President Trump’s legal team is in shambles at one of the worst possible moments in the Russia investigation.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is heating up, and Trump is facing a big decision about whether to sit down for an interview with Mueller. But because of the staffing chaos that seems to have plagued the rest of his administration, the president now finds himself with virtually no qualified attorneys left to defend him in the Russia probe.
Trump’s top personal lawyer, John Dowd, resigned on Thursday. Reports say he’d grown frustrated with Trump’s unwillingness to heed his legal advice, including his view that an interview with Mueller would be too risky.
And less than a week after announcing that Trump was adding two new lawyers to his legal team, personal Trump attorney Jay Sekulow had to walk back the announcement, saying the two wouldn’t be working on the special counsel investigation after all because of “conflicts” with their other clients.
White House lawyers Ty Cobb and Don McGahn work for Trump on issues tied to the Russia investigation, but both are on the taxpayer payroll, meaning they are responsible for protecting the office of the presidency, not Trump personally. McGahn and Cobb are both reportedly considering leaving as well.
And new lawyers who could join the team are looking at the chaos and deciding it’s not worth getting involved.
“This is turmoil, it’s chaos, it’s confusion, it’s not good for anything,” Ted Olson, a George W. Bush administration solicitor general, told NBC on Monday. Olson turned down an offer from Trump to join the legal team last week.
All of which means that Trump is now left with only Sekulow — a lawyer and radio host best known for defending conservative and evangelical Christian causes — to defend his interests full time at a critical junction in the Russia investigation.
Trump continues to insist that he’s innocent and that there was “NO COLLUSION!” with Russia — and that very well may be true, at least for him personally. But even an innocent president would need major legal help when facing a year-long special counsel investigation with at least 17 experienced prosecutors digging into his past business dealings and campaign contacts.
The last week’s hirings and firings show the chaos inside Trump’s legal team
The mayhem engulfing Trump’s legal team was on full display in recent days with the odd saga surrounding the hiring of two new lawyers, Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing.
DiGenova, a former US attorney, is not a big name in criminal defense circles, according to legal professionals I spoke to. But he has been a frequent guest on Fox News, pushing the idea that the entire Russia investigation is a conspiracy created by officials at the Justice Department and FBI to “frame” Trump.
Trump reportedly liked the way diGenova had defended him on TV, and on March 19, Sekulow announced that diGenova and his partner (and wife) Victoria Toensing would join Trump’s legal team, saying diGenova would be “a great asset in our representation of the President.”
But diGenova and Toensing apparently didn’t impress Trump when they sat down with him on Thursday. The New York Times reports that Trump thought he didn’t have “personal chemistry” with the couple. Three days later, Sekulow announced that Toensing and diGenova wouldn’t be working for the president’s legal team on the Russia probe.
Officially, Toensing and diGenova were rejected over conflicts of interest, as Toensing is representing several former Trump administration officials in their talks with the Mueller probe.
That includes Mark Corallo, a former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team; Sam Clovis, a former Trump campaign co-chair whom Mueller’s team questioned about the campaign’s interest in improving relations with Russia; and Erik Prince, who is being investigated by Mueller for reportedly trying to set up a back channel between Trump and Russia.
But Toensing had reportedly been getting waivers from those clients to allow her to defend Trump when Trump backed away. So it seems like a lack of personal rapport between Trump and the duo is the main reason they were rejected.
It’s a sign that Trump cares more about personality than legal strategy. And without a strategy, his team hasn’t been able to build a coherent response to the Mueller probe.
Trump is trying, and failing, to recruit top lawyers
Trump apparently isn’t content with just Sekulow leading his personal team, and he’s reportedly spent weeks trying to draft top legal talent.
Trump has been sensitive about the criticism that he’s having a hard time getting good lawyers, tweeting on Sunday that “many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case.”
Many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case...don’t believe the Fake News narrative that it is hard to find a lawyer who wants to take this on. Fame & fortune will NEVER be turned down by a lawyer, though some are conflicted. Problem is that a new......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2018
But the facts directly contradict his claims.
Earlier in March, Trump met in the Oval Office with Emmet Flood, who helped represent President Bill Clinton during his impeachment process — but Flood didn’t join the team, and it’s unclear if a formal offer was made. Robert Giuffra Jr., a litigator who once clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, rejected an offer, as did Olson.
Tom Buchanan and Dan Webb, two more well-regarded lawyers, also turned down Trump according to a report published Monday night.
And legal professionals I spoke to said it’s not exactly a mystery why lawyers might not want to join Trump’s legal circus.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told me that any lawyer taking the job would want to be sure their client would listen to the advice provided — and given Trump’s history of quickly cycling through lawyers, it’s not a desirable opportunity.
“I would be thinking of leaving before I even started,” she said. “The narrative is chaos.”
With the near-constant change of personnel, the tactics taken by the Trump legal team have varied wildly.
“Trump’s legal team is conflicted and divided, and the recent departures and arrivals have failed to unify its approach or thinking,” Jens David Ohlin, a professor at Cornell Law School, told me.
Take, for instance, the big question on Trump’s plate right now: whether to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Mueller. That’s something every lawyer I spoke to called “unlikely” given Trump’s history of lying during depositions. Because Trump tends to exaggerate or misstate facts, he might lie to investigators, the offense that caused Clinton’s impeachment, even if the underlying details exonerate Trump of any wrongdoing.
Dowd had been working with the Mueller probe to avoid having Trump interviewed. But the president said earlier this month “he would like to” do an interview, and with Dowd gone, it’s possible Trump could overrule whichever lawyers he assembles and sit down with Mueller.
Whether or not Trump sits down with Mueller, the pressure on Trump’s legal team appears to be escalating — Mueller’s staff got a court order for Trump’s business records earlier in March, and four people tied to the Trump campaign are now cooperating with investigators.
The big task Trump’s lawyers will face, whoever they end up being, is trying to convince the president to listen to their advice and stay out of further trouble with Mueller.