• Show Notes
  • Transcript

A conversation with Lisa Monaco, former Chief of Staff to Bob Mueller and Homeland Security Advisor to President Obama, on what it’s like to be in the room with powerful people making the hard decisions. Then, a note on DEA Chuck Rosenberg’s resignation.

Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts. 

The first time I met Robert Mueller was in 2005.

I was working in the United States Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, and Director Mueller was in his fourth year as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had been appointed by President George W. Bush right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and had been working doggedly to modernize the agency and respond to the new and ever-present threat of terrorism. After he served a full 10-year term with distinction, President Obama would ask him to stay for an extra two years, and the U.S. House and Senate would both overwhelmingly approve the extension. He was highly respected, universally trusted, and widely seen as infallible.

But when I first met him, he was explaining that the FBI had screwed up.

For five years, the FBI had been working on a new software application called the Virtual Case File, or VCF, that was designed to replace a system that relied on obsolete infrastructure from the 1970s. They had spent millions of dollars, gone through five changes in project leadership, and repeatedly promised success. There was just one problem: the software didn’t work. It was missing key components, it was poorly designed, and it wouldn’t even perform its tasks during initial tests – let alone real-world conditions.

Now, it was clear that the FBI would have to abandon the project – an embarrassing failure after spending more than $100 million in taxpayer money. But what was notable about Director Mueller was that he didn’t make excuses, or cast blame on the engineers, or the contractors, or his predecessor. Instead, he stood in the office of a United States Senator and took ownership of the failure, outlining the mistakes that had been made and charting a path forward. He spoke with supporters and critics, walked us through his successes and failures, and volunteered additional information that we hadn’t even thought to ask about. In a town like Washington DC, where accountability isn’t always easy to come by, I remember being struck by his honesty, his integrity, and his commitment to learn the right lessons and figure out how best to proceed.

Those characteristics are in short supply, because it’s much easier to make excuses and to cast blame than to acknowledge mistakes and accept responsibility – particularly when your mistakes play out squarely in the public eye. But the truth is that we learn from failures, and we’re apt to learn a lot more if we’re willing to accept that we’re occasionally wrong. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m not perfect (well, maybe not the first, but I’m on the list). I’ve certainly made mistakes before. And in every instance, being willing to recognize failure and listen to the advice of others has helped me to learn from my mistakes, correct my misperceptions, and figure out how best to proceed. In my very first meeting with Bob Mueller, I saw that principle in action.

By the way – less than a year after the failure of VCF, the FBI announced it was beginning a new, more ambitious software overhaul called Sentinel. Under Bob Mueller’s leadership, it was finished successfully and under-budget – and it’s still in use today.

This week, I spoke with someone who knows a great deal about Bob Mueller, and about leadership, disagreement, and keeping people safe: Lisa Monaco. Lisa has served in positions from Director Mueller’s chief of staff at the FBI to President Barack Obama’s chief homeland security advisor. We talked about now-Special Counsel Mueller, about fallibility, and about how listening to people with different opinions can help shape good policy.

Take a listen – and stay tuned for more.

Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts. 


Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts. 

Episode 3: Behind Closed Doors: Advising Mueller and Obama (with Lisa Monaco)

Preet Bharara: Lisa Monaco, welcome to the show.

Lisa Monaco: Great to be here.

Preet Bharara: So, you’ve worked for a lot of important people that folks have heard of.

Lisa Monaco: Mm-hmm.

Preet Bharara: Janet Reno, Joe Biden, Barack Obama. And you were at one point the chief of staff to Robert Mueller.

Lisa Monaco: That’s right.

Preet Bharara: So, let me maybe start with Robert Mueller. Much in the news in recent months. He was the FBI director for ten plus two years, and was appointed the Special Counsel by the Trump administration in connection with the Russia investigation. And you’ll appreciate this. We once did a press conference and you were there as well, announcing the arrest, a couple of people who were charged with conspiring to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. And before we went out to the podium, Bob Mueller literally made fun of me for wearing a blue shirt.

Lisa Monaco: I remember that.

Preet Bharara: He’s a white shirt guy. Former Marine. And so, I have been, I will tell you, professionally and personally upset to see a person like that, who was a valiant member of the military, served in every capacity you can imagine in the Justice Department, and at the head of the FBI in the wake of 9/11. And I get upset when I see people engaging in character assassination of a public servant like that, even if they have different political views. I find that unacceptable. Now, you were his chief of staff for how many years?

Lisa Monaco: Three years.

Preet Bharara: Three years.

Lisa Monaco: Mm-hmm.

Preet Bharara: How does it make you feel when you hear people saying the kinds of things they’re saying about him?

Lisa Monaco: You know, I’ve had a few reactions to that. One is like yours, incensed that people would question or call into question the integrity of this man who I know well and have the utmost respect for, when he has such a long history of service to this country. But the thing – and you’ll appreciate this, Preet – is I know that it doesn’t affect him. This is a guy whose whole mantra is keep your head down and just do the work. He weathered a lot of issues when he was FBI director. He came under a lot of fire in the wake of 9/11. So, he used to seeing arrows come from all sides. But it’s not gonna affect how he does his job.

The goal and the focus of [Mueller team], from the investigators to the prosecutors that he’s assembled, is to find the truth, however that falls out.

Preet Bharara: What do you have to say to people who, for political reasons, are questioning his motivations?

Lisa Monaco: It tells me they don’t know him, and they certainly don’t understand the mission of the Special Counsel, how it’s set up, and they don’t understand the job of prosecutor and investigators.

Preet Bharara: A lot of people have suggested, well, the point of it is to bring a charge or to make a referral, otherwise what’s the point? And I try to explain, and some people don’t like it on the left, people who don’t like the president – no, it’s not that he’s assembled a team that is destined to make a charge. He’s hired a team that is schooled in how the law works and how to gather facts, and will get to the truth. And that might lead to charges or a referral against one or more people or not.

Lisa Monaco: Sure. And I know a number of people on the team, and this – you could not find a greater assembly of talent, experience, across all the different disciplines that are gonna be required for a case like this. So, it’s really without parallel, the team he’s assembled. And the goal and the focus of a team like this, from the investigators to the prosecutors that he’s assembled, is to find the truth, however that falls out. If there is a charge to be made, I have no doubt that they will assemble that and be able to present that evidence. If there is not, frankly, people on the other side, the critics, ought to be happy that it’s Bob Mueller who’s doing this, because no one is gonna have greater credibility than him to lay out the facts as he finds them.

Preet Bharara: Can we spend a minute talking about why it takes so long?

Lisa Monaco: Sure.

Preet Bharara: I’ve said many times, it takes a while to do a proper investigation. And part of the reason is you don’t know where all the dots are to be connected.

Lisa Monaco: Right.

Preet Bharara: And so, you will send out a subpoena to a financial institution, and you’ll get some documents back, and you’ll see some money coming into a bank account. And then it’s only then, some weeks later when you get the return on that subpoena, that you find other bank accounts who have been putting money into that. And then you have to then go through the process of issuing a subpoena to the other bank.

Lisa Monaco: And the same is true when it comes to interviewing witnesses, right? You talk to people. You interview witnesses in an investigation like this, or any investigation, and they refer to a meeting, or another person who was at a meeting, or another person who was part of a conversation, who you as the investigator or the prosecutor didn’t even know existed or was part of this set of events. And now you’ve got to go talk to that person. So, it is a seemingly endless string of potential leads, whether it’s on paper or whether it’s in the interviews that they conduct. And that can prompt another series of investigative steps. The other thing I think is – that I’m amazed at when I see people commenting on this is when they say that Mueller and his team are conducting investigative steps for the purpose of sending signals, or for the purpose of intimidation. And it makes me crazy.

Preet Bharara: It makes me crazy too.

Lisa Monaco: Because they – the people saying that, A, don’t understand how investigations work, and so they can be forgiven for that. But B, they don’t understand Bob Mueller, and so I suppose they could be forgiven for that. But then, don’t impute motives to an individual.

Preet Bharara: Well, part of it, it seems – people love the spectacle of sport. And people would say that about me when I was U.S. attorney, and in some way it was mano-a-mano between me and whoever the potential target was.

Lisa Monaco: Right.

Preet Bharara: And that’s not how we go about it. It seems that people don’t always get that Bob Mueller has a crack team of prosecutors and investigators. He has a considerable budget, and he has subpoena power and armed men at his disposal to find out evidence. That’s the kind of guy who doesn’t need to flex.

Lisa Monaco: That’s exactly right.

Preet Bharara: And doesn’t need to send any messages, because that’s not the way it’s done. What’s it like when someone gets the call to work for him like you did as a chief of staff, or some of these men and women are?

Lisa Monaco: Now I think the prosecutors who are working with him realize that they just made it to the big league, and that they are in the equivalent of the prosecutorial and legal Super Bowl. When I first started working with him as first counsel to him, and then as his chief of staff, the late David Margolis, who’s been referred to as the conscience of the department, Yoda, and everything in between – he said to me, “Lisa, this is gonna be the best job you’ve ever had.” And with great respect to my former boss, President Obama, David Margolis was right.

Preet Bharara: So, how do you think Bob Mueller organizes a big investigation like this in the same way that you might have or I might have? Do you allocate certain resources to likely leads upfront, or do you look at everything at once?

Lisa Monaco: We can deduce a few things from the steps that he’s taken thus far, right? The team he has put together. He’s got experts on public corruption investigations, a prosecutor from your office, my former colleague Andrew Weissmann, who lead the Enron task force and led the Department of Justice Fraud Division. So, very schooled in complex financial crimes. He’s got experts on international and counterintelligence matters, and investigators with that discipline. And importantly, Michael Dreeben, who is the most revered lawyer in the Department of Justice, going back decades for his understanding of the criminal law and his ability to see how things are gonna play out after a charge is made, after a trial happens in what they call—in the legal biz—the appellate phase. And so, that tells me that Mueller and his team are looking at the entire scope of this and are looking down the field as well.

Preet Bharara: You mentioned Michael Dreeben, a name that is not a household name.

Lisa Monaco: That’s exactly right.

Preet Bharara: But the person about whom I’m aware of more professional crushes throughout the Department of Justice.

Lisa Monaco: Amongst legal nerds, I think that’s true.

Preet Bharara: Amongst legal nerds.

Lisa Monaco: That you travel with.

Preet Bharara: So, not only did you work for Bob Mueller, you were most recently top advisor to the President of the United States. And you were in the Oval Office on a regular basis advising on terrorism issues and how to keep us safe in America, so thank you for that service. Was that the hardest job you’ve ever had?

Lisa Monaco: Probably, yeah. Just the sheer number of issues that you’d confront every day, that the president had to confront, and then by extension, his staff. The sheer range of issues that I had on my plate, from terrorist threats both here at home and to our people overseas, to cyberattacks and cyberthreats, and that incredibly – an exponential threat picture that we’ve seen evolve over time; natural disasters like hurricanes, and pandemic disease. So, I had a full panoply of kind of worst-case scenario concerns that I was focused on every day and talking to the president about every morning.

Preet Bharara: If the goal of any White House on the issue of national security and public safety is to make sure that everyone is safe and the threats are vanquished, to what degree are you supposed to be loyal to the president’s agenda on behalf of the American public?

Lisa Monaco: You know, it’s an interesting question, and one that obviously is getting a lot of attention these days, given the discussion about President Trump’s agenda and his – a lot of staff turnover. The way I looked at this is I wasn’t going to agree 100 percent with every decision or every policy of any of the people I’ve worked for. I think that’s probably true.

I think that you shouldn’t agree with everything that the person that you are advising does. They shouldn’t want you to.

Preet Bharara: So, from time to time, you would give advice in the Oval Office.

Lisa Monaco: Absolutely.

Preet Bharara: And sometimes, your advice was not taken.

Lisa Monaco: Mm-hmm.

Preet Bharara: And did you on those occasions go back to your office and immediately phone up The New York Times and The Washington Post and tell them about it?

Lisa Monaco: To the point where I had to put speed dial on.

Preet Bharara:  Let the record reflect that you’re being sarcastic.

Lisa Monaco: [Laughs] Yes, thank you.

Preet Bharara: And the reason obviously I ask that question is that’s apparently what we’re seeing in the papers every day, and these leaks that people talk about, as someone who was in that room in the Oval Office before it was redecorated, why is that bad?

Lisa Monaco: I think that you shouldn’t agree with everything that the person that you are advising does. They shouldn’t want you to. There ought to be disagreement, otherwise the president, or the FBI director, or the attorney general has yes men and women around them, and that’s not good. You get into groupthink, and that’s all bad, particularly when you’re talking about matters of life and death.

Preet Bharara: So, did you sometimes think it was your role to disagree to play devil’s advocate so that you could work through the other side of the view?

Lisa Monaco: Absolutely, both in the Oval Office and in the national security space in the Situation Room. When I would lead either the Deputies Committee or the Principals Committee, depending on what the issue was, you want to make sure, at least in the process that I ran and that I saw my colleagues run in those settings – you want to make sure all views are getting out onto the table. You don’t want consensus to emerge because “that’s what the White House wants.” That’s gonna be a bad decision, because it’s gonna be poorly informed.

Preet Bharara: I learned – it took me a while to learn this – there’s a natural inclination to want to be on the side that the boss ultimately ends up going on. How do you guard against that? Because I do have a worry – it’s all speculation – that some of that is what’s happening in the White House now.

Lisa Monaco: No, it’s a real danger. I found I had to check myself on that, not to think, okay, everyone’s gonna feel free to disagree with me if I’m the one leading the meeting. You have to be mindful that if you’re the one who’s in the leadership chair, that there are gonna be some people who are gonna be reticent to do that. It’s something I saw President Obama do all the time, which is not lay out his view, but literally go around that Situation Room table to what we called the backbench seats to make sure that everyone is heard from to inform his view.

Preet Bharara: Who was in the backbench seats?

Lisa Monaco: You know, lots of people, periodically.

Preet Bharara: Really?

Lisa Monaco: Yeah. The folks who don’t have the nameplate, who aren’t the Cabinet-level member, you know. His or her staff, who oftentimes, frankly, had more interesting things to say than some of the folks at the table.

Preet Bharara: In connection with keeping the country safe, we have democratic elections in this country, and not everyone likes the results if their guy doesn’t win. So, someone of a different party won, and President Obama rode off into the sunset, and Donald Trump becomes the president. But then there’s this thing called transition, and I wonder what that was like, and if you still talk to those people.

Lisa Monaco: I was, and I did, and I do. So –

Preet Bharara: Okay. Thank you very much.

Lisa Monaco: [Laughs]

Preet Bharara: That’s all I needed to know. Every day?

Lisa Monaco: So, during the transition, I spent many, many hours with my successor, Tom Bossert. I was hoping to impart to him a set of priorities and things that he knew would keep him up at night, but there were other things that maybe he didn’t know would keep him up at night, and I wanted to tell him about those. So, clearly, the threat of a terror attack, cyberthreat – those were two things that were gonna be on the top of his list. But I also told him I was very concerned about the problem of emerging infectious disease and things like Ebola, or Zika, or a new strain of flu that we’re not necessarily prepared for, and that I thought he needed to be really focused on that issue. I wanted him to focus on the Americans who are still held abroad, both by terrorist groups and by regimes. I talked to him about Bob Levinson, the longest person held overseas; about Caitlin Coleman being held by the Haqqani network, and trying to impress upon him the need to, even with the press of all the other business, keep those people and their families at the top of his agenda, and to maintain contact with the families.

Preet Bharara: Did you also talk at all about the importance of guiding principles, and how to make sure that the president made the best decision?

Lisa Monaco: Mm-hmm. I did. I talked to him about the importance of running a full and fair and transparent process in the Situation Room when he was leading either the Deputies Committee or the Principals, through whether it’s managing a crisis, terror attack, or a natural disaster, or coming up with a policy response, and the importance of making sure you got all the information and all the views represented at the table, and that he be an honest broker for that. And importantly, the importance of disagreeing – giving youf best and full and frankest information and advice to the president.

Preet Bharara: Isn’t there an argument, though, that that’s bureaucracy, and it gets bogged down, and that an activist man of action is best served by talking to a couple of people who are really, really smart, and then imposing his will so things can be done more quickly?

Lisa Monaco: Well, look. The way you lay it out, I’d pick the first too, the activist guy who just gets it done. But the reality is, neither one of those two are the preferred outcome. It’s a false choice. The decisive leader who’s guided by this country’s values and principles, informed by experts, and willing to listen to different views is going to arrive at a better decision and a more informed view nine times out of ten.

Preet Bharara: If the goal is to keep the public safe, what’s the degree to which ideology can or should enter into that?

Lisa Monaco: Look, I think there ought to be room for differences in ideology. As long as they’re not unbending or unyielding to facts that are the product of fully considered, expertly informed discussions. So, case in point: President Obama spent a lot of time in the campaign trail criticizing President Bush’s approach to the so-called War on Terror. And when – and I think he’s talked about this – when he got into the seat and literally had the responsibility and got the intelligence about the threats facing the country, and really probed the intelligence community on the steps they were taking, whether it’s from surveillance to the use of drones, etc., he got himself informed by the experts, the intelligence community, the diplomats, you name it, and was willing to say, you know what? We’re gonna continue some things. We’re gonna make some adjustments here in other places. But he didn’t let ideology, if you want to call it that, be a straitjacket for how he protected the country.

Preet Bharara: We haven’t talked about this in years. You once told me that someone has to call the families of Americans who are beheaded by ISIS in their savage way, and that person was you. What was that like, and how’d that affect how you thought about the policy? Separate and apart from what the policy should be –

Lisa Monaco: Sure.

Preet Bharara: Intellectually. What was it like to call those families, and then how did that make you think about the policy?

Lisa Monaco: So, there are two people who made those calls. It was myself and President Obama, when unfortunately, Americans were killed by ISIS in the brutal way that you described. And it was probably the hardest thing I had to do in that job, because there was no solace I could provide to those parents, and they were going through the most heinous experience you can ever imagine. But I felt it was important to make sure that they had somebody in the White House who they could talk to, sometimes every day, either right after or before they saw some of those horrible videos. So, I was amazed that the parents who had their children killed, that ISIS killed in the summer of 2014, had the courage and the generosity, quite frankly, to work with us to reform some of the policies and procedures that we had in place. So, even though they were justifiably angry, and they were going through horrible grief, they gave of themselves to work with their government to hopefully see future families not have to go through a similar experience.

The thing I worry about is the damage to institutions, the damage to appreciation of expertise, and making the word career official or career public servant into a dirty set of words.

Preet Bharara: Let me ask you a final question, Lisa.

Lisa Monaco: Yup.

Preet Bharara: You’ve served in government at every level, every branch, for most of your adult life after going to law school. And it’s a tremendous service, and you were in the game and in the action, and having force and influence on so many things. How do you feel about not being in it anymore?

Lisa Monaco: I miss the mission, right? Because as you said, my job description was literally working with the rest of the president’s national security team. Basically, the job description was to help keep the country safe. That – it does not get better than that when it comes to job descriptions. But I don’t miss getting woken up multiple times a week in the middle of the night by the Situation Room, and the pressure that comes with all of that mission. But I do enjoy feeling a little more rested.

Preet Bharara: Do you have a view, when you look at what is going on now in the White House? Are there times when you think they’re not handling things right? And if so –

Lisa Monaco: Yes.

Preet Bharara: Does that make you [laughs] – does that make you crazy?

Lisa Monaco: Here’s what I worry about, Preet. There are going to be differences in policy. That’s what elections are about. As concerned as I am about some of the policy decisions, the thing I worry about over the long-term is the damage to institutions, the damage to appreciation of expertise, and making the word career official or career public servant into somehow a dirty set of words. I worry about that, because I could not have done my job without having career professionals, subject matter experts, helping shape these decisions and these policies. And I worry that there seems to have taken hold in Washington a sense that those people aren’t worth listening to, and that they don’t provide value, and there’s a rejection of that. And I think that’s unfortunate and really dangerous.

Preet Bharara: Speaking of which, one of the finest public servants that I have ever known, Lisa Monaco, thank you so much for being on the show.

Lisa Monaco: Thanks for having me.

[End of Audio]

Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts.