Justice Department won’t disclose details on Mueller ethics waiver

 In Politics

Robert Mueller is pictured. | Getty Images

The waiver is believed to relate to special counsel Robert Mueller’s work in recent years as a partner at the WilmerHale law firm. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Justice Department is refusing to reveal details of the process that led up to former FBI Director Robert Mueller being granted an ethics waiver to serve as special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

In response to a POLITICO Freedom of Information Act request, the agency released a one-sentence memo Friday confirming that Mueller was granted a conflict-of-interest waiver in order to assume the politically-sensitive post.

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The waiver is believed to relate to Mueller’s work in recent years as a partner at the WilmerHale law firm, which also represented former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is also President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.

However, the document signed by Justice’s top career official, Associate Deputy Attorney General Scott Schools, provides no detail at all of the grounds for the waiver. In fact, it’s so vague that it doesn’t even convey why anyone would think Mueller needed such a release.

“Pursuant to 5 CFR 2635.502(d), I hereby authorize Robert Mueller’s participation in the investigation into Russia’s role in the presidential campaign of 2016 and all matters arising from the investigation,” Schools wrote in the “authorization” signed on May 18, one day after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein formally appointed Mueller to the position.

The agency’s Justice Management Division said it located a two-page “recommendation memorandum” in response to POLITICO’s request, but was declining to release that on grounds it would interfere with the deliberative process inside the department.

The secrecy surrounding the waiver could fuel ongoing efforts by Republican lawmakers and some Trump allies to raise doubts about impartiality of the Mueller investigation. In order to paint the effort as tainted by anti-Trump bias, critics of the probe have seized on the political ties and contribution history of several of Mueller’s deputies, as well as text messages critical of Trump allegedly exchanged by FBI agents assigned to the case.

Two ethics experts contacted by POLITICO said they were troubled that the Justice Department wasn’t more forthcoming about the basis for Mueller’s waiver.

“I think it’s strange they’re not providing the reasoning,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t share it, especially given the current sensitivity of the issue and the way members of Congress are politically trying to undermine this investigation … Since the whole point of this regulation is to ensure public confidence in Mueller’s impartiality, the Justice Department’s refusal to provide its reason — I’m not saying they can’t do it legally — but it seems inconsistent with the purpose of the regulation.”

“I think it’s sloppy,” said Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “The conspiratorial side of me thinks somebody at Justice is not giving you the explanation for the waiver because they want to create the impression that Robert Mueller has a problem when Robert Mueller doesn’t have a problem … This is going to lead to Fox News conspiracy talk.”

The Justice Department appears to have been more forthcoming with explanations of waivers granted to other officials. In May, Justice released a batch of ethics waivers granted to Noel Francisco in travel ban litigation despite his former law firm Jones Day’s entry into that legal fight. The memos were released in response to a lawsuit filed by the liberal watchdog group, American Oversight. Other ethics waivers the agency has released over the years also seem to consist of a recommendation and approval, with both documents made public together.

A spokesman for Mueller’s office offered no comment on the issue.

However, a Justice Department official defended the withholding of the waiver request for the special counsel.

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