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

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

Davis, a Democratic stalwart who has been a close adviser to the Clintons, only recently announced that he would represent former Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE lawyer, Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenTrump Organization faces new scrutiny in New York civil probe Michael Cohen: Trump bluffing about another White House bid Eric Trump lawyer in New York attorney general's fraud case quits MORE, free of charge. Davis has steered Cohen into a complete turn from Trump loyalist to chief accuser. He suggested that Cohen could implicate Trump in crimes tied to collusion, obstruction, 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.

At the same time, Davis attacked Trump and his counsel as liars, saying his defense of Cohen is powerfully simple. “It is about truth, and the power of the truth is what Michael Cohen now has no matter what,” Davis said, adding that Rudy Giuliani “invents for a president who has been known to lie.” Davis has now admitted that he lied, fueling allegedly false stories that have occupied national media coverage for several weeks.


In a CNN story last month, it was reported that Cohen would implicate 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. But when asked if he was the source of the false story, Davis expressly denied it, telling 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.”

The denial came as a surprise, since various reports pegged Davis as the source. Finally, last night, Davis admitted to being the source of the false story on the Trump Tower briefing and lying about it when subsequently challenged. He told BuzzFeed, “I made a mistake. I did not mean to be cute.” Well, it is a tad beyond cute. As counsel for Cohen, Davis could be accused of spreading not just a false story but a false account of the conduct of both him and his client, and that could put him and his law license in jeopardy. The District of Columbia and New York ethical rules state, “In the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a third person.” Rules in both jurisdictions state that a lawyer shall not “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

Making things worse is that his claim about the Trump Tower meeting suggested possible criminal conduct by Trump, his son, and others. Worse yet, the story planted by Davis, if true, would have implicated his client in false statements made to Congress, since Cohen previously denied such knowledge. The story was not just false but potentially put his client in jeopardy. For GoFundMe donors to Cohen, the admissions constitute a bait and switch. After fueling excitement about the impact of Cohen as a witness against Trump and driving 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.” 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 legal drama, advising a range of clients, including the Clintons, on how to navigate through controversy. He is smart, affable, and well connected. But he straddles the murky line between lawyer and media flak, a dual role that is highly valued but dangerously blurs what should be the bright line of representation. Indeed, the key to spinning stories is to not become the story.


Davis is not alone. The Trump team has shown just how difficult that role can be. Cohen was infamous for his disastrous 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 others when Trump was briefed on the Trump Tower meeting. It was a potentially credible claim since it would be so easy to disprove if no one corroborated it. Either Cohen lied to Davis, or Davis again made Cohen into a liar. Either way, this could well end up as a rare case where both a client and his attorney are called before bar proceedings.

The District of Columbia 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. If Cohen is responsible, his newly claimed moral clarity will be viewed as just another hustle. If Davis came up with these stories, he put his client in a 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 the credibility of Cohen as a witness for the prosecution. He also created an ethical equivalency between Trump and his accusers.

Davis recently declared, “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.