President Donald Trump has railed against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as a waste of money, casting scrutiny on the cost of the probe. But several of its top lawyers took annual pay cuts of over $1 million to work on it.
Mueller is one of six top attorneys on the investigative team who earn $161,900 annually, according to a Department of Justice document reviewed by Money.
Four of them — Mueller himself plus Jeannie Rhee, James Quarles and Aaron Zebley — had been partners at the international law firm WilmerHale, where according to the Washington Post, they drew incomes ranging from $1.4 million to $5.8 million over 2016 and the early part of 2017.
Mueller's own pay for the period was $3.4 million.
Since all joined the investigation in spring 2017, that sum reflects roughly 17 months of compensation — suggesting yearly pay ranging from just under $1 million (for Zebley) to about $4.1 million (for Quarles).
A $161,900 salary matches the top yearly salary possible for Washington D.C.-based federal employees who appear on last year’s general pay scale for federal employees. DOJ attorneys, with a few exceptions, are covered by that general pay scale, the DOJ website says.
Since federal employees on the general pay scale received a small raise at the start of 2018, the yearly salaries for the four attorneys may now be a few thousand dollars higher. The document reviewed by Money dates back to December 2017.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the probe's staffing costs. The Special Counsel's office declined to comment on its staff pay.
On May 20, Trump blasted Mueller's investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as “the World's most expensive Witch Hunt.” Five days later, Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani called the probe “a waste of money.”
“When will this very expensive Witch Hunt Hoax ever end?” Trump tweeted earlier this month.
Solomon Wisenberg, who served as a deputy independent counsel investigating Bill Clinton in the 1990s and is now a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, says the lawyers’ pay cuts are not surprising.
“It’s an important investigation that’s riveting the country," he says. "They thought it would be exciting, challenging and necessary work.”
The top earners listed on the document are Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben and Andrew Weissmann, former head of the DOJ’s criminal fraud section. Each of them pulls in $187,000.
The salaries for Dreeben and Weissmann match the pay rate for high-ranking employees on last year’s executive and senior level employee pay scale, which sets the compensation for many top government officials.
A role on the Mueller investigation could boost the careers of some of the less experienced lawyers on the team, Wisenberg says. "Someone a little more junior, it might make them more employable and more of a heavyweight," he explains — although, he adds, that's less true for more senior attorneys like Mueller and Quarles.
Mueller served as FBI Director for 12 years; Quarles was an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate investigation.
“They don't need help," Wisenberg says.
The Department of Justice document lists 13 top attorneys working on the Mueller probe and their salaries, which range from $105,782 to $187,000. Those salaries total slightly more than $2 million per year, with an average of nearly $160,000. (The document also includes the $153,730 salary of former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who resigned from the probe in May after text messages surfaced of her criticizing Trump.)
According to the document, the salary information of the 13 current attorneys and Page was initially released last December in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from Colin Byrd, a Democratic City Council member in Greenbelt, Md., and a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
When reached by phone, Byrd, 25, confirmed that he requested the information.
“I simply was curious,” Byrd said. “On MSNBC and FOX News there were interesting conversations about the cost issue.”
Byrd said the request was not politically motivated.
“I never tried to share the information with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” he said.
An expense report released by the Department of Justice last month put the total cost of the probe at $16.7 million as of March 31, the latest date for which records are available. Of that total, $4.4 million went to the Special Counsel’s Office staff pay and benefits.
In addition to declining comment on the staff salaries, the Special Counsel's Office also said that Mueller, Rhee, Quarles, and Zebley would not comment on their pay.