Illegally Acting Attorney Matt Whitaker probably fancied himself a legal hot shot as he settled into his shiny new office at DOJ. With authority over Robert Mueller he and his benefactor Trump figured they were now in control of things. I’m guessing that Whitaker felt that since he’d been a U.S. Attorney himself once upon a time (although in a relative backwater District in Iowa) he could handle anything that came his way when it came to the Special Counsel’s investigation. Sort of a “I was a U.S. Attorney and I can “hang” with any of these people.” Of course, Whitaker’s tenure in Iowa was not only undistinguished but actually a disaster as his highest profile prosecution ended in a humiliating defeat for him but what the hell. He lives in Trump Land and delusions of grandeur abound in such people.
As for Mueller, one thing that’s been clear for a long time is that Mueller was farming out parts of his investigation to other jurisdictions, and also keeping various State Attorneys General in the loop in case Trump jumped off the cliff and State’s had to pick up where the feds had been stymied. IOW Mueller has used various U.S. Attorneys offices around the country to handle parts of the investigation, knowing that he could either let them prosecute if it came to that (with any needed coordination/assistance with his team in DC) or pull those investigations/prosecutions back in under the umbrella of his direct control.
Since the Trump Organization and the campaign were headquarters in New York, using the jurisdictions up there was a no brainer. In particular using the Southern District of New York (SDNY) was a key decision. It’s got a special and well deserved reputation, and in fact is often referred to as the “Sovereign SDNY!” They are pretty much a world unto themselves. They’ve got tough, experienced prosecutors up there capable of handling anything including prosecutions that require the highest National Security clearances. They don’t need any help with anything, so Mueller could hand matters over to them with complete confidence both in their tenacity and capability, but more importantly their commitment to the law and justice. And if at some point it might be better to hand something back to Mueller they’d do so without complaining — they’ve always got high profile, career building prosecutions to keep them busy.
This farming out of parts, even key parts of the investigation is one of the things that partially insulates Mueller’s investigation. As many have noted, firing Mueller wouldn’t be the end of things for Trump (or Whitaker) — they’d have to publicly fire other people in other places and the outrage that they (Team Trump) think they might be able to weather if they fire Mueller would grow well beyond their ability to control things. A LOT of GOP Senators are already warily eyeing 2020 and at least to themselves making calculations on when it might be time to force Trump out and let Pence take over. They, along with GOP critters in the House might hope that the firing of Mueller might be a mess that they could contain but could they simultaneously contain direct interference with the work of SDNY?
Now, some of you might be thinking about those 70 hours Cohen has spent with Mueller’s actual team, and the fact some of Mueller’s folks were present up in NYC this morning. To that I’d say it’s important that the decision was made to have Cohen enter this morning’s plea up in NYC even though the lying he confessed to was in part done down in DC in front of Congress. IOW Mueller is letting the “Sovereign” SDNY take point. The second thing I’d point out is that from the beginning with Cohen it’s been the SDNY leading the charge and doing all the legwork. It’s their investigators and prosecutors who got subpoenas and seized all of Cohen’s stuff, and who’ve combed through all those records they seized,and talked with him over and over again — even about parts that relate directly to Mueller’s Trump/Russia investigation. By the time Mueller’s team was talking with Cohen directly the SDNY had done the prep work. Up there they don’t give a rat’s ass about Matt Whitaker or Trump wanting the investigation to stop. Like Mueller they have kept their heads down and plowed ahead, refusing to be intimidated.
Unlike Mueller however, they have a lot more resources to bring to bear. A LOT more people to use. And the distance helps insulate them from the direct oversight and control of day to day stuff that Whitaker might be trying to do with Mueller’s small team. Whitaker might think that since he was once a U.S. Attorney he’s the equal of the folks up in SDNY.
He just got a legal two-by-four upside the head telling him he isn’t jack shit compared to them.
Whitaker has just gotten a very real and tough lesson that he’s not anywhere near their league. It would be like my 20 year old self who as a basketball player was a good Jr. College player who could also have done well in Division III or even Division II thinking I could play not only Division I but at one of those programs who year in and year out are considered potential national champions.
Whitaker has been kidding himself thinking that with direct oversight of Mueller and control of DOJ and therefore U.S. Attorneys offices around the country he was in charge, and that all those folks would just stop doing what they’d been doing that would make his boss the Prez unhappy.
He’s just found out he doesn’t have the control he thought he had, courtesy of all the work they’ve been doing up at SDNY. He can call Mueller in and try to dress him down (fat chance) but Mueller can honestly say “Sure we’ve talked with Cohen lots of times but what’s going on up at SDNY is their thing. We’re just supporting them and making sure nothing they do interferes with their case against Cohen. You know — just coordinating with them.”
Sure, Whitaker can still try to cripple Mueller’s work and maybe, just maybe if he can hire a good enough lawyer avoid getting nailed for Obstruction of Justice but as of this morning he now knows that it will take a lot more than screwing with Mueller to stop the freight train headed for Team Trump — which now includes him. If he’s got any sense of self-preservation at all, he will decide to accept he’s had his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, tell Trumpty Dumpty he’s got no choice but to recuse himself and offer his resignation and concentrate on dealing with the FBI investigation down in FL that could wind up making him yet another GOP Attorney General to become a convicted felon.
But if he had any sense he wouldn’t have taken the job he has in the first place.