FROM PROSECUTOR TO PUNDIT: Chicago Jew Jill Wine-Banks played a key role in prosecuting Richard Nixon during Watergate. Now her expertise has her appearing frequently on cable TV to discuss Mueller’s investigation into Trump.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Evanston’s Jill Wine-Banks doesn’t figure President Donald Trump is watching any of her near-daily analysis of his mounting potential legal troubles on MSNBC.

“He said he watches Fox News all the time,” said Wine-Banks. “Otherwise, he’d learn something.”

Trump likely would be in an utter state of denial when Wine-Banks sketches out impeachable offenses to which Trump is being linked. She also doles out legal and constitutional history lessons the president apparently ignored in school, in business and in the White House.

Wine-Banks has much knowledge of all of the above based on her experience as a Watergate prosecutor who disproved in court that Richard Nixon’s secretary accidentally erased 18 ½ minutes of an incriminating Oval Office tape recording 45 years ago.

Trump may be fortunate that Wine-Banks is a broadcast pundit instead of on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff. Mueller is at present digesting the admission from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” that he lied to Congress about the Trump Organization’s business dealings with the Russians well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

If Wine-Banks came out of legal retirement to assist Mueller, she’d bring her experience proving a case of obstruction of justice that led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974 after a year and a half of serious Watergate entanglement and conviction of top Nixon aides in federal court.

Now, Wine-Banks is boosting a second career off a president gone astray.

After cutting her legal chops at Columbia University law school, then as a federal prosecutor trying mobsters, she earned fame as part of the legal team that survived Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 to have the last word in court. Feminist Wine-Banks got unwanted notoriety over her mini-skirts in court – no one had ever witnessed such a prominent prosecutor garbed in such apparel. But her high profile earned her an audition for a broadcast news role at ABC-TV.  She opted for the law instead, serving as the first female legal counsel of the U.S. Army before a long career in both private and government practice.

Now the daily Trump drama has finally gotten Wine-Banks on the air in earnest. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey in May 2017 stirred the ire of the longtime Democratic activist. Her op-ed on Comey in the Chicago Tribune quickly led to a slew of broadcast appearances, an exclusive contract with MSNBC, and 2020 publication of her Watergate memoirs.

When Wine-Banks was assistant Watergate special prosecutor, the media dubbed her the “mini-skirted prosecutor.”

Prime-time MSNBC hosts like Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes draw upon Wine-Banks’ prosecutorial experience to predict where the next turn in the daily Mueller soap opera will go. Wine-Banks said she does not know how it will all end up. But she has a feeling in her bones that Mueller’s final report could classify the Trump saga, involving a foreign adversary bent on preventing Hillary Clinton’s election as president, as worse than Watergate.

“There are two different sides of me,” Wine-Banks said in a quiet moment in her kitchen, with another MSNBC appearance out of NBC News’ Midwest offices at the downtown NBC Tower a few hours away. Beloved dalmation Brisbie lent a comic touch to the otherwise deadly-serious chat.

“Constitutionally, I believe indictment (of a sitting president) is legal.  Politically, impeachment is probably a better solution. But right now there is no way the Senate would convict. Of course, I would have said that about Nixon until the ‘smoking gun tape’ was revealed. His support in Congress dropped to between 17 and 20 percent. Then the three top Republicans in Congress, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater along with Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and House Minority Leader John Rhodes, went  to Nixon (on Aug. 7,1974) to say we’ve heard the tape, your support in Congress is gone and you will be convicted (in the Senate). He announced his resignation the next day.

“While it appears right now that (Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell and the rest of the (Republican members) of the Senate have no backbone and will not stand up to him, and there could not possibly be enough votes to convict, I’m saying that without all the evidence being out.

“If Mueller has really significant evidence and lays it out in a roadmap like we did (with Nixon), it may become compelling enough for McConnell to say this man is too dirty.”

Wine-Banks said Cohen, the influential New York Jewish attorney who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, is a crucial witness in enmeshing Trump in Mueller’s case. In the legalese involving Cohen’s latest comments, Trump was referred to as “Individual 1” in the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

“It’s a big deal that Cohen is cooperating with multiple prosecuting agencies, including Mueller, because he’s known Trump for many years and he knows a lot of the dirty business deals,” Wine-Banks said. “He also obviously knows about some of the campaign violations.  His first plea was to a campaign violation in which he basically said the president was an unindicted co-conspirator.

“The evidence is mounting.  The first plea involved women and hush money. Hush money is a form of obstruction obviously, and it was certainly intended to influence the election. That’s a campaign violation.  But it isn’t the core of what Russiagate is, what Mueller is investigating.

“Now we’ve gotten to Russia. Now we have some real motive. Why has Trump changed his foreign policy? Why has he sucked up to (Vladimir) Putin?  Why is he praising him at every single moment? Why has he been so negligent at stopping the Russians that hacked us, that trolled us? There have been indictments of Russians.  Now we’re looking at the Americans who have been involved.

“(Trump) has no legitimate claim of executive privilege if he was having criminal conversations. That’s what ‘U.S. v. Nixon’ established.

“He has to respond. Will he? This is a man who has gotten away with evading the law his entire life. This is a man who scammed people, not only in Trump University, but in every real-estate deal he’s done. He cheats the construction workers, he cheats the development partners, he cheats the people who buy in his buildings. That’s his history.  He’s been bankrupt, but he doesn’t lose any money. His partners lose money. And the American people are going to suffer the same fate if they don’t wake up.”

Wine-Banks rated the testimony of Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, as just as important as Cohen’s.

“I think a lot of people underestimate peripheral characters and how much they hear and observe in meetings and glances in hallways,” she said. “I am sure Richard Nixon didn’t realize how much John Dean knew. John knew a lot, but they weren’t focusing on how many conversations they had with him or details he remembered. He was fired and escorted out (of the White House).  He didn’t leave with a lot of documentary evidence, which we got after the fact.

“I’m not sure we’ve identified who the key witness is with Trump. Roger Stone could be a great witness if he could tell the truth.”

At the very least, the Mueller investigation could run considerably longer. Basically, Wine-Banks said the outcome is as yet unpredictable, based on witnesses. But the ramifications involving Russia make it potentially more sinister than Watergate.

“Yes, it is definitely worse than Watergate,” Wine-Banks said. “It is a foreign adversary, not just a foreign power. It’s a problem because it dramatically affects how the president conducts foreign policy. The fact that he could not meet with Putin at the G-20 and say, ‘Stop your expansionist tendencies. Stop your geographic grabs. You cannot keep shooting at Ukrainian ships. You cannot invade other countries.’

“The fact he could not be seen with Putin because Michael Cohen had revealed the relationship with Putin the same day (Trump) left for the G-20 means he’s not an effective president. I will say this for Nixon – no matter how corrupt he was, this is the man who opened China to America, this is the man who created the EPA, this is the man who passed Title IX that gave equal rights for women in sports. He accomplished a lot of good things.”

Educating the public on the law and its history is now Wine-Banks’ daily calling. It stems from her classical liberal Jewish upbringing in the Lake View neighborhood and her politically active parents Bert and Sylvia Wine.

The family were members of the Conservative synagogue Anshe Emet in Chicago, where Wine-Banks was confirmed. “I definitely identify as a cultural Jew,” she said. “There was something about temple, like putting dimes in a box to plant trees in Israel.  We had to give back. I learned from my parents. I expected to give back. I thought that’s what people do. You share.”

A certified public accountant, Bert Wine, who had been active in a number of Jewish organizations, persuaded an owner of vacant land in the Gordon Terrace neighborhood north of Irving Park road to lease the property for $1 a year for a community playground.  He became the play park association’s first president.

“My father was a man who said if something needed to be done, I’ll do it,” Wine-Banks said. “He didn’t sit back and complain. He was uncomfortable with us crossing Marine Drive to get to the playground next to the Outer Drive. He said, ‘I’m going to build a playground.’   It was a fabulous, wonderful, great part of my childhood.”

Wine-Banks discovered the realism of a woman breaking into the law both in school and as a prosecutor.

“Had I been aware of what I was facing, I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to do it,” she said. “I think I would have had it, because, despite my insecurities, I’ve never let anything stop me.

“When I was in law school (in the mid-1960s), sexism was rampant,” she said. “People said it out loud. It wasn’t illegal when I graduated to go on a job interview and be asked questions like, ‘How many children are you going to have? What kind of birth control are you on?’

“There was a quota on the number of women. There was a quota on the number of blacks. I certainly was aware women were only 5 percent of my law school class. There were only 2 percent of women (overall) in the law profession. And almost none were trial lawyers.”

Fortunately, Wine-Banks was “very lucky” to have a mentor in Chuck Ruff, who went on to become President Bill Clinton’s White House counsel.

“I tried my first case with Chuck in Alaska,” she said. “I had to wear a skirt, while the jurors wore flannel-lined pants. Federal rules required women to wear skirts. I had judges who would stand up when I came into their chambers. That was out of old-fashioned chivalry, and they treated me fine in court.”

The issue of hemline length would draw as much attention to Wine-Banks as her cross-examining talents during the Watergate saga. The 1973-74 style for a 30-year-woman dictated skirts several inches above the knee.  Photographers made sure they got shots of the “mini-skirted prosecutor.”

“I hated it,” Wine-Banks said of the nickname. “That was totally sexist, and totally offensive. No one talked about what (her male colleagues) were wearing. But they said Jill Wine-Volner (her married name at the time) was wearing a pink mini-skirt.  I was wearing what was available at the store. I would have had to have (a knee-level hemline) custom-made.

“They focused on it because I was the only woman in the room. Leon Jaworski always introduced me as, “I’d like you to meet this lady lawyer.’ I said, ‘Leon, they’re looking at me. What’s that word lady? I don’t represent women. Just call me a lawyer. That demeans me by making me different than other lawyers. You can call me a trial lawyer.’  I represented the United States of America. I was a federal prosecutor.”

Wine-Banks applied substance behind the media-created sizzle. Her cross-examination of Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, sister of former Cook County Sheriff Joe Woods, exposed more of what Wine-Banks later called the Marx Brothers-style conduct of the Watergate cover-up. The prosecutor proved that Woods could not have erased 18 ½ minutes of incriminating tape recorded June 20, 1972, three days after the original Watergate break-in, by accidentally stepping on a Dictaphone pedal on the floor.

Nixon and all the president’s men were no match for Wine-Banks and her fellow prosecutors. Their case moved faster than Mueller’s. “We were extremely quick, starting in May 1973 and the verdict was in on Jan. 1, 1975,” Wine-Banks said. “That’s incredible. Everything fell into place in a perfect way.

“We had very good key witnesses, John Dean and Jeb Magruder. We had the fortune of Alexander Butterfield saying there were tapes and a Supreme Court who was brave enough to say, yes, you had a right to those tapes. And we had a president who despite his criminality believed in the rule of law and did not say, I’m not turning (the tapes) over. Without them, there would have been a different outcome.”

Nixon successor Gerald Ford’s pardon of his disgraced predecessor partially led to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. Wine-Banks’ prominence led to her status as a barrier-breaker when Carter’s aides looked for a new counsel for the Army. She became the first woman in a job surrounded by testosterone in triplicate. But surprisingly, she found few sexism barriers in moving to the Pentagon.

“It was fabulous – one of my best jobs ever,” she said. “The issues were fascinating. The people I worked with were fabulous.

“I grew up as an anti-Vietnam war activist.  I did not start with the attitude these are smart people. But, boy, generals are smart and well-trained, and they are not war-mongers.

“As a lawyer, when I first got there, there were reservations about a woman. People would salute the four-star (car) flag and then they saw it was a woman inside. What’s going on here?” Still only in her mid-30s, Wine-Banks had four-star general status.

Among her accomplishments was expanding the number of total Army jobs open to women. “I was able to eliminate the Women’s Army Corps through legislation,” Wine-Banks said. “Women became part of the regular Army.  We were (gender) integrating West Point and basic training at the time. We developed maternity uniforms for women, and helmets and boots for women. We opened a lot of (job classifications), but not as many as now.

“I felt that American citizens overseas deserved the same constitutional protections as they do in this country. There was a case that came to my attention. I said to the head of Army Intelligence that before they could (install) a wiretap, they’d have to come to me and convince me there were legitimate grounds.  But they did not agree to that with great enthusiasm.”

But by the time Wine-Banks ended her three-year tenure with the Army, she had made a positive impression with her modernization of military processes. “If you give good, sound advice, they will accept you.”

After the Army, Wine-Banks moved on to private practice at the Chicago firm of Jenner and Block. Then she broke more gender barriers as Illinois’ first female solicitor general and first female state deputy attorney general.

Three decades later, she limits her legal judgments to video punditry. She will do five to seven MSNBC shows a week. Some days, she will appear on two shows.

Business is very good for people trying to get in the head of Donald Trump.

“It’s a full-time job,” said the now senior-citizen analyst, working in the courtroom of public opinion, counting down to a Robert Mueller verdict.

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