Lanny Davis is more proof 2018 is year of lawyers living dangerously

For lawyers, it has been a year of living dangerously. The scandals swirling around Washington have left a pile of attorneys accused of false statements, leaks or other improper conduct. The latest casualty appears to be Lanny Davis, who just admitted to not only spreading a false story but then lying about being its source.

Only recently, Davis — a Democratic stalwart who has been a close adviser to the Clintons — announced that he would represent 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 former lawyer, Michael Cohen, free of charge. Davis has steered Cohen into a 180-degree turn from Trump loyalist to chief accuser. He suggested that Cohen could implicate Trump in crimes touching on obstruction, collusion and campaign-finance violations. He caused a firestorm nationally when he suggested Trump knew in advance about Russian hacking of Clinton campaign and Democratic Party emails and also approved the infamous meeting with Russian representatives in Trump Tower.

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At the same time, Davis attacked Trump and his counsel as liars, proclaiming that his defense of Cohen is powerfully simple — “it’s about truth, and the power of the truth is what Michael Cohen now has no matter what ... Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani invents for a president who's been known to lie.”

Now, Davis has admitted that he lied, fueling allegedly false stories that have occupied national media coverage for several weeks.

In a July CNN story, it was reported that Cohen would implicate President Trump as having advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting and that multiple people witnessed his briefing on it. After weeks of such reporting, Davis belatedly came forward to say that, in fact, Cohen did not have such evidence. However, when asked if he was the source of the false story, Davis expressly denied it, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “I think the reporting of the story got mixed up in the course of a criminal investigation. We were not the source of the story.”

Davis’ denial came as a surprise, since various reports pegged him as the source. Finally, last night, Davis admitted being the source of the false story on the Trump Tower briefing and lying about it when subsequently challenged; he told BuzzFeed that “I made a mistake. I did not mean to be cute.” Well, it’s a tad beyond cute.

As counsel for Cohen, Davis could be accused of spreading not just a false story but a false account of both his and his client’s conduct — and that could put him and his law license in jeopardy. D.C. and New York ethical rules state that “In the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a third person.” Under Rule 8.4, both jurisdictions state that a lawyer shall not “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

Making things worse is that Davis’ claim about the Trump Tower meeting suggested possible criminal conduct by President Trump, his son Don Jr., and others. Worse yet, the story planted by Davis, if true, would have implicated his client, Cohen, in false statements made to Congress, since Cohen previously denied such knowledge. In other words, the story was not just false but potentially put his client in jeopardy.

For donors on Cohen’s GoFundMe site, the admissions constitute a type of bait-and-switch. After fueling excitement about Cohen’s impact as a witness against Trump (and driving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations), Davis has destroyed the credibility of the man he claimed would “reset his life” and try to “tell the truth.”

For its part, CNN is sticking to the story, suggesting it has other sources stating that "Cohen claims Trump knew in advance of 2016 Trump Tower meeting” -- even though Cohen now states (as he did before Congress) that he has no such knowledge.

Davis is a cautionary tale for lawyers serving multiple roles in scandals. He is a long-standing Democratic figure in Washington scandals, advising a range of clients — including the Clintons — on how to navigate through controversy. He is smart, affable, well-connected. However, he straddles the murky line between lawyer and media flak, a dual role that is highly valued but dangerously blurs what should be bright lines of representation. And the key about spinning stories is not to become the story.

Davis is not alone; the Trump team has shown just how difficult that role can be. Cohen himself was infamous for his ham-handed and ultimately disastrous public statements.  Then there are Marc Kasowitz, John Dowd, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani — all accused of varying false or misleading statements in public defenses.

It is not clear if Davis is saying he made up the story or whether Cohen gave him the allegedly false account of being in a room with other witnesses when Trump was briefed on the Trump Tower meeting. As I have noted previously, it was a potentially credible claim precisely because it would be so easy to disprove, if no one corroborated it. Either Cohen lied to Davis, or Davis made Cohen into a liar (again). Either way, this could well end up as a rare case where both a client and his attorney are called before bar proceedings.

The D.C. and New York bars may want to know who came up with the allegedly false stories — and why neither man came forward immediately to correct the record (particularly as money poured into Cohen’s GoFundMe site). If Cohen is responsible, his newly claimed moral clarity will be viewed as just another hustle from a self-described “fixer.” If Davis came up with these stories, he put his client in a materially worse position and the bar might want to know why — and whose interests were being advanced by such accounts. Just as his client seeks a deal with the special counsel to limit his prison time after pleading guilty, these admissions destroyed any residue of Cohen’s credibility as a witness for the prosecution. He also created an ethical equivalency between Trump and his accusers.

Davis recently declared that “this is about truth versus lying and ultimately Donald Trump is going to be done in by the truth.” Of course, truth is rarely the undoing of Washington insiders, particularly those whose careers have been to transform or a least transcend truth. So it is likely that a short but decent interval will follow and then truth will return to its previously inconsequential position in Washington.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.