Early last year, in the midst of his primary campaign, Donald Trump hopped on a stage in Reno, Nev., to brag about his vast legal knowledge.
“Does anyone know more about litigation than Trump?” he bellowed. “Okay? I know a lot. I’m like a PhD in litigation.”
At the very least, in his long life of lawsuits and bankruptcies, deals and developments, Trump certainly has known a lot of lawyers. Now that he’s president and embroiled in scandal, he’s getting the opportunity to meet a bunch more.
The White House has its own counsel, of course, and now Trump has his own personal attorneys. So does the Trump Organization. There are lawyers for each member of the Trump family. And that’s not counting the layers of lawyers for everyone working in the administration. There are lawyers all the way down.
Follow the money, the adage says. But with so much of that money going to lawyers these days, it might just be easier to follow the lawyers. (Legal disclaimer: Don’t actually follow the lawyers.)
Trump promised to drain the unsavory elements out of politics, but long before the public ever loathed entrenched politicians, corrupt lobbyists or biased news media, they hated lawyers. Trump hated them, too, early on.
“I don’t like lawyers,” the young developer told the Machiavellian super-attorney Roy Cohn in 1973, according to his own account in his book “Trump: The Art of the Deal.” He elaborated: “I think all they do is delay deals. . . . Every answer they give you is no, and they are always looking to settle instead of fight.”
At the time, Trump was in the thick of his first real scandal, as the Justice Department sued him and his father over alleged racial bias in the way they operated their housing developments. When Cohn proposed a countersuit, arguing that the best defense was a good offense, Trump gave him the job. Cohn, who once served as red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer, was a cutthroat operator, once described by Esquire as “the toughest, meanest, loyalest, vilest, and one of the most brilliant lawyers in America.”
Trump had finally found a lawyer he liked.
Over the years, attorneys would play a bigger and bigger role in Trump’s life, and Cohn’s never-back-down strategy would become his mantra. There were the divorce negotiations (the first of which Cohn reportedly brokered wearing nothing but a bathrobe), the six bankruptcies of Trump companies, and the many, many lawsuits. (An investigation last year by USA Today found that over the past three decades Trump has been a party to more than 4,000 of them.) Sometimes it could feel as if Trump was as much a litigation maestro as a real estate mogul.
“When we first started doing deals, he’d read everything,” Jonathan A. Bernstein, a former attorney for one of the Trump Organization’s top law firms, Dreyer and Traub, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “When he got busy and trusted more, he read less and less and let the lawyers be the lawyers.”
Thomas M. Wells, a lawyer brought on to help Trump try to build the largest building in northern New Jersey (the deal collapsed), said that watching the president operate today has given him flashbacks to working with him in the 1980s.
“None of this should be surprising,” he said. “He used lawyers a great deal, but I don’t think he had a high regard for them. He’s a man who uses the law to his own ends in any way that makes sense for him.”
Like a plot out of the movie “Multiplicity,” many of Trump’s lawyers seem like less effective clones of Cohn.
“All in all, a cozy bunch of backstabbing cutthroats,” Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive, said about the lawyers that made up the company. “Nothing less than you would expect.”
In time came Michael Cohen, once known as “Trump’s pit bull,” who worked for the Trump Organization and who once warned a reporter at the Daily Beast to “tread very f---ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f---ing disgusting.” (Cohen recently hired his own lawyer to help him navigate the Russia investigation.) There was Marc Kasowitz, who until recently was heading up the outside legal response to the Russia investigation, and who recently responded via email to a critic by telling him to “watch [his] back, bitch.”
Now, Trump has hired a mustachioed prosecutor named Ty Cobb to come to the White House, and while Cobb may lack his namesake’s hitting ability, he’s equally colorful.
“If the president asks you, you don’t say no,” Cobb told the National Law Journal about his recent decision to come on board.” I have rocks in my head and steel balls.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the lawyers and what they do. There’s Jay Sekulow, the former lead attorney for Jews for Jesus and a radio talk-show personality, who represents Trump personally. There’s Don McGahn, the former Federal Election Commission member and bar band guitarist, who represents the office of the presidency.
After it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, the president’s son hired two of his own lawyers, Alan Futerfas and Karina Lynch, to help him through the mess.
Normally, a D.C. scandal is a gold mine for white-shoe law firms, for people who don’t blush when they’re referred to as “the smartest man in Washington.” In this case, several top law firms turned down the opportunity to represent Trump as the Russia investigation plays out. One exception: Abbe Lowell, the famed fixer and one of the “smartest men in Washington,” joined Jared Kushner’s legal team last month and this week expanded his portfolio to include Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump.
“I think this is the most lawyered administration, at least within the first few months, I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” said David Lat, a lawyer who maintains the Above the Law blog. “It’s astounding.”
That really is saying something, considering Lat’s lifetime included the era of Kenneth W. Starr, Lanny Davis and William H. Ginsburg. Back when Ginsburg, then Monica Lewinsky’s attorney, went on all five Sunday news-punditry shows, his feat was of such note that to this day it’s still called “the Full Ginsburg.” If it happened today with Sekulow, a near-constant television presence, it’s possible that no one would notice.
The lawyers are everywhere, but it’s not entirely clear that Trump or his family are interested at all in taking advice. What lawyer worth his double malt would let the president tweet about why he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, or allow Don Jr. to release his emails regarding his desire to get some Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton?
“It’s utter chaos,” a lawyer who has worked with many of Trump’s lawyers said. “Sometimes it can be like no one knows who is in charge.”
Really, it’s clear that there is just one person in charge: Donald Trump. And Trump is many things, but he’s no lawyer.
Drew Harwell contributed to this report.