Last week, President Trump reacted to a report that he had reached out to a potential new lawyer by denouncing it. “Wrong,” he said. “I am VERY happy with my lawyers.”
To borrow a phrase from Trump, this was fake news. Trump hasn't hired the lawyer he was allegedly pursuing, Emmet Flood, but since the above tweet, he has hired another lawyer (Joe diGenova), unsuccessfully attempted to hire a second (Ted Olson), and now his personal lawyer John Dowd has resigned — with more changes possible in the days ahead.
Trump's tweet suggested changing things up would signal unhappiness, and he has now repeatedly changed things up (or tried to) and parted ways with one of the three lawyers he said he was happy with. The inescapable conclusion, based on Trump's own words: He's unhappy with his representation, and something is amiss.
And the current shake-up is perhaps a fitting crescendo for a legal team that often appeared to be as unwieldy and error-prone as its boss. Dowd's departure, in particular, underlines the discord playing out behind the scenes with Trump's legal team nearly a year into special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation. He is Trump's lead personal lawyer for an inquiry that seems to be entering something amounting to its final stages, after all, and now he's out.
DiGenova's hiring appeared to be presage Dowd's exit, as The Washington Post previewed this week:
The hiring of diGenova on Monday, first reported by the New York Times, infuriated Dowd, who responded angrily to the development, according to people familiar with his reaction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal details. Dowd views diGenova as pushing him to be the second chair rather than top dog on Trump’s legal team, these people said. But Dowd said in an email to a Post reporter that he’s perfectly happy with the new addition: “Love Joe.”
Dowd, however, has lost the confidence of many in the president’s orbit, both inside and outside the White House. ... One outside adviser described Dowd as “the weakest link” in the team.
Dowd's last major public act as Trump's attorney this past weekend described the disconnect. Dowd told the Daily Beast on Saturday morning that Mueller should shutter his investigation. After initially saying he was speaking on Trump's behalf, he later clarified that he was speaking for himself. After his departure Thursday, Trump's other longtime personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, seemed to take a dig at what Dowd had said. “John has been a valuable part of the team and a friend,” Sekulow said, adding: “We will continue to cooperate fully with the special counsel.”
In December, Dowd also took the fall for an errant tweet sent from Trump's account suggesting that Trump had known that then-national security adviser Michael T. Flynn lied to the FBI when Trump fired him. That timeline risked furthering the idea that Trump had obstructed justice, given Trump pleaded for the FBI's lenience with Flynn shortly after his exit.
And there are myriad other examples of Trump's lawyers doing and saying controversial or questionable things, especially when you lump in everything Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been involved in. (Remember the time Dowd and Ty Cobb were overheard by a New York Times reporter discussing the case at a Washington restaurant?) And Dowd isn't even the first Trump lawyer to depart the case — the first was Marc Kasowitz — and he probably won't be the last, with Cobb apparently on some thin ice.
The totality of it suggests that Trump senses trouble, that he can't attract top talent such as Olson or that he's a completely unmanageable client — or some combination of the three. The New York Times is reporting Thursday that Dowd grew increasingly frustrated by having his advice ignored. That seems to be going around.
And things may get messier before they get cleaner. While Sekulow's comments suggest a post-Dowd team may be more cooperative with Mueller, diGenova has been spinning conspiracy theories for months on cable news about the “deep state” trying to take down Trump. So it's not as though Trump has suddenly seen the light and is signaling a clear change for a legal team that has been riven by strategic divisions before.
And if the Trump White House has shown us anything, it's that change often leads to more chaos.