Oct 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The top DOJ prosecutor taking on Trump

Photo illustration of Jay Bratt on an abstract collage background.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of the DOJ.

The classified documents case against former President Trump is the biggest test yet for a prosecutor who has built his career going after convicted spies, Blackwater guards, Chinese companies and some of Trump’s close associates.

Why it matters: Jay Bratt, who leads the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, keeps a low profile. But he’s at the center of an unprecedented investigation into a former — and potentially future — president.

  • "You're talking about sitting on top of a volcano,” said David Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana who used to be chief of DOJ's counterintelligence division—and Bratt’s boss.

The big picture: Lawyers who have worked with Bratt over the course of his decades-long career emphasize his rare combination of litigation and leadership expertise at the intersection of national security, espionage, technology, sanctions, foreign governments, free speech and politics.

  • Bratt is the chief of the Justice Department's Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, or CES. It enforces laws regarding export controls and sanctions, national security, cybersecurity and espionage.
  • At the beginning of the special master review, Bratt traveled to Florida to lead the government’s rebuttal to Trump's legal team, detailing how DOJ uncovered evidence suggesting violations of the Espionage Act, illegal retention of government records and obstruction of a federal investigation.

"These cases don't happen that frequently," Brandon Van Grack, a former attorney in the national security division at the Justice Department, told Axios.

  • He noted that Bratt has handled similar cases “not just as a national security division attorney or supervisor, but also directly as a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney's Office. Those experiences are different and complementary. There are very few people who can say that."
  • Bratt declined to comment for this story.

Details: Laufman, who hired Bratt as his deputy while he was leading CES, said Bratt provided valuable counsel in deciding to require two of Trump's former aides, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, to obtain "foreign agent" registrations.

  • "Those cases seem like child's play compared to the maelstrom of political controversy surrounding the Mar-a-Lago case," Laufman said.
  • Previously, Bratt oversaw the prosecution of Blackwater guards who killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others.

He's also handled or supervised several cases involving the Espionage Act, one of the laws that Trump is accused of violating.

Bratt also helped oversee investigations of two Chinese telecommunications firms — Huawei for Iran sanctions violations, and ZTE for selling equipment containing items of U.S. origin to Iran and North Korea.

The bottom line: "Under remarkable pressures, they have played it straight up the middle," Laufman said of Bratt and his team's approach to the Trump case so far. "And every time they've been before a truly independent and neutral judicial arbiter they have prevailed."

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