There are teams like the investigators at the Southern District of New York spread anonymously throughout the U.S. government. They are clinging tenaciously to the old standards of right and wrong, to the Constitution and the rule of law.
A crucial question of the Trump years has always been: Will our institutions hold? Will the legal, political and social institutions of American life be able to withstand the norm-destroying corruption of King Chaos?
The U.S. Congress has not fared well. Many Republicans have been supine while Donald Trump has shriveled congressional authority and shredded the rules of basic democratic behavior.
The American legal system, however, seems to be holding up pretty well. Even under the intense Trumpian pressure my New York Times colleagues described this week.
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Robert Mueller is a solid rock in the face of waves of calumny. If anything, the investigators at the Southern District of New York seem to be picking up the pace. These investigations are being led, it should be noted, by Republicans.
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The SDNY investigation seems to be zeroing in on the $107 million Trump inauguration extravaganza. From the hints dropped by the subpoenas, one gets the impression that the inauguration was a shambolic grabfest in which people with money tried to turn it into power and people who suddenly had power tried to turn it into money.
Some legal experts believe the inauguration is being aggressively probed as a racketeering operation — a continuing criminal enterprise, complete with mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and the rest.
So why aren’t the legal authorities wilting? One explanation: institutions and character. The legal institutions instill codes of excellence that are strong enough to take the heat. The people in authority have enough character to live up to those codes.
The head of the SDNY office is Geoffrey Berman, a Trump appointee. Berman has recused himself where that is appropriate and pushed ahead where that is appropriate. The people on his team are famously independent professionals.
Let’s just pick out one, to illustrate the type: the man Berman chose to be his deputy, Robert Khuzami.
Khuzami was born in Brooklyn (you can’t understand the Trump presidency without understanding the resentments and cultural geography of the New York boroughs) and raised in Rochester. According to a 2013 Times DealBook story, he was born into a bohemian family, with ballroom-dancer parents, a muralist sister and a drummer brother. They joke that Robert is the “white sheep” in the family.
He began college at the State University of New York at Geneseo before transferring to the University of Rochester. He supported himself as a dishwasher, bartender and overnight dockworker. He went to Boston University law school, and his career took off.
Khuzami has served through three separate intense investigations. In the 1990s, he was part of the team that prosecuted Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” who led a foiled plot to blow up the United Nations and other landmarks. In 2009, in the wake of the financial crash, he was named head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, revitalizing a demoralized unit. And now he is part of a team taking on the president of the United States.
In between his government service, he’s taken lucrative private-sector jobs, as general counsel for Deutsche Bank and as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis.
Andy McCarthy was one of Khuzami’s fellow prosecutors in the Blind Sheikh case. In his book “Willful Blindness,” McCarthy describes Khuzami as fearless, dogged and willing to contend with the thorniest knots of evidence. In an email to me, McCarthy wrote that Khuzami “is as terrific as you may suspect he is.”
Over the years, Khuzami’s employees have generally described him as intimidating but likable. He was intimidating after the financial crisis. In the 2011 fiscal year, for example, the SEC brought a record 735 enforcement actions. In the same year, his division collected $2.8 billion in penalties and disgorgement.
His critics have often come from the left. Khuzami spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention, in defense of the Patriot Act. Some argue, plausibly, that as general counsel to Deutsche Bank from 2004 to 2009, he should have been aware of the financial shenanigans of that era. Others argue that since he’s been through the revolving door between the elite firms and big government, he’s actually been soft on Wall Street bigs, charging them penalties but not actually holding them responsible.
The critics may have a point. But when you look at Khuzami and the prosecutors like him, you see people who had been formed — who have been carved by institutions and experience for a moment and role like this.
Khuzami is a tested professional. He’s proved his skill at the highest levels. He’s a Wall Street and legal insider. He’s seen national security, Wall Street and white-collar corruption from all angles. And he’s a patriot. He’s given up lucrative jobs to serve.
The point of this is not to lionize Khuzami. He’s part of a team. There are teams like that spread anonymously throughout the U.S. government. They are clinging tenaciously to the old standards of right and wrong, to the Constitution and the rule of law. And if we get through this, it will be because of people like them.