Does The President Have Real Legal Defenders?

Steve Helber/AP

We’ve seen a lot of attention today to President Trump’s lawyer declining to rule out the President firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The bigger news is the lawyer himself, Jay Sekulow.

Sekulow is far from an unknown. Indeed, he is one of the top conservative legal activists in the country. For 25 years he’s led a group which litigates cases on behalf of religious conservatives looking for exemptions from state and federal laws. The organization is consciously styled as a right-wing version of the ACLU. What is relevant however is that Sekulow is not a criminal attorney. He’s not a defense attorney. He’s not even an attorney with any specialty in litigating the particular legal privileges of a president. (My understanding is that he practiced as a tax litigator briefly after law school before getting into the right wing ‘religious liberty’ thing full time a generation ago.) Notably, Sekulow is also a big conservative media figure. He has a daily radio show and he’s a frequent guest on Fox and Christian conservative media.

Again, I’m not saying Sekulow is a joke. He’s not. This just isn’t his line of work.

There is literally nothing in Sekulow’s professional background (other than perhaps simply having a law degree) which would suit him to the very specific legal task of defending a sitting president from legal jeopardy. This sounds like of a piece with the President’s lead personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz. Kasowitz is a civil litigator who has long served as Trump’s go-to attorney when he’s in a real fight. Whether that’s defending Trump University, digging up dirt on woman claiming abuse, or just duking it out over a business deal gone wrong, Trump goes to Kasowitz.

As we’ve noted before, there are only a handful of lawyers who’ve ever dealt with a situation like this. A major investigation of a President is entirely sui generis. Given that those lawyers are mostly DC establishment figures it’s not terribly surprising Trump hasn’t chosen one of them. (There is a decent amount of reporting suggesting the major players have declined.) What is revealing is that Trump does not appear to be hiring attorneys with experience even in major criminal cases.

Why this is so can be due to numerous reasons. With Kasowitz it seems to come down to comfort and trust. He’s the guy Trump has always gone to in the past: for his divorces, bankruptcies, defending against the numerous assault and harassment allegations that arose toward the end of the 2016 campaign, and the litany of fraud claims that follow Trump like flies to an outhouse.

Finding out that Sekulow is on the Trump team too raises real questions about whether Trump will have anyone on the team with a skillset suited to the kind of storm he’s entering. My best guess is that apart from Kasowitz where the issue is trust, Trump is hiring based on political allegiance, demonstrated aggressiveness and a willingness to tell the client what he wants to hear.