Elizabeth Holtzman is a former member of Congress from New York who won national attention for her work on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate. She was subsequently elected district attorney of King’s County—the borough of Brooklyn. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jon Wiener: We’ve worried for a long time that Trump could fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or he could pardon everyone being investigated by Mueller, which would end those investigations. But now Mueller has teamed up with the attorney general of New York State, Eric Schneiderman, on their investigation into Paul Manafort and his financial transactions. What is the significance of this cooperation?
Elizabeth Holtzman: Mueller is sending a strong signal to people who are subjects or targets of the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The message is that the president can’t exonerate you just by a pardon, because the president’s power to pardon is limited to federal offenses. It does not cover state offenses. What Mueller is saying is, “Yes, Mr. Manafort, maybe President Trump will pardon you, but that’s not going to get you off the hook, because you can be prosecuted under state laws.”
JW: The feds can prosecute some crimes that state attorney generals can’t, of course—starting with crimes committed outside the State of New York. What else can Mueller investigate that New York State Attorney General Schneiderman cannot investigate?
EH: Mueller can investigate the firing of FBI Director James Comey, for example. That was a firing of a federal official, and an obstruction of justice. potentially. That’s something that Eric Schneiderman wouldn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate. On the other hand, it may be that Eric Schneiderman’s investigations into financial activities by Mr. Manafort could lay the basis for prosecution of Mr. Manafort on state charges, and that might be sufficient to get Mr. Manafort to talk to Mueller’s team about what he knows about the Trump campaign, Trump himself, and collusion with Russia. Even if the state charges, assuming there’s a basis for them, don’t relate to any federal offense, they could become a basis for putting pressure on Trump campaign officials to cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities.
JW: Trump’s lawyers have filed papers arguing that the president has the authority to hire and fire, and therefore, it could not be an obstruction of justice for Trump to fire Comey. You’re a former prosecutor, could that be correct?