What do you do if you want to gird for war but all of your potential generals are running from the battlefield? That appears to be the situation right now with President Trump’s legal team. And whether he realizes it or not, that is placing him in perhaps the greatest legal jeopardy of his presidency.
Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd recently stepped aside, reportedly frustrated that the president refused to follow his advice. Trump quickly moved to replace him with Joseph diGenova, a combative former U.S. attorney recently known for saying on Fox News that a deep-state conspiracy has tried to take down the president. With diGenova coming on board, it appeared that the president was ready to take a much more aggressive posture toward the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
But diGenova lasted only a few days — or, as they say in D.C., less than half a Scaramucci — before the White House announced that he would not be retained after all. In the meantime, a number of highly regarded defense attorneys, including former solicitor general Ted Olson and former Chicago U.S. attorney Dan Webb, reportedly have responded, “Thanks but no thanks,” when asked to join the president’s legal team.
The president tweeted that this is all fake news: “Many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case,” and a lawyer would never turn down the “fame and fortune” that would come with being on his team, he said. But fame and fortune aside, it doesn’t appear that experienced white-collar talent is beating down the White House door for the job.
In a typical administration, top attorneys would consider it a dream to represent a U.S. president in such a high-profile investigation. But it’s easy to see why those same lawyers might take a pass now. Everything we know about Trump suggests he is an exceptionally difficult client, and stepping into the current White House chaos is not an attractive prospect. Frequent reports suggest that Trump believes he is his own best lawyer. No prominent attorney wants to advise the president on a course of action and then see that advice publicly disregarded (and perhaps ridiculed on Twitter) while White House staffers leak about Trump’s dissatisfaction. Many might consider the case radioactive, concerned about how other clients or other lawyers in their firm would react. And then, of course, there’s Trump’s alleged habit of not paying his bills.
The lack of experienced legal counsel is a serious problem for Trump. The Mueller investigation is approaching a critical stage in which investigators will soon seek to question the president himself. Mueller and his team are some of the best in the business. The president needs top-notch legal talent to guide him through these shoals, not someone who will merely reinforce his combative instincts.
It’s been reported that Dowd advised the president not to agree to an interview and that Trump didn’t like that advice. If that’s true, then Dowd was echoing what many experienced defense lawyers would say, given the serious legal jeopardy that Trump could face in such an interview. If the president replaces Dowd with someone who will simply tell Trump what he wants to hear — that he can take on Mueller just fine — the outcome for Trump could be disastrous.
Critics on Twitter may find the president’s legal roulette amusing. But this situation isn’t just bad for the president — it’s bad for the investigation as a whole and thus bad for the country. Justice is better served if the president has an experienced advocate in his corner. Even prosecutors would far prefer to have a skilled defense attorney on the other side than someone who is not really up to the task. It makes it easier to reach a prompt and just resolution when the advocates on both sides know what they are doing.
The bench of attorneys with the skill and expertise to represent a U.S. president in an investigation like this is not very deep. Trump really needs to find a first-stringer to jump into the game — even if just as a public service. The president is facing the legal equivalent of heading into the NCAA Final Four as the head coach of a local high school basketball team. If that happens, the results will not be pretty.