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Jay Sekulow, Trump’s unlikely lawyer

Jay Sekulow, a member of President Trump’s legal team, repeatedly says that Trump isn’t under investigation by the special counsel. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Jay Sekulow had a hectic day Sunday, bouncing from one news show to another to beat back reports that President Trump was under investigation for obstruction of justice.

In a media blitz through four networks, Sekulow, a new member of Trump’s legal team, repeatedly insisted that there was no such probe — an assertion at odds with stories published last week in The Washington Post and elsewhere — only to concede later that he doesn’t know for sure. At one point he flatly contradicted himself on “Fox News Sunday,” in a stumble that host Chris Wallace, a seasoned TV interrogator, seized upon for maximum effect.

Trump lawyer insists there is no obstruction investigation — but then hedges

All told, Sekulow came off a bit like a Washington novice, which he’s definitely not. His face and his name are well known in the nation’s capital and among conservatives generally — but not for this kind of work. He’s an experienced litigator on behalf of conservative causes, especially causes dear to the religious right. White-collar defense lawyers, particularly those who defend political figures, form a small community in Washington, and Sekulow is not part of it.

Sekulow made his first big Washington debut in 1987 in the Supreme Court when he helped the evangelical group Jews for Jesus defeat a measure that banned the distribution of religious literature at Los Angeles International Airport.

His performance was unimpressive, American Lawyer magazine wrote at the time. Sekulow was “rude and aggressive,” the publication wrote, “so nervous that at times he appeared nearly out of control.”

Fortunately for Sekulow, it was an easy case to win. The ordinance barred “First Amendment activity” at the airport, presenting clear constitutional problems. And win Sekulow did — in a unanimous decision striking down the measure.

“I left the courtroom feeling like the Beatles must have felt leaving Shea Stadium,” he wrote in 2005.

The victory turned Sekulow, a self-described Messianic Jew, into a crusader for religious expression and a celebrity on the Christian right, a status that has only grown since then. Over three decades, he built a legal and media empire by representing religious groups, antiabortion advocates and other conservative organizations in high-profile court battles.

In 1991, he became chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson to rival the American Civil Liberties Union and advocate for evangelical causes. He has appeared before the Supreme Court on 11 other occasions and has filed numerous amicus briefs in cases related to civil liberties.

Like so many other people in Trump’s orbit, he hosts a widely syndicated daily radio talk show with millions of listeners, and is a regular guest on Fox News Channel, “The 700 Club” and Sean Hannity’s radio show, where he weighs in on legal issues.

Recently, about 30 years after his humble beginning in the Supreme Court, he agreed to take on the client of a lifetime: the president of the United States.

It was an unusual move for Sekulow, 61.

He has virtually no experience in law enforcement investigations or white-collar matters, unlike his main counterparts on the legal team representing Trump in the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and, now, possible obstruction of justice by the president. Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s personal attorney, has long represented clients facing investigations, and John Dowd, another new addition to the team, is renowned for defending politicians and other public figures in white-collar cases.

Nevertheless, it was Sekulow who entered the fray this weekend to defend Trump.

The exchanges with hosts on CNN, NBC and Fox News Channel were tense and combative, with Sekulow’s inner litigator and conservative media bravado on full display.

In the heated interview on “Fox News Sunday,” he first asserted that Trump was not being investigated.

Then Wallace pressed him about what Trump meant when he tweeted Friday, “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!”

“He’s being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and the deputy attorney general recommended him to take, by the agency that recommended he take the action. That’s the constitutional threshold issue,” Sekulow said.

Wallace went in for the kill. He pointed out that Sekulow, now saying the president was “being investigated,” appeared to have changed his answer.

That’s when Sekulow grew frustrated.

“I don’t appreciate you putting words in my mouth when I’ve been crystal clear that the president is not and has not been under investigation,” he said.

“But you don’t know that he’s not under investigation again, sir?” Wallace responded.

“You’re right, Chris. I cannot read the mind of the special prosecutor,” Sekulow shot back.

The makeup of the Trump team, specifically its inexperience with the unique challenges of high-level Washington probes, became a target of ridicule last week from Trump critics, which only increased with the appearance of Sekulow.

“The point here is not that he’s some kind of fringe crackpot,” MSNBC’s Steve Benen wrote of Sekulow.

“Rather, the point is there’s a sizable gap between Sekulow’s decades of work on religious and social issues,” Benen said. “When thinking of the kind of lawyers Trump should seek for this crisis, Sekulow’s name wouldn’t come to mind — not because he’s ridiculous, because he’s not that kind of attorney.”

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo seemed to agree, writing, “this just isn’t his line of work.”

“I’m not saying Sekulow is a joke. He’s not,” Marshall wrote. “There is literally nothing in Sekulow’s professional background (other than perhaps simply having a law degree) which would suit him to the very specific legal task of defending a sitting president from legal jeopardy.”

Sekulow did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Sunday night.

Few attorneys have ever handled the investigation of a president. What Sekulow — or anyone, for that matter — may lack in proven skills tailored to the task at hand, he may make up for in loyalty to Trump. Perhaps that’s among the reasons Trump hired him.

As accusations against Trump have ballooned over the past few months, Sekulow has stood up for the president and inveighed against the perceived enemies of the White House on his radio show, in television appearances and on his website.

Using language popular on the political far right, he has warned repeatedly of a “deep state bureaucracy” out to sabotage the presidency and a “shadow government” led by none other than former FBI director James B. Comey, whom Trump fired last month.

In May, Sekulow dismissed the Russia scandal as “a fraud on the American people.” He said on his radio show: “The Washington Post and the New York Times love it. There’s only one thing missing: facts.”

After Comey’s closely watched testimony before the Senate earlier this month, Sekulow called the former FBI director the “leaker in chief” and said he should face charges. In an appearance on Hannity’s show, he said: “This is the complete collapse of James B. Comey and the Comey narrative about this case. It’s over. There is no case there.”

The same day, on his radio show, Sekulow addressed what were then rumors about his role on the legal team, saying he was happy to help defend against an “attack on the presidency.”

“If the president of the United States asks you for legal advice and you’re a lawyer and you’re serving your country and the Constitution, you do it,” Sekulow said. “This was an opportunity that opened up and we wanted to take advantage of it in order to make sure the Constitution is fulfilled. This is an attack on the presidency. That’s what this is.”

He added that he was fulfilling a sort of commitment to his audience as well.

“A lot of you have been asking to have a voice on this,” he said. “Well, you do.”