WASHINGTON — They are attack dogs and upper-crust white shoes. None of them shrink from a fight. And their ranks are growing by the day.
Since Robert Mueller was named special counsel to head the Justice Department’s widening Russia investigation, President Trump and his administration began a hiring blitz of personal lawyers to shield them from possible exposure – as witnesses or subjects.
As the probe continues into links between Trump’s campaign and Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats, the president himself has assembled at least four outside attorneys, led by his longtime counsel Marc Kasowitz, who has represented Trump for 15 years on a range of private business matters.
Known as Trump’s go-to guy, Kasowitz’s unstinting defense of the real estate mogul-turned-president perhaps best reflects Trump’s own combative style. Like Trump, Kasowitz’s official biography attached to the New York firm bearing his name is chock-full of superlatives, acclaiming him as “the toughest lawyer on Wall Street” and an “uber-litigator.”
Kasowitz’s team has recently expanded to include the vocal advocate for the religious right, Jay Sekulow, and John Dowd, a legal brawler who once led Major League Baseball’s investigation that ultimately banned all-time hit king Pete Rose from the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a president so poorly and unfairly treated by the press,” Dowd said, explaining why he accepted Kasowitz’s invitation to join the team. “It’s a hate campaign. The hostility directed at the president and his family is ridiculous.”
Vice President Pence and Trump son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner also have lawyered up. So too has the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Earlier this month, Charles “Chuck’’ Cooper, a former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and a formidable advocate for myriad conservative causes, occupied a choice seat just over Sessions’ right shoulder as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In what has become a near-full employment opportunity for the defense bar, even some of Trump’s lawyers have lawyers. Michael Cohen, another longtime Trump business attorney who is not part of the Russia team, recently hired former federal prosecutor Stephen Ryan after congressional investigators sought information from him last month about possible contacts with Russia.
The Trump team has expanded its constellation of legal expertise to keep pace not only with Mueller’s inquiry but with parallel investigations at least three congressional committees are pursuing, including the Senate and House intelligence panels and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had sought information and testimony related to Russian interference in the 2016 elections, indicated that it would cede investigative authority on the Russia matter to Mueller and the existing congressional inquiries.
The announcement by new panel Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., however, has not slowed the assembly of legal teams across the administration. Nor have Trump’s repeated denials that any collusion took place and insistence that the special counsel investigation is a “witch hunt.”
On Monday, Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general from the Clinton administration who is representing White House adviser Jared Kushner, announced the addition of legal heavyweight Abbe Lowell to assist Trump’s son-in-law.
Because Mueller had been a partner at Gorelick’s firm, WilmerHale, before his appointment as special counsel, Gorelick said she encouraged Kushner to “get independent legal advice on whether to continue with us as his counsel.” Kushner is under scrutiny of federal investigators for his contacts with Russian officials.
Former Deputy Attorney General and Sept. 11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick questions a witness during a commission session on Capitol Hill in this April 13, 2004 photo in Washington. (Photo: CHARLES DHARAPAK, AP)
Gorelick, who was a former member of the CIA’s national security advisory panel under President Bush, said Kushner “engaged Abbe Lowell to advise him and then decided to add Mr. Lowell to the team representing him in the various inquiries into the Russia matter.”
(In the relatively small world of Washington lawyers, the WilmerHale connection has come up more than once: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose dealings and contacts with Russia are part of the Russia inquiry, also is being represented by WilmerHale attorney.)
Lowell, who served as chief minority counsel during the House impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, has represented a roster of public officials, including former senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
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In an Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards, left, speaks to the media with attorney Abbe Lowell, right, as he leaves the federal court in Greensboro, N.C. (Photo: Chuck Burton, AP)
Not surprisingly, the largest group of outside lawyers has been assembled by the president, whose controversial and abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey on May 9 revved up accusations of possible obstruction of justice. The revelation that Comey kept memos detailing his conversations with Trump, including an exchange in which the president allegedly pressed him to drop the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, prompted the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s Russia legal team, said each of the four lawyers brings something different to the table. There’s Sekulow’s expertise in constitutional law – having appeared before the Supreme Court a dozen times – to Dowd’s extensive background in criminal law.
“First, it is important have a highly skilled group of attorneys who have the complete trust of their client,” Corallo said. “There is a long relationship between President Trump and Marc Kasowitz that has been absolutely vital in forming the president’s team.”
Of the four Trump lawyers, Sekulow, who is chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, immediately carved a out a high-profile role just more than a week ago when he made appearances on four separate Sunday television shows to rebut reports that Mueller was investigating possible obstruction by the president in the Russia probe.
Corallo described Sekulow – the host of his own radio show – as “very media savvy” and said he was likely to remain a public face of the team. “That is a huge value to have,” Corallo said.
Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice Jay Sekulow, center, gestures during a news conference outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 2, 2004 in Washington. (Photo: EVAN VUCCI, ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Bowe, a partner in Kasowitz’s New York firm, has broad experience on white-collar matters and is described by the firm as the “consummate on-your-feet courtroom lawyer.” He was part of the legal team that represented former accountants for singer Rihanna who were sued by the entertainer for malpractice.
And Dowd, a blunt-spoken former Marine Corps captain, has represented a host of public figures, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a congressional ethics inquiry involving a banking scandal known as the “Keating Five’’ in the early 1990s. The senator was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Although working together for a relatively short time, Corallo said the team talks regularly via conference call and sometimes in person when Kasowitz and partner Bowe, both of New York, travel to Washington, where Dowd and Sekulow are based.
The Washington Post reported last week that Trump regularly consults with his attorneys in what have become early-morning rituals to vent, plot strategy or talk through latest developments. While Corallo said there are no “scheduled” calls, he acknowledged that “the president reaches out when he has a need.”
If asked, Trump has said that he would – “100 percent” – provide sworn testimony to managers of the ongoing investigations, but Corallo said no such requests have yet been made.
For other current and former administration officials, private counsels appear to have become the new normal.
“It’s very routine, very routine,” Pence told reporters earlier this month after acknowledging that he had retained Richard Cullen, former U.S. attorney who is chairman of Washington, D.C.-based law firm McGuire Woods.
Cullen, who was a member of President George W. Bush’s legal team for the 2000 election recount in Florida, specializes in criminal defense and his past clients have included former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay and the ex-wife of golfer Tiger Woods.
A spokesman said Cullen, whose official biography touts his “extensive experience” defending large multi-nation corporations in investigations involving “matters of the utmost sensitivity,” was hired to help Pence respond to inquiries by the special counsel.
Sessions, the nation’s top prosecutor, is among the most recent in the Trump administration to add the services of an outside attorney.
Cooper, a Sessions friend and former candidate to serve as U.S. solicitor general, confirmed last week that he is representing the attorney general – but declined further comment, citing “confidential client matters.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn-in before testifying during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 13, 2017. (Photo: SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images)
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Cooper also advised Sessions during his January confirmation hearing.
In that hearing, Sessions said he had no contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, only to amend his testimony following disclosures in The Washington Post that he had met with the ambassador in July at the Republican National Convention and in September in the Washington office of the then-Alabama senator. Facing a storm of criticism about his failure to disclose the two encounters, Sessions recused himself in March from any involvement in the FBI’s inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing two weeks ago, Cooper was spotted by the attorney general’s side when Sessions said that any suggestion he colluded with Russian officials while he was advising the Trump campaign is “an appalling and detestable lie.”
Former Trump administration official Michael Flynn – along with former Trump campaign associates Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone – is an active subject of investigation in multiple Russia probes.
Attorney Robert Kelner, who heads the Election and Political Law Practice Group at the Washington firm of Covington & Burling, has been representing Flynn since shortly after his dismissal earlier this year as Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn was fired in February for misleading Pence and other administration officials about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and has since come under scrutiny for taking payments from foreign governments without proper registration.
In March, Kelner, who specializes in politically-related criminal defense matters, acknowledged that the retired Army lieutenant general was seeking an immunity agreement against possible prosecution in exchange for any testimony provided to the congressional committees or FBI agents working for Mueller.
“Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” Kelner said at the time.
Though Flynn has faced multiple subpoenas from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kelner has since declined to comment on whether his client is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation or the Hill inquiries.