As the sprawling federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election intensifies, President Donald Trump is assembling a team of outside lawyers to defend him against the allegations. The first tapped to join the team is Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime private attorney who has for decades represented him on everything from his casino bankruptcies to the fraud allegations surrounding Trump University to his many standoffs with the media.
Though not a criminal lawyer and no background in the kind of high stakes national security work the Russia investigation will entail, he has been solidly in Donald Trump’s corner for decades, defending him doggedly if not always successfully.
Attorneys who have squared off against Kasowitz say not to underestimate him. New York Times deputy general counsel David McCraw, who handled multiple lawsuit threats from Kasowitz against the newspaper, told TPM that he is a “top-notch litigator” whose clients “are fortunate to have him.” Andrew Carboy, the opposing counsel to Kasowitz in a case concerning victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, called him an “absolute gentleman and a real attorney. Highly skilled and a quick study.”
Others who have worked with Kasowitz—whose new role as the President’s chief defender may give him a national profile—have described him as a “legal brawler” and “bare-knuckled litigator” whose firm is “not afraid to get their hands dirty.”
Kasowitz, a founding partner of the corporate law mega-firm Kasowitz, Benson and Torres LLP, is no stranger to high-profile, controversial cases.
He represented the tobacco company Liggett in years of legal wrangling with 22 state attorneys general that culminated in the company admitting for the first time that cigarettes are addictive, are marketed to minors, and increase the risk of cancer, and paying a settlement of hundreds of millions of dollars over multiple decades.
He defended the Port Authority of New York when victims of the 1993 terrorist bombing sued it for negligence. A New York appeals court upheld a jury verdict that the Port Authority was partially liable for the deaths and destruction because the agency knew about but chose to ignore “an extreme and potentially catastrophic vulnerability that would have been open and obvious to any terrorist who cared to investigate and exploit it.” That verdict was overturned in 2011, when the state’s high court agreed with Kasowitz that the Port Authority was protected by the “governmental immunity doctrine.”
Recently, Kasowitz defended ousted Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly against multiple claims of sexual harassment. At one point, someone on his legal team in that case accidentally forwarded emails to a Politico reporter detailing their strategy to portray the accusations as part of a left-wing conspiracy against O’Reilly.
But for all his other high profile cases and clients, Kasowitz on his law firm profile page first and foremost touts his representation of “President Donald J. Trump in a wide range of litigation matters for over 15 years.”
The two men have been in the trenches together since the early aughts, when Kasowitz’s firm helped him restructure his Atlantic City’s massive debts. Trump walked away with millions of dollars, his creditors ate significant losses, the city sank into financial ruin and thousands of people lost first their health care and other benefits and ultimately their jobs. All three casinos in the case—the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino, and the Trump Taj Mahal—have since closed up shop.
Kasowitz also represented Trump in a failed lawsuit against a group of Hong Kong investors who rescued one of his Manhattan properties from the edge of bankruptcy. He defended him successfully in court when multiple news outlets sued for access to his divorce records from his first marriage—with Ivana Trump. He is currently defending Trump against charges filed by multiple women for sexual assault and defamation, arguing in court that the demands of the presidency should give Trump legal immunity.
“He knows how to deal with Donald Trump and obviously has Trump’s trust and respect,’’ attorney John Quinn, who has known Kasowitz for 20 years, told the Los Angeles Times.
Over his years of service to Trump, Kasowitz has been repeatedly deployed to attack, threaten, and sue reporters and news media outlets.
In 2006, Kasowitz sued New York Times’ Timothy O’Brien for libel, demanding $5 billion in damages over O’Brien’s book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, which he said significantly underestimated the mogul’s net worth. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about,” Trump later bragged.
Kasowitz employed some unorthodox and intimidating tactics in the case, including showing up at one of O’Brien’s book readings, O’Brien has recounted. The Trump team allegedly recorded the reading and what O’Brien described as “obvious plants” in the audience attempt to goad him into saying something incriminating. Not only was the case thrown out, because Kasowitz failed to prove O’Brien acted with malice, but Trump was forced to turn over scores of tax returns and other financial documents and undergo lengthy and revealing depositions in the process.
Kasowitz has also gone after New York Post investigative reporter Roddy Boyd, who has reported on many of the firm’s cases. Boyd told the Washington Post that Kasowitz personally threatened him with a lawsuit and unsuccessfully tried to subpoena his hard drive and reporting notes.
Last year on Trump’s behalf Kasowitz threatened the New York Times twice with lawsuits—once over the publication of Trump’s tax returns and once over a report on women who have accused Trump of sexual assault. The Times’ responded in a public letter noting that “Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women” and saying the paper would “welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight” on what constitutes libel.
Kasowitz’s threatened lawsuit never materialized.
Now, selected to defend Trump against allegations of collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Kasowitz’s own connections to Russian banks and oligarchs may soon come under scrutiny.
Kasowitz is currently defending Sberbank—Russia’s largest, state-run financial institution—against accusations that it engineered a hostile takeover of a granite company. In a separate case, he represented a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to Vladimir Putin.
Ethics experts have expressed concern about Kasowitz’s Russian clients creating both the appearance of and the actual presence of a conflict of interest.
“Could there be some line of communication between these clients and the White House?” Campaign Legal Center general counsel Larry Noble asked on CNN. “Is there any situation where the interests of one conflicts with the other? These are the questions that come up.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.