Andrew Weissmann headed the prosecution of Paul Manafort on Robert Mueller’s team. His new memoir, Where Law Ends, is an elegy for the Russia investigation that never was—one in which the special counsel’s office was actually able to crack the oddball collection of grifters who populated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, from Paul Manafort to George Papadopoulos, and figure out the actual truth of their relationship with an expansive cast of Russian oligarchs and intelligence operatives.
Weissmann’s book is the first to emerge from the famously tight-lipped special counsel’s office, and he paints an eloquent and ultimately dispiriting picture of a talented team of some of the nation’s best investigators stymied on three sides: by uncooperative witnesses, by Mueller’s “punctilious[ness] about due process and rectitude,” and most of all by a president who on multiple occasions criminally obstructed justice.
“The principal challenge to our investigation was not the public glare, or the Fox News diatribes, or the president’s ad hominem attacks. It was the threat posed by the unique powers of the president that were continually wielded against us: the power to fire us and to pardon wrongdoers who might otherwise cooperate with our investigation,” Weissmann writes. “Within weeks of commencing our work, our team’s very existence was in doubt, and though the threat of our firing ebbed and flowed throughout, it never entirely abated. This sword of Damocles affected our investigative decisions, leading us at certain times to act less forcefully and more defensively than we might have. It led us to delay or ultimately forgo entire lines of inquiry, particularly regarding the president’s financial ties to Russia.”
Buy This Book At:
*If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.
Part of what makes Weissmann’s book so striking in its disappointment about the fate and trajectory of the special counsel’s probe is that he’s a deep Mueller loyalist; a career prosecutor, he worked on Mueller’s staff when the latter was FBI director and later became the general counsel for the FBI during the final months of Mueller’s 12-year reign at the bureau. A famously brass-knuckled prosecutor who successfully led Mafia trials—and, later, the Justice Department’s ultimately unsatisfying prosecution of Enron energy executives—he came to the probe with no pollyannaish misconceptions about how witnesses obstruct justice and how prosecutions can falter in the face of politics and legal realities. Weissmann, in fact, was one of the first Mueller recruited to his investigative team in 2017. He helped build the rest of the team himself, personally recruiting some of its biggest names and FBI leaders. He clearly has deep respect for the man with whom he repeatedly served; his frustration with Mueller comes across less as a scorching tell-all and more the disappointment of a son who finds that the childhood image of his father doesn’t measure up in adulthood.
Weissmann’s book also feels like a lesson in how fast events and history have unfolded in the news-heavy Trump years. It’s hard to imagine today that the Mueller Report arrived just 18 months ago. Congress heard from Mueller himself just 14 months ago. And it was only a little over a year ago that the Mueller Report wrapped up 16 weeks on the nation’s bestseller lists. The day after Mueller’s testimony, Trump placed a call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that eventually led to the president’s impeachment. Now even that monumental event has been dwarfed by the coronavirus pandemic that has laid low the world’s economy and killed more than a million people globally—over 205,000 of them in the United States as of this morning.
Nowhere is that sense of history’s speed more clear than in Weissmann’s passages about William Barr, the attorney general who took over the Justice Department in February last year just as Mueller’s investigation concluded. Barr, whose political bidding for the president has become overt with every passing week, was initially greeted with “a sense of relief” from Justice Department loyalists, Weissmann says. Barr succeeded the beleaguered Jeff Sessions, had led the department before—even working alongside Mueller—and seemed to be an institutionalist, someone who would preserve the department’s long-standing tradition of political independence and partisan neutrality. (In fact, Weissmann’s own certificate of appointment as a federal prosecutor had been signed by Barr himself in 1991.)
But Weissmann finds himself disillusioned almost immediately—a moment he recounts in the book’s opening chapter as he reads Barr’s “summary” of the full Mueller report, frantically searching the attorney general’s letter on a Sunday afternoon for the scorching material that he knows is inside the report.
“I could not fathom that our work over the past twenty-two months was ending like this,” Weissmann writes. “We had gone out of our way to be fair and impartial, to conduct ourselves with professionalism, and to pressure test our investigation and its conclusions. We had given the subjects of the investigation the benefit of the doubt in our report, over and over, and had not leaked a single bit of embarrassing or damning information—only to now be blindsided by a political actor’s efforts to twist our investigation. We had just been played by the attorney general.”
There is little subtlety to Weissmann’s view that Barr’s letter represented a miscarriage of justice. His book’s title comes from the John Locke quote, “wherever law ends, tyranny ends.” The spare red, white, and blue book cover features the letterhead of the attorney general, a facsimile apparently of the letter in which Barr “summarized” the principal conclusions in such a misleading way as to forever skew the public’s perception of the investigation. “Barr had spun our findings for political gain, at best, and lied for the president, at worst,” Weissmann writes. “Barr had been unmasked. His public face as an institutionalist hid a political soul.”
And yet in many ways, as the remainder of Weissmann’s book outlines, the die had already been cast by the time the team filed their final report. Mueller, cautious about provoking the apparent worst impulses of the unguided missile in the Oval Office, never even pursued basic investigative questions or measures like subpoenaing the president himself. Witnesses from Papadopoulos to Manafort to the president’s own son, Donald Trump, Jr., failed to share what they knew, leaving investigators with hunches that the truth was worse than they could prove. Turn after turn, twist after twist, the prosecutors were left with unexplained suspicious actions, stories and alibis that didn’t add up, and evidence that didn’t fit the innocent picture painted by participants.
Those frustrations and dead-ends left the investigators themselves prone to the same sense of disappointment that many close followers of the Russia investigation felt when reading the team’s final report. There’s a lingering sense that we still don’t know the full truth, that Barr’s interference and Mueller’s timidity allowed the president to skate free of what should have been seen as a clear and fundamental breach of America’s rule of law.
That sense of letdown, the lack of a true smoking gun, obscured just how much damning evidence the team did assemble about the president and his campaign team—even to themselves. “The dashed prospect of learning something even more shocking diminished our perception of what we actually had in hand,” Weissmann writes.
As Weissmann sees it, America missed how bad the final report truly was for the president and for democracy because they expected it to be so much worse. As presented and carefully crafted by the special counsel’s office, the Mueller report should have been a politically fatal document for the president and a blinking red alarm for the nation’s security.
“The special counsel’s report was a devastating recitation of how Russian government operatives had infiltrated our electoral process, a conclusion that we all believed to be our most important long-term finding and one that required immediate and decisive action by our political leaders,” Weissmann writes.
In the second volume of the report, which dealt with the president’s attempt to obstruct the investigation, Mueller famously stopped short of concluding whether the evidence rose to the level of criminal charges. Weissmann says the team expected the American people to read more clearly between the lines—at least before Bill Barr and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, brushed the whole thing aside as a giant nothingburger.
“The facts here were no less appalling, although we had not indicted the president or, frustratingly, even taken the final leap of putting a label on what the facts added up to,” Weissmann writes. “Our silence on whether Trump had obstructed justice—whether the president of the United States had broken the law—would be deafening. When he was not guilty of certain crimes, we said so; and when he was, we were silent. But we had found no other way of dealing with Mueller’s decision [that following Justice Department precedent, he couldn’t indict the president while in office].”
Weissmann’s book is the fifth in recent weeks to delve inside the Russia investigation, coming on the heels of Washington Post reporter Devlin Barrett’s October Surprise. The mini-flood of recent books on the Russia investigation and the resulting Mueller probe also includes True Crimes and Misdemeanors from the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, Donald Trump v. The United States by The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt, and Compromised by FBI agent Peter Strzok. Each takes a slightly different angle, with slightly differing main characters, and for true Russophiles there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from layering them all atop one another, particularly as new information continues to come out.
All of the books ultimately prove equal parts illuminating and frustrating, leaving a sense of an unexplained hole at the center of the case. Michael Schmidt’s book spends an entire 10 pages openly wondering and musing about why Mueller seemed to pull so many punches; Toobin’s book similarly paints the special counsel as a failure, outplayed by much cutthroat political actors like Barr. Indeed in many ways it’s clear we still don’t know what happened in 2016. Weissmann doesn’t fill in all those gaps, but he does help explain why they’re there in the first place.
This week’s blockbuster reporting by the New York Times about President Trump’s byzantine taxes—painting a portrait of a failing mogul propped by the appearance of success with debts higher than his famed luxury high-rises—offers new context that clearly would have fueled years of further investigation by prosecutors. Who holds the $421 million in debt that President Trump has due in coming years? What leverage is held by whom?
Weissmann clearly would have liked to answer those questions—and so many others scattered across the 346 pages of Where Law Ends—three years ago. Or even, in some cases, the opportunity to have asked them.
More Great WIRED Stories
- 📩 Want the latest on tech, science, and more? Sign up for our newsletters!
- The cheating scandal that ripped the poker world apart
- The 20-Year hunt for the man behind the Love Bug virus
- There’s no better time to be an amateur radio geek
- The 15 TV shows you need to binge this fall
- Could a tree help find a decaying corpse nearby?
- 🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bl