The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s lawyers just can’t stop stepping in it

With White House Counsel Donald McGahn's departure, President Trump's large and ever-changing legal team is thrown into turmoil once again. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Update: And the hits keep coming. We learned earlier this week that Jared Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, exchanged emails with the same prankster as Ty Cobb. And CNN's Jake Tapper is now reporting that Lowell has accidentally sent the prankster a letter from the Senate Intelligence Committee expressing concern over Kushner's use of a private email account for official business.

The below post, which recaps the foibles of other White House lawyers, is from last week.

They say a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. President Trump isn't representing himself, but sometimes it feels like he has a bunch of Donald Trumps on retainer.

While lawyers generally operate behind the scenes and try to keep their public comments limited and calculated, Trump's lawyers have routinely done things outside the norm or revealed more than they perhaps should have. They've gotten into spats with reporters and trolls, disclosed internal business and, most notably, discussed the Russia investigation within earshot of a New York Times reporter.

The New York Times reported a couple weeks back that they had overheard a conversation between Trump lawyers Ty Cobb and John Dowd at Washington's popular BLT Steak restaurant, which is both near the White House and very close to the Times's Washington bureau. Oops.

Cobb and Dowd weren't discussing anything particularly damning, it would seem, but Cobb did chew over some of his differences with White House counsel Don McGahn over how to handle the Russia probe. Cobb apparently wants more disclosure faster in the name of getting a speedy resolution; McGahn is more circumspect about forfeiting the White House's prerogatives. Cobb also suggested another Trump lawyer was a “McGahn spy” and said McGahn had a “couple documents locked in a safe” that Cobb wanted access to.

When word reached McGahn that the Times had been able to eavesdrop on this conversation, he reportedly “erupted” at Cobb, and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly admonished Cobb over the indiscretion.

And understandably so. Whatever Cobb and Dowd were discussing, the fact that they were doing it in public would seem to be a pretty serious breach not just of good sense, but possibly of attorney-client privilege. Imagine if this conversation wound up being consequential in the scheme of the Russia investigation. The fact that it even happened — New York Times reporter or no New York Times reporter — is astounding.

But against the broader backdrop of what Trump's lawyers have been doing and saying publicly, it is far less surprising.

A quick recap:

Trump seems to have assembled a legal team that mirrors his own combative style and at-times-unhelpful tendency to spout off in public and/or create unnecessary problems.

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Are the lawyers acting like this because the White House as a whole plays it so fast and loose? Or were they selected because most established lawyers wouldn't take on such a challenging client? I've said before that being Trump's lawyer may be the second-worst job in Washington — behind being his spokesman — but while some of the team is perhaps a bit more random, Cobb has an extensive pedigree. And this is both the president of the United States and a billionaire; you'd expect him to have the best of the best.

There may be a third contributing factor here: Maybe the job is just so stressful that it lends itself to lashing out and lapses in judgment. But the stakes are so enormous that it's hard to see how this has happened so many times.

Kelly may have instilled some discipline in the White House staff, but those who we might expect to be the most disciplined — the lawyers — have proved anything but.