Saturday

December 16th, 2017

Insight

What's the matter with Trump's lawyers?

Aaron Blake

By Aaron Blake The Washington Post

Published Sept. 19, 2017

They say a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. President Donald Trump isn't representing himself, but sometimes it feels like he has a bunch of Donald Trumps on retainer.

While lawyers generally operate behind the scenes and try to keep their public comments limited and calculated, Trump's lawyers have routinely done things outside the norm. They've gotten into spats with reporters and trolls, talked about internal deliberations and their odds of success and, most recently, discussed the Russia investigation within earshot of a New York Times reporter.

That last one is the most recent development in the increasingly strange saga of Trump's legal team. The New York Times reported Sunday that they had overheard a conversation between Trump lawyers Ty Cobb and John Dowd last week at Washington's popular BLT Steak restaurant, which is both near the White House and very close to the Times' Washington bureau. Oops.

Cobb and Dowd weren't discussing anything particularly damning, it would seem, but Cobb did chew over some of his differences with White House counsel Don McGahn over how to handle the Russia probe. Cobb apparently wants more disclosure faster in the name of getting a speedy resolution; McGahn is more circumspect about forfeiting the White House's prerogatives. Cobb also suggested another Trump lawyer was a "McGahn spy" and said McGahn had a "couple documents locked in a safe" which Cobb wanted access to.

When word reached McGahn that the Times had been able to eavesdrop on this conversation, he reportedly "erupted" at Cobb, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly admonished Cobb over the indiscretion.

And understandably so. Whatever Cobb and Dowd were discussing, the fact that they were doing it in public would seem to be a pretty serious breach not just of good sense, but possibly of attorney-client privilege. Imagine if this conversation wound up being consequential in the scheme of the Russia investigation. The fact that it even happened - New York Times reporter or no New York Times reporter - is astounding.

But against the broader backdrop of what Trump's lawyers have been doing and saying publicly, it is far less surprising.

A quick recap:

Cobb asked a Business Insider reporter if she was "on drugs."

He later called the same reporter "insane" and mused about using a drone on her while unwittingly emailing with a prankster posing as a White House official.

Cobb described himself and Kelly as the "adults in the room" at the White House in emails with a Washington restaurateur. "I walked away from $4 million annually to do this, had to sell my entire retirement account for major capital losses and lost a s- - - load to try to protect the third pillar of democracy," Cobb told Jeff Jetton.

When he took the job, Cobb told Law.com that he had "rocks in my head and steel balls." He added that he took the job because it was "an impossible task with a deadline." (Side note: So defending Trump from the Russia investigation is an "impossible task," you say?)

Now-former Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz threatened a random stranger in an email exchange, telling her, "Watch your back, b- - - - ."

Dowd rather strangely confirmed to The Post last week that the legal team had discussed whether Jared Kushner should exit the White House.

Jay Sekulow denied twice that Trump was involved in Donald Trump Jr.'s initial response to that Russia meeting, only to be directly contradicted by the White House itself.

Trump's colorful longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, responded to his contradictory denials about being involved with Russians with plenty of bluster. "I feel great," he told HuffPost. "Which picture did The Wall Street Journal use of me? Was it good?" Cohen added: "I am in many respects just like the president. Nothing seems to rattle me, no matter how bad the hate."

Cohen regularly engages with critics and mixes it up on social media. Asked by Vanity Fair what that says, he responded: "It means I'm relevant."

Any one of these examples is highly unusual for a lawyer, or really any public official. Yet Trump seems to have assembled a legal team that mirrors his own combative style and at-times-unhelpful tendency to spout off in public.

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Are the lawyers acting like this because the White House as a whole plays it so fast and loose? Or were they selected because most established lawyers wouldn't take on such a challenging client? I've said before that being Trump's lawyer may be the second-worst job in Washington - behind being his spokesman - but while some of the team is perhaps a bit more random, Cobb has an extensive pedigree. And this is both the president of the United States and a billionaire; you'd expect him to have the best of the best.

There may be a third contributing factor here: Maybe the job is just so stressful that it lends itself to lashing out and lapses in judgment. But the stakes are so enormous that it's hard to see how this has happened so many times.

Kelly may have instilled some discipline in the White House staff, but those who we might expect to be the most disciplined - the lawyers - have proven anything but. Last week was the first time that seemed to potentially imperil Trump's defense.

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