Noreen Marcus

/ Best Lawyers – U.S. News Legal Issue 2018

If all the lawyers in Trump World started a law firm it would be a pricey boutique: TrumpLaw LLC.

At least two dozen attorneys are trying to guide President Donald Trump, his children, cabinet and staffers through congressional and special counsel probes of the administration’s alleged ties to Russia. Seven big-time lawyers work for former national security adviser Michael Flynn alone. The number spikes if you add all those lawyers’ partners and associates at high-powered firms that provide billable support.

And the total rises whenever special counsel Robert Mueller’s team summon a surprise witness in their ongoing efforts to target enablers of Russian “kompromat” that may have influenced the 2016 election.

Even the lawyers have lawyers. Michael Cohen, a former Trump Organization in-house counsel and still a West Wing insider, had Stephen Ryan of McDermott Will & Emery at his side when he appeared before the House Intelligence Committee in October.

Also, a onetime attorney for the Trump campaign’s former chairman Paul Manafort, Melissa Laurenza of Akin Gump, was subpoenaed in August by Mueller’s office. She’s too smart to enter that arena alone.

Just as Trump entered the White House with a record as a litigious businessman, his administration is the most lawyered up, according to Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor who famously predicted Trump’s election.

“We’re reaching levels that are unheard of this early in an investigation,” says Lichtman, author of The Case for Impeachment. “Now that the Special Counsel has issued two indictments and scored one guilty plea, you can expect a further explosion of lawyers.”
The law firm analogy is limited because the lawyers, especially the colorful crew surrounding Trump, do not seem to work as a team. John Dowd, Trump’s lead lawyer in the Russia probe, complained to his colleague Ty Cobb that White House counsel Donald McGahn was holding back documents, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel wrote after overhearing them at a Washington steakhouse. Vogel says he recognized Cobb’s signature handlebar mustache.

Cohen, also known as “Trump’s pit bull,” and Marc Kasowitz, another longtime Trump lawyer, have publicly displayed fits of rage that violate professional decorum. “This is like you went shopping for all your lawyers at the ‘before’ section of the anger management commercial,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said during a report about Kasowitz’s profane email eruption at a stranger.

Kasowitz soon disappeared from public view, and his position relative to Dowd and the others is unclear.

Former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey briefly represented then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in March 2016, when Lewandowski was accused of grabbing a reporter’s arm. The Palm Beach County state attorney ultimately decided against filing a battery charge.

Representing people like the Trump insiders brings special challenges, says Coffey, now with the Coffey Burlington firm in Miami. “The usual rules don’t apply.”

“In contrast to civil litigation, in a federal investigation the prosecutors are holding all the cards and it requires a strategy of active lawyering combined with a strategy of patience, because individuals who are being examined cannot control the process,” he says. “That is intensely frustrating for high-powered, activist individuals who are used to being proactive rather than reactive.”

“Suddenly they're engulfed in a situation where they have a sense of helplessness and extreme frustration, and their attorneys are encouraging them to say as little as possible and do as little as possible and let us work through this with the prosecutors and try to be patient and let the process go forward,” Coffey says. “What complicates this all the more is the accelerated press attention to everything that involves President Trump.”

All the legal advising and handholding do not come cheap. A top-rated white-collar defense lawyer in the District of Columbia can charge $750 to $900 per hour.

Former President Bill Clinton has said he left office after his scandal-plagued second term, which resulted in his impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate, owing attorneys nearly $2.3 million. Some of his aides paid a big price for their government service.

“I had a lot of friends back in the Clinton era who came away with quite a bit of debt because they had to hire private lawyers—and they’re not ExxonMobil,” says Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama and a professor at Savannah Law School.

How officials like Vice President Mike Pence, who is not wealthy, will pay their legal fees is anybody’s guess.

Trump and his oldest son, Donald Jr., need not worry: The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are picking up at least some of their defense costs. Trump’s campaign paid $1.1 million for legal services from July to September, up from $677,827 in the second quarter and $249,344 in the first, according to campaign disclosures.

The RNC paid Dowd and Jay Sekulow, another lawyer for the president. That’s legal, as is using campaign funds, because Trump didn’t accept public financing. Under federal election law, the RNC can raise money from donors in amounts up to $101,700 for a special account to pay legal expenses.

However, Trump’s announcement that he will spend at least $430,000 of his own money to fund his aides’ legal defense has set off alarms.

“It raises all sorts of ethical concerns,” says Larry Noble, general counsel to the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. “If you’re an employee and he’s paying your legal bills, are you going to want to say something that will get him in trouble?”

The attorneys involved may also have qualms, Noble says. “You want to make sure that the person being represented is the witness in question, not Donald Trump.”

Is counseling someone in Trump’s orbit good or bad for a lawyer’s résumé?

“In a normal world, if you’re making your reputation as someone who handles the most sensitive matters, why wouldn’t you want to work for the president?” Wright asks. He worked for Clinton’s lead counsel William Bennett during Clinton’s impeachment battle—“an honorific,” Wright calls it.

But Trump upends the normal lawyer–client dynamic. Wright describes the president as “resistant to taking legal advice and operating in a news cycle mindset that doesn't think across time about consistency. It's terrible in a legal context.”

Wright suggests Trump-controlled lawyers might get less respect than independent, Beltway establishment defenders of lower-level clients. “I don’t think there will be any tarnishing to Bill Burck’s career,” says Wright, referring to a Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan partner who is advising both McGahn and former chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Veteran white-collar criminal defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn tells a different story.

Some of his colleagues reject the TrumpLaw brand categorically. Hirschhorn says when he proposed a Trump insider for membership in the exclusive American Board of Criminal Lawyers, “one of the most respected lawyers in the group said, ‘I wouldn’t vote for him.’”

“I’m saying, ‘What the heck, we represent mass murderers,’” retorted Hirschhorn, a shareholder at GrayRobinson in Miami. “Trump has so politicized even the criminal defense bar, it’s shocking,” he says.    

A past-president of the ABCL, Hirschhorn has switched into lobbying mode for his candidate. He says he believes no defense lawyer should be penalized for his client’s unpopularity. “I would like to think that in our profession there’s admiration for the courage to do the best we can for someone who is held in such low esteem.”