By John Solomon
The ink was still drying on special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment papers when his chief deputy, the famously aggressiveand occasionally controversial prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, made a bold but secret overture in early June 2017.
Weissmann quietly reached out to the American lawyers for Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash with a tempting offer: Give us some dirt on Donald Trump in the Russia case, and Team Mueller might make his 2014 U.S. criminal charges go away.
The specifics of the never-before-reported offer were confirmed to me by multiple sources with direct knowledge, as well as in contemporaneous defense memos I read.
The DOJ, Mueller’s office and Weissmann did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment on Monday.
At first blush, one might ask, “What’s the big deal?” It’s not unusual for federal prosecutors to steal a page from Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal” script during plea negotiations.
But Weissmann’s overture was wrapped with complexity and intrigue far beyond the normal federal case, my sources indicate.
At the time, pressure was building inside the DOJ and the FBI to find smoking-gun evidence against Trump in the Russia case because the Steele dossier — upon which the early surveillance warrants were based — was turning out to be an uncorroborated mess. (“There’s no big there there,” lead FBI agent Pete Strzok texted a few days before Weissmann’s overture.)
Likewise, key evidence that the DOJ used to indict Firtash on corruption charges in 2014 was falling apart. Two central witnesses were in the process of recanting testimony, and a document the FBI portrayed as bribery evidence inside Firtash’s company was exposed as a hypothetical slide from an American consultant’s PowerPoint presentation, according to court records I reviewed.
To some, the offer smacked of being desperately premature. Mueller was appointed just two weeks earlier, did not even have a full staff selected, and was still getting up to speed on the details of the investigation. So why rush to make a deal when the prosecution team still was being selected, some wondered.
Second, Weissmann’s approach was audaciously aggressive, even for a prosecutor with his reputation.
According to a defense memo recounting Weissmann’s contacts, the prosecutor claimed the Mueller team could “resolve the Firtash case” in Chicago and neither the DOJ nor the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s Office “could interfere with or prevent a solution,” including withdrawing all charges. “The complete dropping of the proceedings … was doubtless on the table,” according to the defense memo.
Firtash’s team suspected Weissmann’s claim was exaggerated. While Mueller had full authority to investigate the Russia case, he wasn’t an independent counsel separate of the DOJ but, rather, a special counsel subject to the attorney general’s oversight.
The third red flag came in how much Weissmann communicated to Firstash’s lawyers about his hopes for the Ukrainian oligarch’s testimony.
Prosecutors in plea deals typically ask a defendant for a written proffer of what they can provide in testimony and identify the general topics that might interest them. But Weissmann appeared to go much further in a July 7, 2017, meeting with Firtash’s American lawyers and FBI agents, sharing certain private theories of the nascent special counsel’s investigation into Trump, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafortand Russia, according to defense memos.
For example, Firtash’s legal team wrote that Weissmann told them he believed a company called Bayrock, tied to former FBI informant Felix Sater, had “made substantial investments with Donald Trump’s companies” and that prosecutors were looking for dirt on Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Weissmann told the Firtash team “he believes that Manafort and his people substantially coordinated their activities with Russians in order to win their work in Ukraine,” according to the defense memos. And the Mueller deputy said he “believed” a Ukrainian group tied to Manafort “was merely a front for illegal criminal activities in Ukraine,” and suggested a “Russian secret service authority” may have been involved in influencing the 2016 U.S. election, the defense memos show.
Weissmann’s private observations and sharing of prosecutor’s theories went beyond what prosecutors normally do in proffer negotiations and risked planting ideas that could lead the witness to craft his testimony, according to legal experts I consulted.
Remarkably, Firtash turned down Weissmann’s plea overtures even though the oligarch has been trapped in Austria for five years, fighting extradition on U.S. charges in Chicago alleging that he engaged in bribery and corruption in India related to a U.S. aerospace deal. He denies the charges.
The oligarch’s defense team told me that Firtash rejected the deal because he didn’t have credible information or evidence on the topics Weissmann outlined.
But now, as Firtash escalates his fight to avoid extradition, the Weissmann overture is being offered to an Austrian court as potential defense evidence that the DOJ’s prosecution is flawed by bogus evidence and political motivations.
In a sealed court filing in Austria earlier this month, Firtash’s legal team compared the DOJ’s 13-year investigation of Firtash to the medieval inquisitions. It cited Weissmann’s overture as evidence of political motivation, saying the prosecutor dangled the “possible cessation of separate criminal proceedings against the applicant if he were prepared to exchange sufficiently incriminating statements for wide-ranging comprehensively political subject areas which included the U.S. President himself as well as the Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
After years of litigation, the U.S. Justice Department won a ruling in Austria to secure Firtash’s extradition to Chicago. But then his legal team secretly filed new evidence that included the Weissmann overture, and Austrian officials suddenly reversed course last week and ordered a new, lengthy delay in extradition.
That new court filing asserts that two key witnesses, cited by the DOJ in its extradition request as affirming the bribery allegations against Firtash, since have recanted, claiming the FBI grossly misquoted them and pressured them to sign their statements. One witness claims his 2012 statement to the FBI was “prewritten by the U.S. authorities” and contains “relevant inaccuracies in substance,” including that he never used the terms “bribery or bribe payments” as DOJ claimed, according to the Austrian court filing.
That witness also claimed he only signed the 2012 statement because the FBI “exercised undue pressure on him,” including threats to seize his passport and keep him from returning home to India, the memo alleges. That witness recanted his statements the same summer as Weissmann’s overture to Firtash’s team.
Firtash’s lawyers also offered the Austrian court evidence of alleged prosecutorial wrongdoing.
A key document submitted to Austrian authorities to support Firtash’s extradition was portrayed by DOJ as having come from Firtash’s corporate files and purported to show he sanctioned a bribery scheme in India. In fact, the document was created by the McKinsey consulting firm as part of a hypothetical ethics presentation for the Boeing Co. and had no connection to Firstash’s firm.
Moreover, McKinsey claims in an official statement that it had no knowledge of a bribery scheme by Firtash, and the PowerPoint’s use of the phrase “bribery payments” never came from Firtash or his company and were, instead, hypothetical “assumptions by McKinsey about standard business practices in India,” according to the new Austrian court filing.
Firtash’s U.S. legal team told me it alerted Weissmann to DOJ’s false portrayal of the McKinsey document in 2017, but he downplayed the concerns and refused to alert the Austrian court. The document was never withdrawn as evidence, even after the New York Times published a story last December questioning its validity.
“Submitting a false and misleading document to a foreign sovereign and its courts for an extradition decision is not only unethical but also flouts the comity of trust necessary for that process where judicial systems rely only on documents to make that decision,” Firtash’s American legal team wrote in a statement to me. “DOJ’s refusal to rescind the document after being specifically told it is false and misleading is an egregious violation of U.S. and international law.”
Weissmann long has been a favorite target of conservatives, in part because his earlier work as a prosecutor in the Enron case was overturned unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court because of overly aggressive prosecutorial tactics. Former DOJ official Sidney Powell strongly condemned Weissmann’s past work as a prosecutor in “Licensed to Lie,” a book critical of DOJ’s pressure tactics.
It is now clear that Weissmann’s overture to a Ukrainian oligarch in the summer of 2017 is about to take on new significance in Washington, where Mueller is about to testify, and in Austria, where Firtash’s extradition fight has taken a new twist.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.