For a man who is so insistent he has done nothing wrong, President Donald Trump sure does keep a lot of lawyers close at hand.
Since taking office five months ago, Trump has brought aboard a small army of private litigators and tasked them with defending him and his administration from mounting accusations of legal misconduct. In recent weeks, several of his top lieutenants—including his son-in-law, his vice president, his attorney general, and his former NSA director—have also hired their own outside counsel. And that’s on top of the White House’s own team of government lawyers who are charged with defending the administration’s unconstitutional executive orders.
Presidents and other administration officials hiring personal lawyers isn’t without precedent. President Bill Clinton retained a personal lawyer during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Nixon Vice President Spiro Agnew hired George White as his personal attorney while he was being investigated on charges of bribery, extortion, and tax fraud. But no president in recent history has kept so many personal lawyers on his payroll at the same time.
So prolific are the Trump White House’s legal troubles that even some of Trump’s lawyers are now hiring lawyers. With fresh allegations surfacing on an almost daily basis, we thought it’d be helpful to put together a field guide to the seemingly endless parade of white dudes with law degrees making appearances on cable television.
Like many of Trump’s personal lawyers, Kasowitz has been in the Trump orbit for years defending his many business failures, including his ill-fated venture into Atlantic City and his Trump University scam. Kasowitz was brought aboard shortly after Robert Mueller was hired as special counsel leading the ongoing Russia investigation.
Even though he only represents Donald Trump, Kasowitz has reportedly taken on an outsized role inside the White House. According to the New York Times—which Kasowitz has twice threatened to sue on Trump’s behalf—he advises administration officials on how best to talk about the Russia investigation and offers legal advice to various White House staff, two jobs normally filled by the White House Counsel’s office. Kasowitz himself has bragged about his role in former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s firing. Outside experts have characterized Kasowitz’s involvement as highly unusual, and at least two prominent lawyers rejected job offers to join the White House because of Kasowitz’s prominent role there.
Kasowitz is not completely without qualifications, though. His online bio serves up glowing quotes from clients and fellow lawyers. And when it comes to the ongoing investigation into potential connections between Trump associates and Russian operatives, Kasowitz is intimately familiar with the subject at hand: two of his clients are OJSC Sberbank, the largest state-owned bank in Russia, and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian tycoon with close ties to Vladimir Putin.
Fun Fact! For all his accomplishments, Kasowitz has yet to master fifth grade spelling.
Another one of Trump’s longtime personal lawyers, Cohen found himself in hot water after his name appeared in an unverified dossier written by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele. The dossier alleges that Cohen served as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and that he met with Russian contacts in Prague before the election — allegations that Cohen and the White House have vigorously denied.
Cohen has been tied to the administration’s dealings with Russia in other ways, too. Shortly before NSA head Michael Flynn was fired for lying about his communications with a Russian envoy, Cohen —who has no foreign policy experience or expertise—delivered a memo to Flynn outlining a possible “peace plan” between Russia and Ukraine that, crucially, would also give the administration justification for lifting sanctions on Russia.
Cohen’s dealings landed him on the short list of Trump campaign officials being targeted by congressional investigations. ABC News reported last month that Cohen initially refused to cooperate with the investigation, but has since said he would comply if subpoenaed, which he was earlier this month. On Friday NBC’s Katy Tur reported that Cohen has hired a lawyer of his own, former U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Ryan.
One of Trump’s newest legal hires made his debut on last week’s Sunday talk shows to deliver a full-throated defense of the president after reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the president for obstruction of justice related to his firing of FBI Director James Comey. It did not go well.
In appearances on all four Sunday morning programs, Sekulow denied the president was under investigation, confirmed the president was under investigation, suggested the investigation was a witch hunt, insisted the president wasn’t afraid of the investigation, reiterated the president wasn’t under investigation, and admitted the president might not know whether or not he was the subject of an investigation. He left all four hosts—and millions of viewers at home—bewildered.
Trump’s affinity for Sekulow makes sense, though. As ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser notes, he’s basically the Donald Trump of lawyers.
In most administrations, the toughest job in the White House belongs to the president. But in this administration, where the commander-in-chief is far more likely to be golfing or watching television than reading security briefings, the mantle of workhorse likely falls to Donald McGahn, chief White House counsel. McGahn and his staff are stuck with the unenviable task of defending the administration’s unconstitutional executive orders and illegal procurement of emoluments from multiple lawsuits, many brought by entire states.
McGahn served as general counsel to the Trump campaign before joining the White House, and was a Republican appointee to the FEC before that. During the 2012 election, when Trump first mulled the idea of running for president, it was McGahn who put the kibosh on a possible FEC investigation into the improper use of Trump Organization money to finance campaign activity.
McGahn was also a key player in the Michael Flynn saga. Then acting Attorney General Sally Yates reportedly first aired her concerns about Michael Flynn’s Russia dealings with McGahn, alerting the counsel’s office in two separate meetings that it might be unwise to have an NSA director who could be subjected to blackmail by a foreign government. Yates testified that McGahn’s response was basically “so what?”
Fun Fact! McGahn was a lawyer for Tom DeLay in the early 2000s, defending him after he was indicted for illegally funneling money to a Texas PAC and accepting contributions from — you guessed it! — Russian oil tycoons.
Speaking of Flynn, nobody is of greater interest to investigators than the former NSA director. Flynn’s contact with Russian diplomats before Trump took office is indisputable, but the extent and scope of his conversations are unknown and of particular interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and to the congressional investigation.
In late March, Kelner told CNN that his client “certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” and reportedly offered his client’s cooperation in exchange for immunity.
No such deal has been publicly disclosed, but at least one Democratic lawmaker thinks that Flynn is quietly cooperating with the special counsel’s office in their investigation.
Fun fact! Unlike most lawyers currently in the Trump orbit, Kelner has no loyalities to the first family, and was a vocal #NeverTrump Republican during the campaign.
Finally, a lawyer who has almost nothing to do with Russia*! It’s easy to forget that before the administration found itself neck deep in a Kremlin-sized political scandal, Donald Trump was—and still is—defending himself from accusations he and his family are profiting off of the White House.
To combat those claims, he trotted out Sheri Dillon, a tax lawyer who had previous experience within the Trump empire. Before a throng of television cameras in January, days before the inauguration, Dillon proclaimed that Trump’s business dealings did not violate the constitution’s emoluments clause, and that Trump would be stepping down from all positions within his own company. As if to emphasize the point, she pointed to a huge stack of manilla envelopes on a table beside her. Those unlabled envelopes appeared to contain nothing but blank pieces of paper.
“We believe this structure will serve to accomplish the president-elect’s desire to be isolated from his business and give the American people confidence that his sole interest is in making America great again,” she said at the time. No word on who “we” refers to, because virtually everyone pointed out that, whether or not Trump’s name was listed next to “CEO,” his personal fortune was still directly tied to his businesses.
*Fun Fact! Sheri Dillon and her law firm were named “Russia Law Firm of the Year” in 2016. I did say almost nothing.
Besides Michael Flynn, perhaps nobody is of greater consequence to the Russia investigation than Trump son-in-law/senior adviser/resident mute Jared Kushner. The real estate tycoon’s fingerprints are all over some of the White House’s biggest decisions, including the firing of James Comey.
As of now, Kushner is the only current official within the Trump administration who is being actively investigated in the Russia probe. To help navigate those waters, Kushner retained the services of Jamie Gorelick, a well-respected D.C. lawyer who also represents Ivanka Trump. Gorelick’s involvement surprised and angered many who know her as a strong champion of liberal causes, but she has a long record of defending clients with whom she disagrees politically, dating back to Richard Nixon.
Kushner is reportedly reconsidering his legal team, though not because of Gorelick’s political leanings. According to the New York Times, Gorelick is not known as a criminal trial lawyer, and given Kushner’s role in the Russia scandal, a criminal trial lawyer might be necessary. Abbe Lowell, one of D.C.’s best, is said to be among those approached by Kushner’s team.
Fun Fact! Gorelick has strong ties to the Clinton family, having served as Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton during his first term.
Kushner isn’t the only one seeking out a criminal defense attorney. Vice President Mike Pence joined the parade of administration officials with their own outside counsel last week, announcing that he hired former U.S. Attorney Richard Cullen.
Ironically, despite his prominent role within the administration, Pence’s involvement with the Russia probe is likely more limited than most thanks to the late hour at which he joined the campaign. Paul Manafort, another central figure in the investigation, was instrumental in recruiting Pence to the ticket, but there is no indication that Pence himself is a focus of the special counsel’s office. Yet.
Cullen has served several Republican lawmakers, including George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida recount and former Senator Paul Trible during the Iran-Contra affair.
Fun Fact! Cullen and James Comey once worked together, and Cullen is the godfather for one of Comey’s daughters, according to the Washington Post.
Technically speaking, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the most powerful lawyer in the country. So what does that make Chuck Cooper, the private lawyer hired by Sessions earlier this month?
Cooper reportedly began advising Sessions in the run-up to his June 13 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Though Cooper did confirm he is representing Sessions, he wouldn’t say whether he was hired in relation to the ongoing Russia investigation. Sessions has been drawn into the scandal as well after it was revealed he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice in 2016 and failed to disclose either encounter during his confirmation hearing. A possible third encounter was disclosed by former FBI Director Comey during a closed hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to CNN.
Cooper and Sessions have known one another for decades, since they worked together in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. Cooper also served as an adviser during Sessions’ confirmation hearing earlier this year.
Fun Fact! Cooper was last seen in the national spotlight defending California’s homophobic Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court, while simultaneously planning his stepdaughter’s same-sex wedding.
Graphics by Adam Peck
A brief field guide to all the lawyers hired to defend Donald Trump and his administration was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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