Why you should care
Because this is the investigation the president is most worried about.
On the second-to-last day of August 2004, a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Friends star Matt LeBlanc stepped behind the podium at the Republican National Convention celebrating George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.
The native New Yorker with side-swept black hair, a chiseled grin and eyebrows that seem eternally slanted as if to approximate a question mark began, “I am here today as a proud citizen of this great country and as a former federal prosecutor of terrorist crimes,” before giving a full-throated endorsement of not just the Republican president, but of Bush’s actions to pass the Patriot Act after 9/11, which he defended against critics who argued it was an overstep of government authority. “Agents still need a court order to search a person’s home, just like they always have,” he proclaimed.
The man was Robert Khuzami, and this week, the 61-year-old is making waves for ordering the storming of not just any person’s home, but the home of Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer to another Republican president who is none too happy about that decision.
Attorney–client privilege is dead!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
Since that decision and Trump’s subsequent tweet storm, the deputy U.S. attorney overseeing Manhattan has seen his team’s dogged court proceedings make national headlines for convincing a judge to require that Cohen reveal his mysterious third client — as Fox News host Sean Hannity. That overshadowed what is perhaps the most important result of those hearings: Judge Kimba Wood will not grant Trump’s request to review the seized materials before prosecutors do.
So how did Khuzami go from a man praising the virtues of a power-grabbing Republican president to investigating the self-professed consigliere of another one more than a dozen years later?
It’s certainly a strange tale, how the Brooklyn-born son of ballroom dancers waltzed his way into an investigation that is shaking the White House. Khuzami’s father was a Lebanese Christian immigrant who ran a dancing school in Rochester with his American-born wife. Khuzami’s sister, Vicki, became a renowned muralist, while his brother, Richard, is a musician. But Khuzami’s closest encounters with art were the painting crews he worked on to help put himself through the University of Rochester. After graduating magna cum laude in 1979, with a double major in political science and philosophy, Khuzami earned a law degree from Boston University and clerked for Ronald Reagan appointee John R. Gibson at the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Early this year, Khuzami returned to the Southern District of New York — aka the “Sovereign District” for its independence from the executive branch.
He made his mark as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York from 1991 to 2002, leading the biggest terrorism case of the era when he put away “the Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, and others for plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York landmarks. It was a fraught task, particularly when it was discovered that Abdel-Rahman’s lawyer was relaying messages between a terrorist organization and her jailed client. Khuzami won the attorney general’s Exceptional Service Award for courage and “voluntary risk of life” in performing his duties.
He has since taken a couple of turns through the government revolving door: a lucrative gig as Deutsche Bank’s general counsel for the Americas, the title that showed up in his television chyron while speaking at the RNC; a stint with the Securities and Exchange Commission during the Obama administration; a two-year, $10 million run at corporate law giant Kirkland Ellis — where he took heat for defending many of the same organizations he used to investigate.
Early this year, Khuzami returned to the Southern District of New York — aka the “Sovereign District” for its independence from the executive branch, a nickname uttered with awe or disdain, depending on the speaker. It was the man who brought Khuzami in, U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman, who had Trump’s eye. Berman is a Wharton School–educated Republican son of a real estate developer, as well as a maximum-strength donor to the president’s 2016 campaign. In other words, an ideal Trump appointee to oversee the territory including Trump Tower.
The move raised hackles on the left, including from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who said Berman’s appointment (which reportedly came after a personal interview with POTUS) was “deeply disturbing considering the conflicts of interest inherent by his potential jurisdiction on matters that could affect the president personally.” Berman appeared to agree, at least in part: He recused himself from the investigation into Trump’s finances, leaving the job to Khuzami and his quick feet to emerge as the president’s surprising foil.
Although Khuzami isn’t likely to take the courtroom himself, leaving that to his handpicked subordinates, he will be calling the shots in an investigation that could expose Trump’s finances in ways more threatening to the president than special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. On Thursday, Trump appointed another former Southern District of New York federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, to his personal legal team. Giuliani — a former law partner of Berman — says his mission is to negotiate an end to the Mueller probe, but he could well end up tangling with Khuzami’s team too, depending where the case leads. Khuzami certainly has the chops from money-laundering and tax-evasion cases — as well as the inside view that comes from defending the same type of clients he once prosecuted. The swamp has its benefits, after all.