Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of a dozen-plus lawyers and investigators have proven stealthy in their wide-ranging Russia probe. They have surprised the White House with one indictment after another, and summoned President Trump’s confidants for lengthy interviews. In the case of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort alone, court filings show, they have collected more than 400,000 documents and 36 electronic devices.
Mueller and his deputies are, in the fearful word of some Trump loyalists, “killers.”
Trump’s response, by contrast, is being directed by John M. Dowd, the president’s personal lawyer retired from a large firm who works essentially as a one-man band, and Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer who works out of a small office in the West Wing basement, near the cafeteria where staffers get lunch.
Dowd and Cobb, along with attorney Jay Sekulow, serve not only as Trump’s lawyers but also as his strategists, publicists, therapists and — based on Dowd’s claim that he wrote a controversial presidential tweet — ghostwriters.
When Mueller requests documents, they provide them. When Trump reacts to new twists in the Russia saga, they seek to calm him down. When he has questions about the law, such as the Logan Act or Magnitsky Act, they explain it. And when the president frets that Mueller may be getting too close to him, they assure him he has done nothing wrong, urge him to resist attacking the special counsel and insist that the investigation is wrapping up — first, they said, by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas and now by early next year.
As lawyers for the world’s highest-profile client, Dowd and Cobb have come under scrutiny for their every move and utterance — and the criticism has been harsh.
Many in the Washington legal community chide them as being indiscreet, error-prone and outmatched. They say public blunders — such as Dowd and Cobb casually chatting about their legal strategy on the patio of a downtown Washington steakhouse in September within earshot of a reporter — suggest a lack of discipline.
Critics also question why, seven months into Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, they have not assembled a battalion of lawyers as President Bill Clinton had when he was being investigated by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. And some Trump loyalists, spoiling for a fight, say the president’s lawyers should be combative rather than cooperative with Mueller.
“There certainly have been gaffes,” said Alan Dershowitz, a criminal defense attorney and Harvard Law School professor who has won praise from Trump for his television appearances defending a president’s constitutional prerogative to fire his FBI director.
“These are not the kinds of things that one would expect from the most powerful man in America, who has a choice of anybody to be his defense counsel,” Dershowitz said. “Well — almost anybody,” he added, saying that he is not interested in the job.
This portrait of Trump’s legal team and defense strategy is based on interviews with more than two dozen White House officials, lawyers and other people connected to the Russia probe, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The chorus of criticism may be growing louder, but Trump is not singing along. By most accounts, the president is satisfied with his representation — and talks to Cobb several times a day — though advisers say he has occasionally discussed bringing on new lawyers.
Trump, 71, connects with Dowd, 76, and Cobb, in his mid-60s, as contemporaries. He appreciates their no-nonsense old-school style, and likes that neither appears on television, believing their absence from the airwaves deprives what he calls the Russia “witch hunt” of oxygen, according to Trump’s advisers.
A former Marine Corps captain, Dowd has a gruff demeanor and has proven able at times to cool Trump’s temper and convince him of the virtues of pragmatism over pugnacity, aides said.
Some Trump advisers dismiss Cobb’s predictions that the Mueller probe is nearing its conclusions as misleading happy talk, but the president has internalized it as reality. One reason for Trump’s faith is his belief that his lawyers are plugged in. Cobb tells him he is in frequent, and sometimes daily, contact with the special counsel’s office, according to people familiar with the dynamic.
Over Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump boasted to friends that Cobb was “brilliant” and that he was certain Mueller would soon exonerate him.
Cobb declined to comment, and Dowd responded to an email inquiry with two words: “No, thanks.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president is happy with his legal team.”
Cobb works as a White House lawyer whose salary is paid by the government, and his duty is to the office of the presidency, whereas Dowd and Sekulow are employed by Trump and represent him personally. Dowd and Sekulow enjoy attorney-client privilege, but Cobb does not — meaning that Mueller could seek access to Cobb’s notes or ask to interview him about his interactions with the president.
Mark Corallo, a Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, served as spokesman for Trump’s legal team earlier this year. Corallo is no longer involved, but he praised Dowd and Cobb as “titans.”
“They’ve been at the top of their profession and were on the shortlist of the top 10 attorneys you would call if you got your knickers in a twist,” Corallo said. He added, “One thing I like is Cobb and Dowd are of the same generation as the president. They are contemporaries. There is a comfort that comes with being able to talk with somebody who shares your experience in the world.”
Still, there have been moments of tension. Last Tuesday, anxiety ran high early in the morning because of a report out of Germany that Mueller’s office had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for records related to the transactions of Trump and people close to him.
Trump was unnerved, but his lawyers tried to soothe his irritation and scrambled to determine whether the report was accurate, aware that if Mueller were digging into Trump’s finances, he would be crossing a red line the president had publicly set, according to three people familiar with the discussions. After the lawyers consulted with the special counsel’s office, Sekulow issued a statement that afternoon saying that Trump’s team had confirmed there was no subpoena for Trump’s records.
The Trump administration’s key people in the Russia investigation — including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner — are represented by different attorneys. But some of the various lawyers, along with Dowd and Cobb, cooperate by sharing information on regular conference calls about questions their clients have been asked and documents they have turned over.
Witnesses in Mueller’s probe and their lawyers have reported back to Cobb and Dowd that the special counsel’s team has asked detailed questions about Trump’s May firing of James B. Comey as FBI director, leading them to believe that Mueller may be gathering evidence of obstruction of justice, according to one witness.
But Cobb and Dowd have told Trump he has no vulnerability, officials said. Dowd went so far as to posit last week to Axios that a president cannot obstruct justice because of his constitutional powers as the chief law enforcement officer — an interpretation that was mocked by some legal scholars.
On Dec. 2, Trump tweeted that he fired Michael Flynn as national security adviser in part because he had lied to the FBI — an admission that could become evidence in an obstruction investigation. Dowd claimed he drafted the tweet, and fellow lawyers privately said they could not believe a statement so careless was written not by the impulsive president but by his lawyer.
One of Trump’s advisers told the president that weekend: “The first job of a lawyer is to shut up. The second job of a lawyer is to keep their client’s mouth shut. I don’t know why they’re tweeting and talking and trying to explain the tweet,” according to someone with knowledge of the conversation.
People close to the Trump legal team argue that additional lawyers could result in a more proactive and careful approach. “It’s amazing the stress and magnitude of representing the president of the United States,” said one person familiar with the inner workings. “You’d have to be super human to do it alone. You’ve got 16 of the best lawyers in the country going up against you.”
For Trump, being under the glare of a legal investigation is familiar territory. A real estate developer and reality-television star before becoming a politician, he has spent much of his professional life enmeshed in litigation.
When Mueller’s Russia investigation began in May, Trump hired as his lead attorney Marc Kasowitz, a litigator from New York with a brawler reputation who had represented Trump and his companies off and on for years in divorce, bankruptcy and other proceedings.
In the early weeks of the Mueller probe, the hard-charging Kasowitz would scurry in and out of the Oval Office and the adjoining dining room in what aides described as a running — and at times frenzied — commentary with Trump about all things Russia.
But Kasowitz had scant experience in Washington and with investigations like Mueller’s. After he caused a kerfuffle by sending an expletive-laced and disparaging email to a stranger who had criticized him, Kasowitz departed the Russia legal team. He continues to represent Trump in some other matters.
Trump tried to hire or has considered hiring more than a half dozen top litigators to help manage the Russia probe, including William A. Burck, Mark Filip, Emmet Flood, Robert J. Giuffra, Ted B. Olson and Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., according to several people with knowledge of the president’s deliberations. For various reasons, none took the job.
“If you’re the president of the United States, typically the top lawyers are lining up to pitch you,” said one person close to the White House and familiar with the legal team’s dynamics. “Here, you have the opposite.”
Bob Bauer, who was President Barack Obama’s White House counsel, said in assessing the Trump legal team: “Some people may want to blame the lawyers, but my principal question is, ‘How do you represent a client like Trump?’ And at what point do these lawyers decide they’re so hemmed in, so compromised by his behavior, his impulses, his tweets, that they just can’t represent him effectively?”
The face of the legal team has been Sekulow, who has deep ties to the Christian right, though he has adopted a lower profile since the spring and summer when he was a frequent television presence.
Cobb, who had been a partner at Hogan Lovells, enjoys a reputation as a seasoned white-collar advocate whose last high-stakes legal case involving Washington politics was in the 1990s. Dowd has been a higher-profile criminal defender and represented Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during a 1990 ethics investigation into whether McCain had improperly intervened in a savings and loan probe. He is perhaps best known for representing the commissioner of baseball in the late 1980s and producing the “Dowd Report,” a document that resulted in Pete Rose’s lifetime suspension from the sport.
Dowd was widely perceived by other lawyers to be in the twilight of his career, having formally retired in 2015 from Akin Gump, where he had worked since 1990.
Dowd lost one of his most recent big cases when his client, hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, was convicted in 2011 on insider trading charges in New York. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney prosecuting Rajaratnam, reflected on facing Dowd in that trial in an episode last week of his podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet.”
“John Dowd said a lot of — how shall I put it? — ludicrous, silly things,” said Bharara, who was fired as U.S. attorney two months into the Trump administration.
At one point, Dowd was filmed swearing at and flashing his middle finger at reporters covering the trial. It garnered him unflattering press coverage — but it was the kind of dramatic move that a client like Trump could see as an attribute.
Sari Horwitz and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.