Trump legal team reflects their chaotic client
Trump’s attorneys are beginning to look as undisciplined as their disruptive client. The emerging picture of his legal defense seems more chaotic than coordinated, one that could aggravate his legal problems rather than solve them. It also cannot help but stir private chatter among lawyers who have previously represented top officials over whether Trump’s team is up to the task of defending a president under scrutiny by a crack team of federal investigators.
The latest: A New York Times report about White House infighting over documents sought by the Russia special counsel that featured an overheard luncheon conversation between Cobb, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, and Dowd at a popular Washington restaurant just steps from the Times’ Washington bureau.
Cobb, hired to manage the administration’s Russia defense, was heard talking loudly to Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, about a dispute over materials sought by the special counsel investigating connections between Trump and the Russian election interference.
Differences between Cobb, who was said to be interested in releasing as many documents as possible to bring the inquiry to a swifter end, and White House counsel Don McGahn appeared to have triggered the dispute. According to the Times, Cobb talked about a White House lawyer he regarded as “a McGahn spy” and said McGahn had “a couple documents locked in a safe” that Cobb apparently wanted. The Times reported that Cobb, in an interview, later praised McGahn and played down any conflict over documents.
The front-page report shocked experienced litigators who have been involved in past presidential investigations. The revelations appear wholly counterproductive to the Trump defense in the specific investigation and also in the public eye. And the episode offered the latest example of a legal team that seems ill-prepared to counter a high-powered federal investigation overseen by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Yet Trump’s attorneys have their defenders. “Cobb and Dowd are very experienced lawyers,” said lawyer Ross Garber, a white-collar crime specialist who has represented three US governors facing impeachment proceedings and worked previously with Cobb.
“They’ve spent a lot of time on significant investigations and congressional inquiries. It’s easy for lawyers who aren’t involved to second-guess decisions of those actually doing the work. Having said that, this is difficult, nuanced, challenging stuff.”
The Cobb-Dowd conversation might offer Mueller an avenue to pursue Mueller suspects the White House is withholding materials. He might possibly question Cobb about documents secreted away in a safe or elsewhere. Mueller already appeared to be focusing on possible obstruction of justice by Trump and his associates related to the Russia probe.
Mueller came to the job after Trump in May fired James Comey, then the FBI director and the individual who had been running the investigation.
Even if the episode at the Washington restaurant does not become part of Mueller’s investigative trail, it calls into question the judgment of Trump’s leading lawyers as they discussed the white-hot Russia probe.
Experienced counsel usually watch what they say about sensitive matters when others are within earshot, in elevators, restaurants, on planes and trains. That’s particularly true in Washington, where it seems a journalist or political rival is around every corner — or at the next table.
Monday’s reported indiscretion recalled other clumsy, if potentially less consequential, news accounts involving Trump’s lawyers this summer.
Last month after the deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dowd forwarded an email that compared Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to US President George Washington and that said the activist movement Black Lives Matter “has been totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” Earlier, Marc Kasowitz, a New York-based personal lawyer to Trump, was caught in a profanity-laced email rant that he sent to a stranger after the individual urged him to resign from representing Trump. “F*** you,” Kasowitz said in his initial response. In a second message, Kasowtiz said, “Watch your back, bitch.”
Jay Sekulow, another attorney representing Trump in the Russia investigation, denied in a CNN interview that Trump was involved with crafting a misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer. It soon emerged that the President apparently had dictated the misleading statement. Sekulow, a conservative advocate, has specialized in anti-abortion, religious rights litigation, not white-collar or government investigative matters
Of the attorneys trying to help Trump with the Russia probe, Cobb and Dowd appear to offer the most relevant expertise, after decades of white-collar criminal work in Washington. In the 1990s, Dowd represented Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain in an ethics investigation; McCain was cleared in the Senate probe surrounding the so-called Keating Five. Cobb, a former federal prosecutor, was a partner in the investigations practice of the Hogan Lovells law firm.
Yet neither man has brought in teams of associates. The White House had earlier tried to hire on a big-name litigator with the resources of a large firm. One overriding reason seems to be a lack of confidence that any attorney would be able to control this client or the case. Trump has a reputation for ignoring advice and for making public statements — on Twitter, especially — that may be counterproductive, such as with challenges to his travel ban.
In the end, Trump’s lawyers will likely be measured by how they fight off any possible charges. In the meantime, however, the task is to minimize — not increase — any criminal exposure.
Lawyers are expected to put out fires for their clients, not start them with their own blunders.