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DOJ's Rachel Brand Was on Trump's Radar for Russia Probe, But Aide Resisted Inquiries: Mueller

Rachel Brand, sitting next to Rod Rosenstein. March 7, 2017. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi

In the early months of his presidency, at arguably the peak of his frustration with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump wanted a question posed to the third-in-command at the Justice Department: Rachel Brand.

It was the summer of 2017, and Trump was feuding with Sessions, who had infuriated the president months earlier with his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, setting in motion Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller III as special counsel.

Questions swirled over whether Trump would fire Sessions and Rosenstein. And there was speculation that Rosenstein's central role in firing FBI Director James Comey would require him, as a witness, to step away from overseeing the Russia investigation.

In July 2017, Trump turned to a top aide to pitch a question for Brand, a longtime Washington lawyer and former Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner who was then serving as the No. 3 official at the Justice Department. Trump reportedly asked staff secretary Rob Porter whether Brand was “on the team” and if she were interested in overseeing the Russia probe.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a former Wilmer partner who left the firm to lead the Russia investigation, learned about Trump's remarks from Porter, who kept contemporaneous notes.

“Keep in touch with your friend," Trump told Porter. Trump would follow up, asking later if Porter had reached out to Brand. He never did, according to the report, “because he was uncomfortable with the task.”

The episode was among several outlined in Mueller's report showing instances of Trump aides ignoring or otherwise resisting a request from the president that was directly related to Mueller's ongoing Russia investigation.

“In asking him to reach out to Brand, Porter understood the president to want to find someone to end the Russia investigation or fire the special counsel, although the president never said so explicitly,” Mueller’s team wrote. “Porter did not contact Brand because he was sensitive to the implications of that action and did not want to be involved in a chain of events associated with an effort to end the investigation or fire the special counsel.”

In a footnote, the special counsel’s office made the reason for Trump’s interest in Brand abundantly clear: “Because of Sessions’ recusal, if Rosenstein were no longer in his position, Brand would, by default, become the DOJ official in charge of supervising the special counsel’s investigation, and if both Sessions and Rosenstein were removed, Brand would be next in line to become acting attorney general for all DOJ matters.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces the Trump administration is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi /NLJ

Brand, of course, would never take charge of the Russia investigation.

In February 2018, less than a year after her confirmation as associate attorney general, she departed for a top in-house role at Walmart Inc. as head of global corporate governance. Brand had begun talks with Walmart in December 2017, according to an ethics disclosure she made to the Justice Department.

One of her former Wilmer colleagues, Jamie Gorelick, said at the time: "She didn't seek this out—they sought her out." Gorelick described Brand's move as "something she could not turn down."

Brand was not reached for comment Friday.

Porter stepped down as staff secretary in February 2018 amid allegations of spousal abuse. He reportedly denied as "outrageous" the claims made against him by his two former wives. Porter and Brand both graduated from Harvard Law School, but they did not attend the school at the same time. It was not immediately clear how the two know each other.

Porter was not reached for comment.

On Friday, Trump took aim at the notes and recollections of former aides who were featured in Mueller's report. “Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue,” Trump said in a tweet.

“Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed,” Trump said, describing some of the statements about him as “total bullshit.”