MSNBC's Mimi Rocah brings law-enforcement legal training to her political analysis
In her 16-year career as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mimi Rocah prosecuted a veritable Who's Who of big name mobsters, from John Gotti Jr. to members of the Genovese and DeCavalcante crime families.
But the 49-year-old Scarsdale mother of two admits she feels more "vulnerable" as a legal analyst for MSNBC and NBC networks.
“When I was prosecuting mob cases, I didn't really feel scared for my personal safety," said Rocah, a Distinguished Criminal Justice Fellow at Pace Law School, sitting in the living room of her home on a recent weekday.
"The ethos of the mob is to go after cooperating witnesses, but not prosecutors because they know prosecutors are easily replaceable."
Being a visible presence on television opens her up to another kind of mob, she said: "I have, at times, felt more vulnerable and exposed because I do get angry tweets or emails from people who really disagree with my viewpoint and see me as part of some conspiracy against Trump.”
On the flip side, she routinely receives letters from women who say she's inspired them to go to law school. Rocah, who was co-chief of the White Plains Division when she left the office, previously headed the Organized Crime and Racketeering Unit at SDNY.
Not one to mince words, she's been a vocal Donald Trump critic since her resignation as a federal prosecutor in October 2017.
After years as a federal prosecutor, where her audience was limited to those in a courtroom, Rocah is still getting used to the idea that she is reaching millions around the country.
“People are hungry for someone to explain this mess to them and to help them understand what they feel in their gut, that nothing about this Presidency, the way our justice system is functioning, and the brazen lawlessness, is normal,” she said.
Rocah appears on TV frequently. During the Mueller investigation there were weeks when she appeared twice a day, five times a week.
“She’s famous,” offered her son Aaron, a precocious 9-year-old, who along with his older sister, Sabrina, 11, was home on a recent school holiday.
Up on all the latest goings-on in the world of politics, Aaron, who calls himself his mother’s “social media manager," frequently suggests tweets based on what is trending. (Rocah, who has over 300,000 followers, tweets @mimirocah1).
It was Aaron, for instance, who alerted his mother last month when Walmart decided it would stop allowing customers to openly carry firearms in stores. Just months before, he’d accompanied Rocah to a rally in White Plains for Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit organization which advocates for gun safety.
“He came running in, screaming. I thought something was wrong and he said, ‘Mommy, we did it. We did it,' ” said Rocah. “It was really neat. I think he saw a real connection between speaking out about something, organizing people and then something actually happening.”
Rocah grew up in Chicago, the daughter of an architect father and a psychoanalyst mother, who was just one of three female students in her medical school class in the late '40s and early '50s.
“The professor would come out and look right over them and say, ‘Good morning gentlemen.’ And just pretend they weren't even there, you know?” said Rocah. “It was like, why are you taking up a spot that a man could have had."
Her mother, Barbara, would end up practicing for more than 40 years.
“My parents were hard-working, professional people,” Rocah said.
'Take Back The Night'
While she was a student at Harvard, the idea of becoming a prosecutor was planted when she began participating in Take Back the Night marches in theearly '90s to end sexual and domestic violence; at the time, marches were being held in colleges across America.
“It was a precursor to the Me Too Movement and no means no," Rocah said. "There was a lot of focus on sexual violence on campus and it got me interested in working on issues like that.”
Among her role models was Linda Fairstein, the longtime head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, whom she heard speak at Harvard. (Fairstein, a Mount Vernon native, is now a controversial figure for her role in overseeing the prosecution of the Central Park Five; five teenagers, four African-American and one Hispanic, who were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 rape and assault in Central Park of a white female jogger.)
“She was the head of one of the first sex crimes units in the country, and I was very inspired by that,” said Rocah. “When I decided I want to be a prosecutor, I thought I wanted to actually be a sex crimes prosecutor. I knew some people very close to me who had been victims of sex crimes in college.”
Good vs. evil
After graduating from the New York University School of Law, Rocah joined SDNY just months before 9/11.
Part of a small crew in the SDNY office in Lower Manhattan just two days after the terrorist attack, she recalled wearing paper masks while writing subpoenas and doing paperwork for prosecutors trying to piece together the steps of the hijackers.
She also interviewed family members of the victims at a command center set up at the Jacob Javits Center.
"It was such an unprecedented time and it basically strengthened people's resolve about being there and of working," she said. "It felt like it was good versus evil and you were on the side of good.”
One target of her criticism is the president of the United States.
For Rocah, Trump’s rhetoric targeting judges and the courts for rulings he disagreed with early in his tenure was disturbing.
"It seems naive now, but hearing the president speak that way about the justice system that he heads, and the FBI that is his law enforcement agency, was really stunning.”
Prof. Carol Barry, director of the Pace Criminal Justice Institute and a former prosecutor for the Manhattan DA's office, described Rocah, who also teaches a class on white collar crime, as a "tremendously valuable asset" to students who are interested in criminal law and the prosecution program.
"Mimi regularly engages with students by moderating discussions involving issues such as gun control, the impeachment process, and the Mueller investigation and by bringing in experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents to speak about their work," Barry said.
At Pace, Rocah has held symposiums on sex trafficking, gun safety and public corruption. It's an opportunity, she said, to work on issues that people want to learn more about.
Her audience expanded nationally once she began to appear as a legal analyst on MSNBC. Rocah has appeared on TV more than 400 times, talking about everything from the Mueller investigation to the looming impeachment proceedings.
“I try to speak from my personal experience and help people understand that there are real, true public servants out there who are guided by facts, law and principles not devotion to a person or leader."
Amanda Kramer, a former assistant U.S. attorney at SDNY, is proud of her former colleague.
"In a time when current events need the analysis of experienced lawyers, Mimi’s longer reach is for the better of us all,” she said.
“She has played an important role in translating for non-lawyers very complex and somewhat unsettled legal concepts that are the core of so much of what's been happening in this country in the past two years,” said Kramer.
As a young mother, Kramer said she appreciated Rocah for being transparent about the challenges working mothers face in trying to balance and re-balance.
Rocah, a mother of two, said it has meant making compromises along the way.
“I would've loved to continue doing trials because I feel like it's the kind of thing that you only get better at. And they are fun and interesting and challenging," she said. "But that’s one of the most difficult things to balance with being a mom. It was easier to transition into a supervisory role.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women and power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Write to her at email@example.com