Brian Rabbitt has seen the Russia investigations through from start to finish — from several sides.
At the beginning, Rabbitt was in the White House, helping the new administration navigate congressional probes into Moscow interference in the 2016 presidential election. At the end, Rabbitt was at the Justice Department as chief of staff to Robert Mueller’s boss, Attorney General William Barr, as Barr determined how to describe the special counsel’s investigation to the public. In between, Rabbitt prepped Barr for Mueller questions during his Senate confirmation.
Story Continued Below
Rabbitt’s behind-the-scenes role reveals the carousel nature of the Russia probe, which has featured a number of players switching positions over the last two years. And it highlights the ethical challenge numerous DOJ and White House officials have had to grapple with as a result — whether to recuse themselves from working on the investigation at all.
Barr rejected calls to step back because of a 19-page memo he wrote before joining the administration contesting the legal grounds for Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice investigation. His predecessor, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, also fended off recusal calls over his full-throated cable news denunciations of Mueller’s probe. And Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, actually did recuse himself and the rest of his personal office because of the prominent surrogate role he played during the Trump campaign.
At the White House, counsel Don McGahn in mid-2017 chose to have his entire office stop working on Russia-related matters because staffers had been privy to some of the incidents under investigation.
So when Rabbitt became Barr’s chief of staff in February, he sought out the agency’s ethics officials to determine whether he could advise on Russia matters, given his prior work in the White House counsel’s office. The officials cleared Rabbitt, and within weeks he was assisting on what would become some of the most consequential decisions to date of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Yes, in an abundance of caution, I requested guidance from career ethics officials and was cleared to advise and work with the attorney general on these issues,” Rabbitt told POLITICO in an email exchange.
Now, three months into his DOJ job, Rabbitt has played several key roles during the culmination of the Mueller investigation.
The 36-year-old conservative attorney called the White House on a March Friday afternoon to inform Emmet Flood, a former colleague and friend then serving as the president’s lead Mueller-response lawyer, that the special counsel’s work was officially over.
Two days later, Rabbitt made another call to Flood, this time to read aloud Barr’s four-page letter summarizing the special counsel’s top-line conclusions on collusion and obstruction of justice. (That Sunday morning, Rabbitt also delivered three boxes of donuts to reporters staked out for weekend duty at DOJ headquarters awaiting the release of Mueller’s findings.)
Rabbitt declined to comment about what specific role he played in helping Barr handle the nuances of the Mueller report, decisions that have since become a lightning rod of controversy and even drew a rare complaint from the special counsel that the attorney general “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of his work on the Russia probe over that mid-March weekend.
During Barr’s Senate hearing last week into the Mueller investigation, Rabbitt also whispered repeatedly into the attorney general’s ear as he looked to his staff for help on some questions.
“People should jump me if I’m wrong,” Barr said on more than one occasion, a reference that seemed aimed at his chief of staff and the other aides sitting nearby.
Rabbitt joined the Trump administration in March 2017 from the Washington, D.C., offices of Williams & Connolly, a law firm well known for its partners’ representation of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Rabbitt said in an email he wanted to start out in the Trump Justice Department, but his resume made its way to McGahn, who offered him a job.
While working for McGahn, Rabbitt had a first-floor desk in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. His main portfolio involved legal issues surrounding the deregulation of the financial services industry, as well as helping the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau make its first transition into a GOP administration. He also worked on the confirmations for Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and SEC Chairman Jay Clayton.
As one of the few White House lawyers with experience in trial litigation, Rabbitt was also tapped to help in the early stages of the Russia probe, as several House and Senate investigations were just getting started and FBI Director James Comey would publicly confirm a federal probe into possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow’s election meddling efforts.
“He did a few simple things,” said one former White House colleague who declined to elaborate.
“Let’s just leave it with what you have,” added a second former colleague, who also declined further comment.
In an email exchange with POLITICO, Rabbitt said he was “involved as a lower-level junior lawyer in some of the early congressional inquiries on Russia-related matters.”
Former Trump White House attorney Ty Cobb was more fulsome with his praise.
“We worked closely on complex matters and I admired the judgment he displayed — judgment mature beyond his years!” he said in an email.
From the start, Rabbitt’s work has been almost entirely out of the public eye. And in the end, the Northern Virginia native managed to stay out of the legal fire himself. While several of his former White House colleagues’ names, notes and testimony are cited in the Mueller report, Rabbitt is nowhere to be found.
By the summer of 2017, Rabbitt and the rest of the White House counsel’s office were recused from working on the Russia probe, which by that point had morphed from the FBI investigation Comey had confirmed into the special counsel’s probe. McGahn made the recusal decision, Cobb explained last year, because many of his own attorneys “had been significant participants” surrounding key episodes at the center of the Russia probe, including the firings of Comey and national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Rabbitt left the White House that November to work for the SEC, starting out as a senior lawyer on enforcement and then moving into Clayton’s office as a senior policy adviser. Former colleagues say Rabbitt’s tenure at the White House during the Russia probe was wearing.
“A year in the White House counsel’s office is like 10 years in a normal job,” one of them said.
Rabbitt said he made the change for a “great opportunity to work for a great team and fantastic chairman at the SEC on issues related [to] what I had done in private practice.”
Rabbitt then leapt at the chance to work for Barr. He has known the attorney general since the mid-2000s, when he became close friends with Barr’s middle daughter, Patricia, while the two worked together at the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va.
“Bill Barr eventually became a mentor to me,” Rabbitt said in an email about his current boss, who previously served as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration.
His Justice Department job actually started before Barr had been sworn in as attorney general. Rabbitt served as the sherpa for Barr’s Senate confirmation, helping the nominee prepare for a hearing loaded with questions about his allegiance to Trump and how he’d handle the release of a final Mueller report.
“He was always super prepared and thoughtful in his comments and was kind of issues-fodder extraordinaire,” said Reginald Brown, a former senior George W. Bush White House aide who also helped Barr in his Senate confirmation. “You can see why Bill liked him on the substance and it was just clear the relationship between them was one of complete trust.”
“That confirmation could have been a controversial one,” Brown added. “It wasn’t. That was in significant part to the quality of [Rabbitt’s] thinking and approach.”
People who know both men say it was a natural fit, offering the attorney general who had been out of government for more than 25 years a window onto Capitol Hill and inside the Trump White House.
“He has a set of relationships across the Trump administration that Bill might not have. He has the ability to be his eyes and ears across town,” said Brown.
Serving as Barr’s right-hand-man has meant a lot of Mueller — it’s the issue that has dominated the attorney general’s first three months on the job.
“There’s obviously been a lot of Mueller. He’s involved in everything the attorney general is involved in,” said one of his former White House colleagues.
Rabbitt, however, never became part of the probe itself. While other former White House colleagues had sat for questioning in the Mueller investigation — McGahn himself spent more than 30 hours with investigators — Rabbitt said the special counsel team didn’t interview him as a witness and he didn’t need to get his own personal lawyer.
Still, Rabbitt nonetheless considered whether another recusal was necessary when Barr became Mueller’s main supervisor, taking over from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Rabbitt is actually one of several original McGahn hires now serving in the Barr Justice Department. The attorney general’s senior staff also includes deputy chief of staff John Moran and senior adviser Claire McCusker Murray — both worked in the White House counsel’s office with Rabbitt. And former Trump White House associate counsel James Burnham also now has a lead role on DOJ’s civil side representing the administration in trial courts around the country.
The Barr-Rabbitt relationship marks a big change from the first team at DOJ, which started out with Sessions and chief of staff Jody Hunt. Sessions recused all of his staff in the attorney general’s office from working on the Russia probe, which opened the door for Rosenstein to take the lead appointing and then supervising Mueller. Whitaker, a former federal prosecutor from Iowa and frequent conservative TV commentator, replaced Hunt in September 2017 and later became the acting attorney general after Trump ousted Sessions the day after the November 2018 midterms.
“Could I have seen him be Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff? No. Because that’d be weird,” said one of Rabbitt’s former White House colleagues. “Given the fact Bill Barr is the attorney general, it makes all the sense in the world.”