The Memo: Trump legal-team turmoil poses perils

The disarray in President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE’s personal legal team has serious implications as he faces off against special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE at a critical juncture in the Russia investigation, experts say. 

“It’s just astonishing where things stand,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general who is now a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law.

“You simply must have a strategy that you are following through on. He has literally nothing and, as far as we can tell, even the personnel decisions seem to be taken by watching Fox News.”

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Confusion has enveloped Trump’s legal team in the past week. John Dowd, who had been leading the external team while Ty Cobb spearheaded the response to Mueller from within the White House, resigned last Thursday.


The final catalyst for Dowd’s departure appears to have been the proposed hiring of Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. DiGenova has in the past suggested the FBI is trying to frame Trump with false accusations of conspiring with Russia.

Victoria Toensing, a well-known attorney who is also diGenova’s wife and a partner in their legal firm, was also reported to be joining the team.

But on Sunday, it became clear that the duo would not do so after all. A statement from Jay Sekulow, the most senior lawyer remaining on the outside team, cited “conflicts” that prevented diGenova and Toensing from representing the president in the Mueller matter.

Reporting by The New York Times also suggested Trump lacked personal chemistry with the two lawyers upon meeting them.

Trump, and the White House more broadly, have been sensitive about the suggestion that he is having difficulty fielding a top-flight legal team.

At Tuesday’s media briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that “the president has a highly qualified team with several individuals that have been part of this process.” She added that further questions should be referred to Sekulow.

Trump tweeted on Sunday, “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.”

The president stated that any new additions would take months to “get up to speed” on the case and claimed that this would be “unfair to our great country.”

But, despite that, some high-profile lawyers have publicly stated that they won’t join the team, while others are reported to have rebuffed overtures.

One of those who declined, Ted Olson, told MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Monday that Trump’s overall style of governance, including his personnel changes within the White House, was adding up to a situation of “turmoil.”

“It's chaos, it's confusion, it's not good for anything,” Olson said.

Attorneys and legal experts who spoke to The Hill said that was true of the legal situation, not just the broader conduct of the Trump administration.

They also drew attention to the president’s tempestuous personality, suggesting that this would make any attorney think twice about representing him.

“I don’t have the time, energy or patience to babysit a client who ignores my expertise and opinions,” said Mark Zaid, a prominent Washington attorney.

Zaid noted that he had represented Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

Resistance to representing Trump, he said, “has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the client. This is a client who is out of control, who tweets incessantly, who argues with his lawyers and disobeys his lawyers.”

Loyalists to the president push back against that narrative. They reiterate that Sekulow and Cobb continue to provide Trump with legal advice.

Sekulow also has colleagues working with him on Trump’s case, something that cuts against the image of him as a one-man band against Mueller’s crew of seasoned prosecutors.

In a brief phone interview with The Hill, Sekulow contested the idea that he or the president was seeking an all-out confrontation with Mueller.

“We are continuing to maintain a cooperative approach and a cooperative relationship with the office of the special counsel,” he said.

Still, outsiders are skeptical that Sekulow can — or would want to — handle Mueller on his own.

“Sekulow is mostly a communications person,” said Michael Zeldin, a legal analyst for CNN. “He is not a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, and he makes no pretense that he is that. He is there really more to articulate the president’s media message. But he needs someone who can face off against the Mueller investigation."

Also in the mix is Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz. Kasowitz was sidelined after some embarrassing incidents, such as a profane email exchange with a stranger that became public in July 2017.

As with many people around Trump, however, Kasowitz has never been fully exiled and is understood to still proffer advice.

Zaid, though critical of Trump in many ways, acknowledged that the story of his legal turmoil could go away quickly once he found someone to represent him.

“Once he finds counsel who sticks with him, the stories of all the people who refused to represent him are a non-issue,” he said. 

But that day has not come just yet.

The Memo is reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.