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NPR 2019-03-15

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Top Mueller Prosecutor Stepping Down In Latest Clue Russia Inquiry May Be Ending

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif. Good morning. NPR has learned new information suggesting that the special counsel's Russia investigation is done. A key prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, is leaving the office. He helped build the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort was sentenced yesterday to serve 7 1/2 years in prison. Now with us to walk through her exclusive reporting, here is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with what you've learned about Robert Mueller's legal team. This long process might be coming to an end here, it sounds like.

JOHNSON: Yeah, nearly two years long - it's the strongest sign yet the special counsel is done investigating. It's that a prominent lawyer on the team, Andrew Weissmann, is leaving the special counsel unit and the Justice Department. Two sources are telling me Weissmann's leaving to go teach and do some scholarship at New York University. And they say he wouldn't be leaving unless the Russia investigation was complete. I'm hearing, also, to expect more signs of wrapping up in the next two weeks maximum.

Remember, David, the lead FBI agent assigned to this probe started a new job in Virginia this month. And other lawyers have been moving off the team, too. But Andrew Weissmann was, in some ways, aside from Robert Mueller, the most well-known. He's been attacked by conservative talk radio hosts. And he was called a killer by Steve Bannon, one of Trump's former advisers, who also called him the LeBron James of money laundering investigations.

GREENE: The thinking being that, I mean, once the important work is done, you're going to let your investigators move on, even if you're putting the finishing touches on the report or whatever is happening.

JOHNSON: That's exactly right. And we're seeing more high-level departures by the day.

GREENE: So the prosecutor you're talking about, Andrew Weissmann, I mean, really played a central role in the case against Paul Manafort. And we're seeing a lot of news in that case over the past 24 hours with the sentencing. What exactly is happening?

JOHNSON: Yeah, David. Last week, the judge in Virginia basically said Paul Manafort had led an otherwise blameless life aside from his financial crimes. Yesterday, the judge in Washington, D.C., Amy Berman Jackson, had a lot more criticism for Paul Manafort. She sentenced him to serve almost four years in prison. Add that to the time Manafort got in Virginia last week; it totals up to about 7 1/2 years in prison total.

The D.C. judge, Amy Jackson, was not buying Paul Manafort's remorse. She basically said he used other people's money to support his own lifestyle - too many houses for one family to enjoy, too many suits for one man to wear. She also said Manafort spent his whole life spinning. He treated the legal process the same way. She said courts are one place where facts still matter. And she said saying I'm sorry I got caught is not an effective plea for leniency - very tough language from this D.C. judge.

GREENE: Tough language, indeed. I mean, we should say the first federal prison term Manafort was given, a lot of people criticized it for not being long enough. Different reaction to this one?

JOHNSON: You know, it's been mixed. Some former prosecutors say, in all, 7 1/2 years seems about right for Paul Manafort. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill were saying it was too lenient. And of course, Paul Manafort's allies are continuing to say that he never should have been prosecuted in the first place for some of this and he would not have been prosecuted if not for his work with President Trump on the 2016 campaign.

GREENE: What about the idea of a presidential pardon, Carrie Johnson? I mean, that seems to be looming over a case like this. Isn't that possibility why prosecutors in New York have moved to bring their own charges against Manafort?

JOHNSON: Indeed. Paul Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, told people outside the courthouse yesterday there was no collusion, which the judge had explicitly said was not one of her findings. The judge suggested that Paul Manafort's lawyer, Downing, was actually speaking to another audience. And President Trump, shortly after the sentencing, said he feels very badly for Paul Manafort. He said he hasn't given a pardon for Manafort any thought.

But clearly, state prosecutors - the Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance - has. And that's why he slapped Paul Manafort with 16 charges only an hour or so after this federal sentencing concluded. And the key point there, David, is that a president cannot pardon someone on state charges, only federal charges.

GREENE: And just coming back full circle - Carrie, we might not know exactly if the special counsel's investigation is over. Will there be a clear end moment that we, the public, will know or maybe not?

JOHNSON: At some point, the attorney general of the United States, Bill Barr, is going to have to come out and make a statement about this.

GREENE: OK. So we'll learn something. Exclusive reporting this morning from NPR's Carrie Johnson - we appreciate it, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.


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