Joyce Vance Interview: MSNBC Legal Contributor Talks Trump-Russia Investigation
Image attributed to Joyce Vance
Joyce White Vance is a Distinguished Professor of the practice of law. She served as the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009 to 2017. She was nominated for that position by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in August of 2009.
As US Attorney, she was responsible for overseeing all federal criminal investigations and prosecutions in north Alabama including matters involving Civil Rights, national security, cybercrime, public corruption, health care, corporate fraud, violent crime and drug trafficking. She was also responsible for affirmative and defensive civil litigation on behalf of the government and for all federal criminal and civil appeals.
"We don’t really know what Mueller knows. Mueller doesn’t leak. There have been some indictments of folks like Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan that are sort of linked in the chain that Mueller’s using to build his investigation."
Before being US Attorney, Vance served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Birmingham for 18 years. She recently received the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health’s Lou Wooster Public Health Hero Award for her leadership in creating a community-engaged initiative to address the heroin and opioid epidemic in northern Alabama. She is a frequent legal commentator on MSNBC and other news outlets.
Vance is married to Jefferson County, Alabama, Circuit Judge Bob Vance, and they have four children. She is the daughter-in-law of federal judge Robert S. Vance who was murdered by a mail bomb in 1989.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In his State of the Union speech, President Trump said, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” It was perceived as a demand or a threat by many Democrats. What was your reaction, and did you find those words similar to Richard Nixon’s call to end the Watergate probe during his State of the Union address in 1974?
Joyce Vance: Our country is grounded in the rule of law, and one of our foundational principles is that no man, not even a president, is above it. The threat in the State of the Union speech was part of Trump’s ongoing pattern of trying to end FBI investigations that touch on his personal conduct and that of the people around him. It is contrary to our expectations we are entitled to have for a president. It is so Nixonesque that it’s tantamount to being a caricature. Republicans, who have traditionally called themselves the party of law and order, should be up in arms over this.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May of 2017 triggered an FBI investigation as agents feared the president was working on behalf of the Russian government. But does the FBI need to have additional evidence to open up a counterintelligence investigation?
Joyce Vance: The FBI has more latitude when it comes to opening counterintelligence investigations than criminal ones, and that makes sense when you think about the purpose of counterintelligence investigations. They are intended not to lead to indictment but rather gather information that’s helpful to the FBI in protecting our country.
So with the issue of Trump and counterintelligence, it seems to me that it would’ve been irresponsible to walk away from information that was coming to light, and it would make sense to continue to investigate what Russia was up to, who they were trying to reach out to, who they were trying to subvert. This is not a criminal investigation into the president. Rather, this is an effort to determine that Russia is not trying to subvert inappropriate influence over an American leader.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): We don’t know everything that’s contained in the final Mueller report, of course, but what do we know?
Joyce Vance: We don’t really know what Mueller knows. Mueller doesn’t leak. There have been some indictments of folks like Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan that are sort of linked in the chain that Mueller’s using to build his investigation.
But the key indictments are indictments of Russians, the Russian troll farm indictments and the Russian hacking indictments. Both of those indictments leave open the question of whether there were any Americans who were involved, folks on the campaign, other people who are yet unknown and how high up in the campaign it might potentially go. That’s really the big unanswered question that we’ll have to wait on Mueller to answer for us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On that note, Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has appeared to say that there was collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign, just not his client. But Donald Trump was ultimately in charge of his own campaign, so could prosecutors have a case of conspiracy against him even if he was not personally involved in the collusion?
Joyce Vance: To prosecute a conspiracy, prosecutors need evidence of an agreement and intent to enter into that agreement. They also need evidence of an act by one of the co-conspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy. Entering into a conspiracy isn’t formal like signing a contract, and it’s possible for someone who isn’t, as might be alleged here, personally in the room with Russian actors to be part of a conspiracy against the United States.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Donald Trump has repeatedly denied that he had or has any interests in Russia. However, it has come to light that he signed a letter of intent for a Trump Tower in Moscow, which proves that he has not been honest with the American people. Can Trump be held accountable for his lies?
Joyce Vance: It’s not a crime to tell a lie. It’s not even a crime for a president to lie to the American people. But it is a crime to lie under oath or to federal investigators. So anyone who engaged in testimony or questioning in those kinds of situations could potentially have some risk. But it’s important to remember that for prosecutors to bring perjury charges, they have to prove that the lie was intentional and materially made, so there are these technical requirements, elements of proof, that prosecutors have to secure before they make those decisions.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Trump Organization projects appear to be family projects, so could Ivanka, Don, Jr. and Jared be implicated if collusion is proven?
Joyce Vance: I think that is really an interesting question. There’s a lot of talk about collusion, and typically one can expect you have a situation where parties are in a conspiracy that is beneficial to both sides. So something that’s been hinted at, but we don’t know the answer to, is whether Trump or the Trump Organization was benefitting financially in some way with its relationship with Russia, not in a lawful business practices sort of way, but in some sort of an illegal or unethical fashion. That’s certainly something that could be rounded out as part of the conversation. There have always been a lot of issues surrounding Trump’s family, and I think that’s something Mueller’s team is looking at.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was reported on November 20, 2018, that Donald Trump’s written answers to questions relating to the Russia investigation were submitted to Robert Mueller. As a prosecutor, would you expect follow-up questions in writing to Donald Trump from Robert Mueller or a subpoena for an in-person interview?
Joyce Vance: There is past precedent for presidents to answer questions in person from independent counsels. Answering questions in writing is a weak substitute for an in-person process, but it seems likely that Mueller had some reachable goal in mind since he accepted the written process. An issue with taking the answers in writing is that prosecutors don’t have the ability to follow up and clarify matters as they would with an in-person interview. It seems unavoidable that even if Trump ultimately avoids being questioned in person about these matters that there will be some form of follow-up to the written answers he gave.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, you were instrumental in building awareness about cybercrime and prosecuted the first ever cyber cases in the Northern District. Have you found, in your experience, that many people are unaware of the different facets of cybercrime?
Joyce Vance: You know, it’s very generational, the understanding of the impact that new technology, cyber technology has on society, and so we’re in a transition period, and transitions can be very difficult. Cyber attacks can be a vector for crime. It can be a way criminals accomplish crimes. You used to walk into a bank with a gun, but now you can go online and rob a bank in many ways with less risk to yourself and with much greater benefit.
Then there are crimes that we think of that are peculiarly cybercrimes like hacking, perhaps crimes involving using the internet to bully or troll people. So we really need to develop new ways of thinking about these crimes and capturing these crimes. We need laws that are consistent with the new technology rather than just trying to use old laws to deal with new crimes. There’s a lot to unpack here and a lot of work that needs to be done.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you to become an attorney, Joyce?
Joyce Vance: I’m one of those really boring folks. I was a Political Science International Relations major in college. I debated in college. I enjoyed issues about politics and government and was always interested in Civil Rights work in the use of legal mechanisms to obtain Civil Rights advancement. So that’s what led me to law school.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How long have you been outspoken against Donald Trump and his administration?
Joyce Vance: From the day I resigned (just hours before the Trump inauguration).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that tough to be outspoken in the red state of Alabama?
Joyce Vance: You know, I have four kids, and so my guiding light has always been doing something that I’m comfortable talking to my kids about so that when they reflect on their values, they’ll see a good example. Given what we saw from Trump during the campaign, it always seemed pretty obvious to me that he, although he was elected and we honor the results of elections in this country, was a president who would chart a very dangerous course for our country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you faced backlash for speaking out or lost friends and/or family members?
Joyce Vance: I think one of the most difficult aspects of this era is that Trump seems to have emboldened everybody’s worst sort of behaviors so we see people who’ve been good friends for years despite political differences, that suddenly there’s a breakdown. I think that’s horrible, and it’s something we’ll have to work very hard to move the country past when this era is over.
I’m really fortunate. One of my closest friends is very conservative. We’ve been close friends for almost four decades, and we were able to agree early on that we loved each other a whole lot more than we cared to fight about issues like this. So we’ve essentially just agreed to disagree, and it’s really great to have her as a sounding board to make sure I’m thinking through things carefully.
I think what we all need to try to do is be less quick to jump and divide ourselves because that’s, quite frankly, Russia’s goals. That’s Putin’s goals for our country, to divide us, to create chaos, to turn Americans against Americans. If we’re going to live up to our own ideals, we need to re-establish ways of talking, especially to people we don’t see eye-to-eye with and doing the work that Americans have always done.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In 1989, your father-in-law, Judge Robert Smith Vance, was killed at his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama, when he opened a package containing a mail bomb. Did that make you or your husband (who’s a circuit court judge), fearful for your own safety?
Joyce Vance: I adored my father-in-law, and I miss him every day. I don’t think he would want anyone to go through life dwelling on the way that he died. I think he would be a lot more interested in seeing us live our lives in productive ways. That’s the legacy he would have wanted and the legacy that we’ve tried to give him every day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He was a wonderful human being. Why did you want to join MSNBC?
Joyce Vance: It wasn’t really a deliberate sort of thing. It just happened. They were very interested in DOJ-experienced leadership to try and help their viewers understand legal developments. There’s a whole group of former DOJ folks. We just look at it as a form of ongoing service. We no longer get a federal paycheck, but that doesn’t mean our obligation to the Justice Department and the people we used to serve is diminished in any way. So we continue to do what we can to help.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has been the highlight of your career in Alabama, Joyce?
Joyce Vance: It’s so hard to say. But I will say that it’s such irony because I was a career prosecutor. My job was essentially to enforce criminal laws and help put criminals in jail, and at the end of the day, the work I was the proudest of was the work that we did with the community to help everyone feel like they had a role in the community, have support in the community, to work to prevent crime and to help people who had been in prison but who were returning from prison back to their community.
We incarcerate a lot of people in this country. There are serious crimes that we should incarcerate people for, but what makes our communities the safest and makes our country the strongest is that we help people find better paths forward. So that work at the end of the day is the work I’m the proudest of.
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