Representing a president wasn’t always this publicly messy.
For months, President Trump’s ever-changing crew of lawyers has had its hands full dealing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling. But the visible chaos surrounding the legal team in the past few weeks has been especially striking.
“It looks like a train wreck,” said Andy Wright, a White House lawyer during Democratic administrations.
Between its high turnover rate, the public spillover of its negotiations with Mueller, and its contradictory press statements, Trump’s team contrasts sharply with the bunkered-down legal operations of presidents past.
Attorneys who worked for previous presidents told TPM the blame lies with Trump himself, who they say is opening himself up to further legal vulnerabilities with the tumultuous approach he’s fomented.
The White House didn’t respond to TPM’s inquiry.
Since last month, Rudy Giuliani has jumped in as one of Trump’s personal lawyers, and Ty Cobb, the White House attorney responding to Mueller, has been replaced by Emmet Flood, a seasoned defense lawyer. Those changes have ushered in a new era in the president’s posturing toward the various legal issues he faces. And it hasn’t been pretty.
Whereas Cobb was known for stressing cooperation with Mueller, and was calm and deliberative in interviews with the press, Giuliani has been proudly combative toward the special counsel’s investigation. The outside attorneys TPM talked to, some of whom asked for anonymity to speak candidly, praised Flood, who worked for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during numerous investigations. But they still wondered if anyone, regardless of their talent, could deliver given Trump’s apparent habit of ignoring and undermining them.
“There is no legal team, however it is assembled, that is going to wind up effectively transcending the severe limitations of a client,” said Bob Bauer, President Obama’s White House Counsel.
In just the last week, it’s been reported that neither White House lawyers nor top aides were aware of Giuliani’s plan to reveal that the president reimbursed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for paying hush money to a porn star claiming to have slept with Trump; that Trump’s entire fleet of personal lawyers lacked security clearances; and that it took four hours for Trump to get through two questions during preparations for a potential Mueller interview.
The implications are many, given how high-stakes any legal defense of a president is, even under the smoothest of circumstances.
“These cases, what’s so challenging about them — and Emmet has a ton of experience in this area — is you’re dealing with a multi-headed hydra,” said Glen Donath, who worked on Clinton’s legal defense during Special Prosecutor Ken Starr’s sprawling investigation.
That beast includes criminal investigations, not just for Russian election meddling, but into various Trump associates, as well as congressional probes that could potentially lead to impeachment proceedings. Plus, there is the “the media PR side of things,” Donath said, that private clients don’t typically have to worry about.
“All those fronts in battle have to be co-managed because any one of them can cause ripple effects with respect to the others,” he said.
The constant shake-ups on Trump’s legal team have included the resignation in March of Trump personal attorney John Dowd, who was brought in last June to replace Trump’s longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz. Husband-and-wife duo Martin and Jane Raskin joined the personal team last month, while another matrimonial legal pairing, Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, were slated to join but then dropped due to conflicts. Jay Sekulow, a conservative lawyer who specializes in religious liberty cases, is the longest serving member of Trump’s personal team.
“You need continuity, you need a strategy, you need to stick with it,” said a lawyer who worked in the White House Counsel’s Office for a previous administration. “This is a long brutal fight: years, months. You can’t just keep changing your coach and expect to win the season, let alone multiple seasons.” The lawyer added that the President seemed to foster competition among his legal team.
“One part of it is that the new lawyers don’t know anything that happened before,” said another attorney, who worked for Clinton’s legal team.
While the new attorneys can be debriefed by the outgoing ones, they “can’t really understand the nuances of what the questions have been and where the pressure points have been, where the areas of agreement have been,” the Clinton attorney said.
Giuliani’s disclosure on Fox News last week that Trump had reimbursed Cohen’s hush payments to porn star Stormy Daniels appeared intended to push back against allegations of a campaign finance violation. But the revelation just opened up more questions — chief among them, why Trump said last month he had no knowledge of the payments. In addition, the plans to reveal it were not cleared with Flood, White House Counsel Donald McGahn or the White House press shop, the Washington Post reported. And since then, attention has been drawn to other payments that poured into the entity that was used to pay Daniels. Trump, in public comments, has both clarified and undermined Giuliani’s claims.
“The President should not be talking about any of this,” said Wright, who worked in the counsel’s offices for Vice President Al Gore and President Obama.
“If you’re in a normal White House situation, you’re actually going to kind of hide behind the fact that there is ongoing investigations,” i.e., cite an ongoing investigation as a reason to decline to comment, Wright said.
This week Giuliani told the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s lawyers had set a May 17 deadline to come to a decision on whether Trump should sit down with Mueller for an interview. Publicly airing an arbitrary deadline also flummoxed lawyers who’ve worked on presidential investigations in the past, who said their approach had been to delay, delay, delay, in negotiations with investigators about a sit-down interview. If Trump’s and Mueller’s team can’t come to an agreement, Mueller could always just serve a subpoena.
“You want to be in the position of saying, ‘Yeah, we would really like that to work out as long as it’s under the right conditions,’ because that is then buying you more and more time that you’re not putting your client in a precarious situation,” Wright said.