The young assistants in the back seat were stressing as the black car pulled up to the curb outside the CNN studios near Capitol Hill.
“We’re literally going to have to run!” one said to the man in the front passenger seat.
But Lanny Davis wasn’t flustered. He had his talking points down. On his way to his 20th interview of the day — or was it the 23rd or 25th? — the veteran Washington spin maestro wasn’t checking notes. He was making small talk with the driver, telling stories about his four kids, who range in age from 13 to 50, and six grandchildren.
On this day-long journey, the assistants had been tossing their heels into oversize bags and racing ahead of him in flats. But Davis, 72, moved at his own steady pace in a loosefitting tan suit and slip-on loafers. His friend, criminal defense lawyer Dan Webb, says that Davis is adept at “dominating reporters,” and right now, he’s dominating the airwaves — splashed across cable news screens on what feels like a continuous loop to weave a sympathetic narrative about his client, Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney to President Trump and currently the most dangerous man in America for a scandal-riddled White House.
When Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday in a federal tax and campaign finance case, he directly implicated an unnamed presidential candidate in a plot to pay hush money to two women who said they’d had affairs with the candidate. It fell to Davis to state the obvious, then restate it and restate it: That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.
For Davis, the whole mess represents an only-in-Washington opportunity. For much of his adult life, he has fashioned himself as a Clinton warrior, serving as White House counsel during Bill’s early crises and as a surrogate for Hillary’s presidential campaigns. In February, Hillary Clinton attended a party celebrating the release of Davis’s book “The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency.” Now he has been handed a chance to help vanquish the man who defeated her in 2016, the man who led his rally crowds to chant “lock her up.”
Davis won’t call what he’s doing now “revenge.” He’s the framer of stories, after all, and he’s got an alternative for this one.
“It’s about having young children and being frightened to have a president this unhinged,” he said while driving his Infiniti home after a 16-hour day of interviews. “I saw it as an opportunity not to bring Trump down but to offer people hope that you could fight back.”
His unlikely alliance with an erstwhile Trump uber-loyalist began in mid-June when the phone rang late one night at the Potomac, Md., home he shares with his wife, youngest son, two rescue cats and two rescue dogs — a beagle and an "unadoptable terrier." (At times, he says, they've had up to seven rescue cats.) The caller introduced himself as Michael Cohen, Davis recalls.
“The Michael Cohen?” Davis said.
Cohen laughed. “Yes, are you the Lanny Davis?”
Davis says a mutual friend he has sworn not to name connected them. Davis adds that he opted not to consult the Clintons about whether to represent Cohen because it would be awkward if they objected.
(There was another possible complication: In 2015, Davis represented the parent company of the National Enquirer as the Associated Press investigated whether the tabloid paid a man who promised information about Trump fathering a love child for the rights to his story — but then never published his claims, a technique known as “catch and kill.” The Enquirer denied suppressing the story, and the AP didn’t publish its investigation until months later. Davis says he spent only a day on the project and did not have contact with Cohen for it. Cohen did not view it as an impediment to Davis representing him, Davis said.)
For two weeks after his first contact with Cohen, Davis says, he quizzed the former Trump fixer about his motivations over several late-night conversations. When Davis traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for his youngest son’s baseball tournament, he repaired to his hotel bathroom for hours at a time so he could talk to Cohen without waking his wife. Propped on the edge of the bathtub, Davis says, he learned that Cohen was troubled about Trump’s dismissal of U.S. intelligence assessments that Russians interfered with the 2016 election and bothered by the president’s criticism of the FBI.
“Over a period of time, I came to really like him as an imperfect, but sincere, person,” Davis said.
The two men bonded despite wildly differently styles. Cohen is the profane bruiser known for his caustic off-the-record threats and attempts to bully journalists on behalf of Trump. Davis, the relentless networker, deploys a soft touch, courting and confiding in reporters behind the scenes. On his whirlwind jaunt through the corridors of Fox, CNN and MSNBC on Wednesday, Davis — the father of sportscaster Seth Davis — stopped again and again to schmooze reporters and producers.
When Davis took on Cohen as a client, their first order of business was arranging the particulars for a blockbuster interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. They toyed with doing it on Independence Day to signal what an act of independence it was for Cohen. Ultimately, they concluded the idea was “tacky”; the ABC piece popped July 2.
Davis says they made the unusual decision to not have Cohen appear on camera because he hadn’t yet had time to prep Cohen on the dos and don’ts of television. Still, the written story about the interview — which appeared on ABC’s website along with a photo of Cohen talking to Stephanopoulos — sent shock waves. It established that Cohen was willing to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia interference probe and with New York prosecutors looking into other Trump matters.
It wasn’t until later that Davis went to New York for his first face-to-face get-together with Cohen, he says. On the Acela, he was working his phone, trying to fend off a firestorm — another TV report in the works that Cohen feared would suggest he’d signed a consulting contract with a drug company to “provide access” to the Trump administration. (Cohen insisted that he’d crossed out the part about providing access.)
Davis was desperate for privacy: In 2015, reporters in his train car overheard him loudly dissing several Clinton rivals, calling Bernie Sanders a “nut” on gun issues and Joe Biden a “buffoon.” So this time, he slipped into the restroom to call Cohen’s criminal attorney, Guy Petrillo.
“It’s going to be a nasty story,” Davis told Petrillo. “We can’t ‘no comment’ this.”
When he emerged from the bathroom 20 minutes later, a woman was staring at him with some concern, he says.
“I’ve had a little indigestion,” Davis told her.
Davis is an attorney, but in the Cohen case, he focuses on massaging the media and leaves the courtroom activities to the taciturn Petrillo. It's a business model that allows Davis to claim attorney-client privilege, unlike public relations flacks who aren't lawyers.
“That’s a major benefit,” says Webb, who has teamed with Davis to represent Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who is fighting attempts to extradite him to the United States on bribery charges.
Davis says he sees himself as a bridge between lawyers who are hard-wired not to disclose information and reporters who demand it. For all the goodwill he has built up in Washington, straddling that line can lead to tensions.
“I’ve been accused of being oversensitive to criticism,” Davis said. Still, he offers without prompting that when he worked in the Bill Clinton White House, colleagues used to joke that he was a “walking conflict of interest,” Davis said.
Recently, there has been friction with journalists who asked Davis about reports that Cohen was willing to testify that Trump knew in advance that his son Donald Trump Jr. would be seeking dirt about Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer in a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.
Davis says he told journalists: “I can only tell you that you have to confirm that, but you cannot get that from me.” Some journalists interpreted that statement as a tacit way of saying they were on the right track. Later, there were hard feelings when Cohen seemed to dispute the reports.
“Does it come out like a wink and a nod?” Davis said, reflecting on his interactions with reporters about the topic. “That’s the danger.”
Davis doesn’t miss a beat when asked about the Firtash case, unhesitatingly calling the Ukrainian “an honest oligarch!”
“People don’t come to me with great news,” he says. “They come to me with troubles.”
He advised Martha Stewart during her stock manipulation maelstrom, Alex Rodriguez in his fight over a suspension from baseball for using banned substances, and Penn State amid the fallout over former football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sex abuse scandal. And when Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder needed help managing the hubbub over the team’s name and a defamation lawsuit against Washington City Paper, he turned to Davis, too.
Though a player in Democratic politics, Davis also managed to infuriate democracy advocates by accepting a $1 million contract in 2010 to represent Equatorial Guinea, an African nation with an appalling human rights record, and a $100,000-a-month retainer to represent Ivory Coast, then on the brink of a civil war.
“I took on a couple bad-guy countries that I thought I could make into good-guy countries,” he says.
Davis wasn’t always a spin doctor, and he’s sensitive about suggestions he’s not a “real” lawyer. In 46 years, he says, he’s spent most of his time in court or arguing before regulatory authorities. But in an interview, he had to be asked three times before acknowledging the last time he represented a client in court: a “couple years ago.”
In the 1970s, the Jersey City native twice ran for Congress without success in Montgomery County, Md., and later had an ill-fated adventure owning a suburban Washington newspaper that he says nearly bankrupted him. He’s been a partner at two of the city’s most prestigious law firms, Arnold & Porter and Squire Patton Boggs. But Davis is best known for his longtime relationship with the Clintons. He’s been friends with Hillary Clinton since his days at Yale Law. Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, says Davis was brought on to handle the “BL scandals” — Before Lewinsky.
“Lanny has got admirers and detractors, of course, but I love the guy,” McCurry wrote in an email. “Lanny likes to quote me saying something to the effect of ‘McCurry told me my job was to take all the crap he was getting and figure out how to flush it.’ ” The line is “too good to check,” McCurry adds, “and pretty much true.”
Davis gleefully recounts how he strategically leaked stories about Clinton rewarding big campaign donors with overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom; by the time Congress got around to holding hearings, the media had wearied of the story line, he says.
The Lewinsky scandal, in which Bill Clinton eventually had to admit to sexual contact with a White House intern, broke after Davis left the White House. He swung into action as a volunteer television talker in support of his old boss. Steeled by that experience, Davis has been treading carefully around the sexual imbroglio engulfing the current president. Cohen has said Trump was aware of payoffs to silence the porn actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal about their allegations of affairs with Trump in advance of the 2016 election. Trump has denied the affairs.
Interviewers have tried to draw Davis into a discussion of Trump’s sex life, but he has demurred. The key thing, he says, is Cohen’s admission of a crime and willingness to implicate Trump. So “if I get into a discussion of Donald Trump’s sex life with Wolf Blitzer, I’ve just trivialized all of this.”
On Wednesday, he walked off Blitzer’s CNN “Situation Room” set and flashed a thumbs-up sign to his staffers. There’d been no sex-life talk, and Davis was pleased that he’d kept smiling even while facing questions he says he can’t answer, such as whether Cohen has been interviewed by Mueller. Davis just delivered his lines in his usual matter-of-fact, Jersey-inflected tones, sounding more like an undertaker at a small-town funeral than a capital city screecher.
“You know who taught me that? Sean Hannity,” he says, name-dropping the Fox News star. “We’re friends. We have dinner.”
Blitzer wandered into the green room to show off a photo of himself interviewing Davis, his hair much darker then, during the Clinton scandals. And as Davis chitchatted with the next hour’s producers — all mic’d-up and ready to repeat what he’d been saying all day, but this time to Anderson Cooper — he had one favor to ask: “Would you mind telling Anderson I would like to say a personal hello? We went to the same university in New Haven.”