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Is Trump too much of a perjury risk for prospective lawyers?

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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A New York Times report about President Trump's failures to fill out his legal team includes this very interesting section about Trump's recently departed personal lawyer, John Dowd:

One reason Mr. Dowd quit was that, against his advice, Mr. Trump was insistent that he wanted to answer questions under oath from [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III], believing that it would help clear him.
Mr. Dowd had concluded that there was no upside and that the president, who often does not tell the truth, could increase his legal exposure if his answers were not accurate.

This is all very neutrally and cautiously put, but the more simply stated upshot is this: Dowd was worried Trump was about to perjure himself. Whether Dowd left specifically because of that or, more generally, because Trump wouldn't listen to him is kind of beside the point. Dowd apparently had no faith in what would happen if and when Trump talks to Mueller.

Could that be part of the reason Trump is struggling so much to fill out his legal team? There seems to be something going on, given Trump's fruitless entreaties to lawyers including Emmet T. Flood, Joseph E. diGenova, Victoria Toensing, Ted Olson and, most recently, Dan K. Webb.

Below, let's entertain some possibilities:

1. There really are conflicts

This is the reason cited for diGenova and Toensing's aborted hires, along with Olson and Webb deciding not to work for Trump. “They were unable to take on the representation due to business conflicts,” Webb's firm, Winston and Strawn, said in a statement. “However, they consider the opportunity to represent the president to be the highest honor and they sincerely regret that they cannot do so.”

And maybe that's true! But it's also somewhat curious.

It seems an odd coincidence that Trump's legal team just happens to keep reaching out to lawyers who wind up having conflicts — apparently before doing any basic Googling? DiGenova and Toensing, for example, were widely known to be representing another figure in the Russia investigation, Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump's legal team. And while Corallo has been cited as the reason they couldn't represent Trump, Corallo told the Los Angeles Times that he had waived any conflict claims. “There were no conflicts as I could see them,” he said.

Similarly, we don't know exactly which clients constitute Olson's and Webb's supposed conflicts.

2. Working for Trump is thankless

Olson got at this in an interview Monday on MSNBC. “I think everybody would agree: This is turmoil, it's chaos, it's confusion, it's not good for anything,” he said.

He was talking about the White House more broadly rather than Trump's legal team, but Trump's legal drama is just an extension of his administrative drama. And the fact that a guy who just turned Trump down was saying this probably shouldn't escape the White House's notice.

And what lawyer wants to put up with that? It's one thing to represent the president of the United States; it's another to represent someone who doesn't take advice, tweets on a whim, and has proved he may wind up publicly undermining or even firing you.

3. They see what's potentially over the horizon ... and it's bad

Even if it's not necessarily the risk of perjury, perhaps all these lawyers see Trump's legal situation and want no part of it.

They see all the times he has pushed the envelope when it comes to potential obstruction of justice. They've seen Donald Trump Jr. take a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. And they've seen Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and others being leveraged into possibly cooperating against the president's interest.

The lawyer who joins Trump's team will have “the highest honor” of representing the president but will also risk being a part of a team that couldn't save a president. And if they truly believe Trump might perjure himself — as Dowd apparently does — why be the person who joined the case right before the whole thing went up in flames?

Dowd isn't even the only member of Trump's legal team to worry about the prospect of perjury. White House lawyer Ty Cobb a couple months ago publicly said he hoped the Mueller interview wouldn't become a “perjury trap.” Clearly, Trump's existing lawyers are worried about it — and so apparently should anybody else who takes him on as a client.

4. Trump is aiming too high

Olson’s potential hire would have been a game-changer, given how prominent he has been in Washington for decades. Webb would also have been a high-profile addition, as would have Flood. All are significantly more widely known than Dowd and Trump’s current solo personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow.

It’s pretty clear Trump is searching for someone with instant cachet who could recast the image of his (at times seemingly ragtag) legal team. But getting that cream of the crop isn’t always easy.

5. All of the above – or some combination

None of the above is mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are justifiable conflicts that the lawyers don’t care to push too hard to mitigate because they won’t want to work for Trump. Maybe they think Trump is doomed and don’t want to work for him because he’s an awful client. And maybe these just weren’t realistic prospects in the first place.

Whatever the case, it’s been an inauspicious few weeks for the president. You go to war with the team you got, and it’s clear he’s struggling to fortify.

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