Robert Mueller could face one significant issue with his appointment as special counsel to lead the Justice Department’s investigation into ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: The law firm he’s worked at since 2014 has represented several prominent players in Trump’s bid for the White House.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are all clients of Wilmer Hale, the firm Mueller is leaving to assume the position of special prosecutor overseeing the high-profile Russia election probe.
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One prominent expert on government ethics rules said Wednesday that lawyers entering federal service would normally be required to recuse themselves from decisions regarding individuals who were represented by the new official’s former firm.
"It’s a possible wrinkle in all off this," said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. "Usually, there would be a one-year cooling off period."
However, Painter said that requirement can be waived by Justice Department ethics officials and he would support them doing so in this instance.
"I would support them using that authority," Painter said. "It doesn’t really make sense for him to oversee one part of the investigation and recuse from others….The real risk here is interference by the White House or by [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions’ appointees, not some issue involving Wilmer Hale."
Painter did say it might be wise for Mueller and any other ex-Wilmer lawyers who work on the investigation to refrain from direct negotiations with their former colleagues.
"It would be a good idea not to have too many face-to-face meetings," the ethics lawyer said.
Justice Department officials did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
Wilmer Hale co-managing director Robert Novick said he could not comment on the government ethics rules, but he said Mueller didn’t play any part in the firm’s work for Manafort, Ivanka Trump or Kushner.
"He had absolutely nothing to do with any of those representations," Novick told POLITICO Wednesday night.
Congressional investigators pursuing the Russia election issue are seeking to talk to Manafort about his dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere with Russia-friendly business titans and political figures. They also have sought to speak with Kushner about why he omitted meetings with Russian officials and business leaders from his security clearance forms. His attorneys have called that an error.
Notwithstanding the ethics issue, Painter praised Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s pick of Mueller to act as special counsel overseeing the sensitive investigation.
"He’s a brilliant choice…. He’s as close to an Archie Cox as you’re going to find," Painter said, referring to the respected lawyer who served as special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation.