Mobster John Gotti (L) was taken down by former Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller (R) (Reuters)
It’s a “witch hunt”. A “vendetta”.
- Robert Mueller flipped smaller players to take down notorious mobster John Gotti in the 90s
- He used the same tactics to undercover Russian ties, former FBI agent says
- Despite attacks on his credibility, Mr Mueller couldn’t be dissuaded from the investigation
The government is “creating cases against individuals they target” while granting freedom to those who “sing the government’s tune” and flip.
But this is not 2019. This is not Mueller vs Trump.
It’s 1991 and Robert Mueller III’s net is closing around John Gotti, the fabled leader of the Gambino crime family.
Back then, Mueller was an assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division of the US Justice Department.
The subjects of his investigation were waging a war of words against him and his tactics.
Mueller’s curriculum vitae still lists Gotti as one of his three key successes prior to becoming the director of the FBI, along with his prosecution of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and his investigation into the Lockerbie bombing.
So it’s no surprise that Mueller’s two-year probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia ties, which wrapped up last month, at times resembled a “classic Gambino-style roll-up”, as a Trump White House insider once put it.
Flipping the small players
Before crossing paths with Mueller, John Gotti had been acquitted three times by juries, earning him the infamous moniker ‘Teflon Don’.
Mobster John Gotti died in a prison hospital in 2002 while serving a life sentence (Reuters: Greta Patt)
It was Mueller who oversaw an FBI deal to flip Gotti associate and hit man Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano and turn him into a star witness for the state.
Gravano was a “consigliere” to the mob boss and admitted to 19 murders, including killing his wife’s brother.
So when Gravano signalled he was willing to flip on his boss, FBI agents held a highly secretive meeting with Gravano behind bars.
If even a hint of Gravano’s betrayal reached Gotti — who was being held in the same prison awaiting trial — it could have been fatal for Gravano, not to mention the FBI’s chances of putting Gotti away.
Mueller would ultimately sign off on a deal securing Gravano’s damning testimony against the mob boss in exchange for a reduction in his sentence.
It was enough for Gotti to finally be convicted and sent to jail, where he eventually died.
At the time, some questioned whether striking a deal with a mobster responsible for a string of murders was too high a price to pay.
But Mueller and his FBI team had worked their way to the top of the food chain and ensnared the elusive ‘Teflon Don’ at last.
Working the legal system
Ahead of the Gotti trial, the mob boss’s aggressive, broad-shouldered lawyer Bruce Cutler was sidelined after being convicted for breaching a court order forbidding him from defending his client publicly.
Wiretaps had picked up Cutler talking. He could have been called as a witness in his client’s trial.
Other lawyers called the legal manoeuvre a cynical ploy to silence Cutler — nothing less than a breach of the First Amendment right to free speech.
But even now, Cutler doesn’t resent Mueller’s hardball tactics. Instead he levels much of his disdain at Gravano.
For lawyers like Cutler, there’s an inherent dislike of criminals who become informants for prosecutors like Mueller.
“Gravano puffed himself up like a big gangster,” he told the ABC. “But when the bill comes to pay he said, ‘Who, me?'”
“It’s very simple. They have a whole f***ing life of crime and then they say, ‘He told me, he told me’. And then they don’t go to jail.
Former mafia hitman Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano turned into a state’s witness to avoid a longer sentence (Reuters)
“Or they go to what’s called a ‘birdcage jail’ where they can eat pizza and Chinese food and do whatever the hell they want. It’s not a real prison.”
Finding the weak links
The investigation into suspected Russian meddling in the US election began when the FBI received a tip off about a Trump campaign official’s boast of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia.
The revelation was made during drinks between George Papadopolous and Australia’s High Commissioner to London, Alexander Downer, in 2016.
Nearly three years after that fateful meeting, a counter-intelligence operation morphed into a massive special prosecutor’s probe headed by Mueller.
Witness after witness, document after document, Mueller and his team relentlessly targeted smaller players like Papadopolous, flipping them, gathering their knowledge and evidence before moving onto their next target.
According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and public opponent of the President, Mueller’s Russia probe resembled “an organised-crime approach tailored to decipher a counter-intelligence inquiry.”
“Mueller uses the standard FBI investigative approach,” Mr Soufan said.
“He identifies weak links and low level-operatives and secures their cooperation to work his way up the food chain in building his case.”
Flipping Trump’s inner circle
Mueller worked his way into Trump’s inner circle, starting with the White House’s former national security advisor Mike Flynn.
Flynn was caught out by his own lies to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was caught out by his campaign deputy Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty and became a star witness against his former boss.
Flynn pled guilty and Manafort was found guilty at trial. They both cut deals with the Mueller investigation, although Manafort later jeopardised his plea deal after being caught out lying to Mueller’s probe.
“I think Mr Mueller’s been very thorough, building a solid case by effectively closing in on the people who are directly involved,” Mr Soufan said, adding he exhibited “full control over the progress and the integrity of the investigation with no leaks whatsoever.”
Then came the key witness for Mueller, Michael Cohen. Donald Trump’s personal lawyer had his offices, home and hotel room raided by the FBI in April last year.
Soon after he was sentenced to three years’ jail, Cohen gave an interview to ABC America declaring that President Trump “doesn’t tell the truth”.
“And it’s sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds,” Cohen said.
Cohen would go on to deliver nationally televised testimony before Congress suggesting the President engaged in criminal conduct.
Michael Cohen said he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for Donald Trump’s “dirty deeds” (AP: Julie Jacobson)
Attacking Mueller’s credibility
Robert Mueller has a history of being methodical and acting with the utmost integrity.
From Princeton he joined the Marines and went to the Vietnam War from which he returned with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
“Bob is as honourable, and honest, an individual as can be imagined,” his former colleague Jeffrey Robbins told the ABC.
Mr Robbins served with Mueller in the US Attorney’s office in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1980s. They took on major cases of civil fraud.
“He is a person of impeccable integrity. He is deeply old-fashioned in his commitment to public service, almost a throwback to an earlier time.”
From beginning to end, Mueller’s Russia probe saw more than 30 individuals indicted, including three Russian entities.
But that didn’t stop the attacks on Mueller’s credibility, much like the ones he suffered in previous prosecutions.
While President’s Twitter hostility was initially quelled after Attorney General William Barr summarised the findings of the Mueller report in a letter, much of the 18-month investigation was punctuated by attacks by Trump and his representatives.
In February, the New York Times estimated Trump had attacked the Mueller probe over 1100 times, sometimes directly criticising the special counsel while also targeting others like former FBI director James Comey.
Trump’s lawyer and friend, Rudolph Giuliani, led the charge with a concerted campaign to undermine and discredit the entire Mueller probe.
“[Cohen] got up in front of the judge and said ‘I was fiercely loyal to Donald Trump’,” Giuliani told Fox News late last year.
“Nonsense he was fiercely loyal to him. He taped him, lied to him, revealed the tape and did something a lawyer I’ve never heard ever did — tape record his own client.”
Guiliani said he was “disgusted” with Mueller’s tactics and savaged Cohen for flipping on Trump.
But Mueller remained a good poker player, keeping his investigative strategy close to his chest throughout the probe.
It’s worth remembering that Rudolph Giuliani, before he was Mayor of New York who helped the city recover from the September 11 attacks, was also Federal Prosecutor.
For his part, Bruce Cutler can’t stand the man.
“[Giulian is] one of the worst people in public life, just awful, entirely dishonourable,” he said.
Donald Trump he sees differently.
“I’m not a supporter of conservative ideologues but [Trump] comes off like a very strong leader,” he said, before adding, “I think the world of President Obama and his wife. I miss them.”