was collusion, collusion, collusion.