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Trump’s top personal lawyer for the Mueller investigation just resigned

John Dowd quit at a high-stakes moment for the president in the Russia probe.

President Trump, last week. His top personal lawyer John Dowd quit Thursday.
Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

John Dowd, who had been President Trump’s lead personal lawyer for the Russia investigation since last summer, resigned his position on Thursday, according to multiple reports.

The news comes after weeks of rumors about an impending shake-up of Trump’s legal team, just as it’s been in the midst of negotiations with special counsel Robert Mueller about a sit-down interview with the president.

It also comes after Trump has escalated his rhetoric criticizing Mueller and his probe. (Dowd has lately done the same, saying last weekend that the Justice Department should now “bring an end to” the “alleged Russia Collusion investigation.”)

Dowd’s exit is “a largely mutual decision,” coming because Trump had lost confidence in his legal strategy, and because Dowd was frustrated that Trump wanted to bring new attorneys to the team, the Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, Carol Leonnig, and Ashley Parker report.

The Post team also reports that Dowd “disagreed vehemently with Trump over a legal strategy” at one point in recent weeks, though it’s not clear what the disagreement was. Meanwhile, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report that Dowd is leaving because he “concluded” that Trump “was increasingly ignoring his advice.”

Trump insisted on Twitter just 11 days ago that he was “VERY happy with my lawyers” and had no plans to shake up the team. But days later, he decided to bring aboard longtime conservative lawyer Joseph diGenova — who has argued on television that the Justice Department and FBI are trying to frame the president. And this might not be the end of the shake-up, either.

Trump’s legal team, explained

To keep the various members of Trump’s legal team for the Mueller investigation straight, you have to keep in mind that some are outside lawyers representing Donald Trump personally, while others are official White House staffers charged with representing the office of the presidency.

The personal legal team:

  • After last May, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and Mueller was then appointed as special counsel, Trump put outside lawyer Marc Kasowitz in charge of his personal legal defense. But Kasowitz only lasted about two months — he was pushed out in July, amid the Trump team’s hapless response to the revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer and amid news that Kasowitz had sent profane and threatening emails to a stranger (“Watch your back, bitch”).
  • Then it was John Dowd, whom Trump anointed as his lead personal lawyer. Dowd had decades of experience representing defendants accused of white-collar crimes, including in political scandals (and also, famously, investigated baseball player Pete Rose’s gambling scandal for Major League Baseball back in the 1980s). He resigned Thursday.
  • Trump’s personal legal team also includes Jay Sekulow, a longtime conservative activist lawyer who frequently appears on television.
  • And just days ago, Joseph diGenova, a conservative lawyer who had legal roles in high-profile political scandals for decades (and also frequently appears on television), joined Trump’s personal legal team too.

The White House legal team:

  • Inside the White House, meanwhile, Russia- and scandal-related legal matters were first handled by White House counsel Don McGahn.
  • But last summer, Ty Cobb joined the White House and became its lead lawyer handling Mueller investigation matters — reportedly at Dowd’s suggestion. (Cobb also became famous for his repeated rosy claims that Mueller’s investigation would soon wrap up — claims that did not quite pan out.)

Is Trump opting for a more reckless legal strategy — or is he just looking for better help?

Since diGenova has been going around claiming the FBI and Justice Department framed Trump, one might be tempted to conclude that his hiring, coupled with the president’s recent rhetoric, means Trump is shifting toward a more confrontational, reckless, and even conspiratorial legal strategy.

However, recent reports have also revealed Trump’s interest in hiring two very highly respected mainstream lawyers — Emmet Flood (who represented President Bill Clinton during the impeachment saga) and Ted Olson (who’s believed to be one of the best Republican litigators around but is famous for overturning California’s same-sex marriage ban). Neither hire has panned out, but the interest could indicate that Trump simply thinks he needs better representation than Dowd has been providing.

That would make sense; Dowd’s gotten his fair share of criticism. Back in December, Trump sent a tweet in which he said he fired Michael Flynn because Flynn lied to the FBI. After many observed that this was a seeming admission of obstruction of justice — because if Trump knew Flynn committed a crime, his later request that Comey stop investigating Flynn would be an attempt to cover up a crime — Dowd said that in fact he had drafted the tweet, and had just mixed up the facts.

A few months before that, Dowd was overheard by a New York Times reporter discussing Trump’s legal strategy with Ty Cobb, the top White House lawyer for the Russia probe, during lunch at a DC steakhouse. (Trump is also rumored to be considering firing Cobb — something that, considering Cobb has been completely wrong about the Mueller investigation wrapping up quickly, would also make some sense.)

So it’s not clear where things are heading right now. It is possible that Trump could bring in a highly qualified and respected top lawyer to replace Dowd. It’s also possible that ... he could go in a different direction. Because one problem is that highly qualified top lawyers don’t seem to have much interest in representing Trump — CNN’s Katelyn Polantz reports that “4 defense attorneys at different large law firms have been approached to join Trump’s legal defense team in recent weeks,” but “all 4 turned him down.”