Justice Department lawyers defended Robert Mueller, the special counsel, in court for the first time last week, but its political leaders were absent from the DOJ’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Paul Manafort challenging the investigation’s authority.
Chad Readler, the acting chief of the Civil Division, was not on the motion, nor was any deputy. Manafort’s civil lawsuit against Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the department challenges the authority and appointment of the special counsel, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Listed on the motion are three lawyers in DOJ’s Federal Programs branch: John Tyler, an assistant director, and two trial attorneys, Daniel Schwei and Anjali Motgi. Schwei signed the filing, which defended Mueller’s investigation as “entirely lawful.”
The same three lawyers, and no political leaders, were listed on another filing in the case Tuesday, which opposed a motion from the group Freedom Watch to intervene in Manafort’s case.
It’s routine to put the political leader of the office as the first name on a document, even if that person is acting. It’s unclear why Readler, who has led the division since January 2017 absent a Senate-confirmed nominee, was not named on the motion.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on why Readler was absent from the filing.
Though prosecutors for the special counsel discussed plans to file the motion at a January hearing in Manafort’s criminal case, Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, said in an email that Friday’s filing “makes clear” attorneys in the Civil Division, not lawyers in the special counsel’s office, filed the document on behalf of Mueller, Rosenstein and the DOJ.
Several former Civil Division lawyers said the absence of political leaders on the document was puzzling, but might suggest DOJ wants to avoid the impression that political leadership is in any way shaping the defense of Mueller’s probe.
“It is virtually unheard of for the [Federal Programs] branch to file things without political supervisors,” said one former Civil Division lawyer. “I suspect they wanted to be clear that there was no interference or other involvement by the political people, so as to keep it crystal clear that nobody who was in the Trump political administration was hindering the career people in their effort to stop the lawsuit.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the special counsel’s investigation, and Mueller’s team interviewed him last month, according to press reports.
It’s unclear whether Readler could be a potential witness in the probe or would need to recuse from the Manafort lawsuit for some other reason. Readler was on the initial landing team of officials who took over at DOJ immediately after the inauguration on Jan. 20 last year.
The time period following the inauguration, up until the firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, has become a focus of the special counsel’s investigation, according to reports.
Before joining the administration, Readler worked on behalf of Trump’s campaign while in private practice at the law firm Jones Day.
Readler, Tyler and Schwei have appeared together on briefs in other cases recently, including filings in the department’s defense of Trump’s travel ban policies.