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Trump close to choosing outside counsel for Russia investigation

President Trump is said to prefer a team of lawyers over a single attorney as his outside counsel. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump is moving rapidly toward assembling outside counsel to help him navigate the investigations into his campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election, and in recent days he and his advisers have privately courted several prominent attorneys to join the effort.

By Monday, a list of finalists for the legal team had emerged, according to four people briefed on the discussions.

That search process, in which Trump has been personally involved, is expected to yield a formal legal unit in the coming days, made up of lawyers from several firms who would work together to guide Trump as he responds both to the ongoing federal probe and the congressional investigations, the people said.

Although the list of finalists remains somewhat fluid and names could be added, two people close to the search said the president has concluded that he would like a team of attorneys, rather than a single lawyer, to represent him. The team is likely to have lead counselors, those people said.

The four people briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly.

In a May 10, 2017 meeting, President Trump spoke to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak about a terror threat. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry/The Washington Post)

The attorneys who have spoken to the White House and who are seen as the finalists are Marc E. Kasowitz; Robert J. Giuffra Jr.; Reid H. Weingarten; and Theodore B. Olson, the people said.

Two other attorneys who were originally viewed as contenders but have since drifted away from the mix, at least momentarily, because of legal or professional obstacles are Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. of Williams & Connolly and A.B. Culvahouse Jr., a partner at O’Melveny & Myers who is known for vetting political candidates.

Kasowitz, who has known Trump for decades, is expected to take a leading role. A partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York, Kasowitz has represented Trump in numerous cases, including on his divorce records, real estate transactions and allegations of fraud at Trump University.

A potential complication for Kasowitz is that former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Trump’s leading candidate to head the FBI, is currently a senior counsel at his firm. Were Lieberman officially chosen to run the FBI, and Kasowitz chosen to help with Trump’s legal advice, both men — the one leading the organization investigating possible Russian collusion and the one offering Trump legal counsel on that very issue — would hail from the same firm, a likely conflict of interest.

Giuffra, Olson and Weingarten have already spoken with senior administration officials about the team, said a person familiar with the process.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment about how Trump would pay for his outside legal team, the cost of which cannot be covered by the federal government. But campaign finance lawyers said Trump could probably draw funds from his reelection committee to cover legal expenses related to the Russia inquiries, including money donated this year.

“When it comes to legal expenses, the test is whether the expenses would have been incurred irrespective of the campaign,” said Daniel Petalas, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who served as the Federal Election Commission’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement. “So if the allegation is Trump — either as candidate or officeholder — is facing legal costs as a result of those statuses, then he is entitled to use his campaign funds to defray the legal expenses.”

Team Trump’s ties to Russian interests

In a break from precedent, Trump's campaign committee has continued to aggressively solicit donations since his election. In recent days, the email and text appeals have invoked the controversies swirling around the White House.

“What you’re seeing in the news is a WITCH HUNT,” said a fundraising solicitation seeking $1 donations sent Friday. “But the real victim isn’t me. It’s YOU and the millions of other brave Americans who refused to bow down to Washington by voting for REAL CHANGE last November.”

The president, a former New York real estate developer and reality television star, also has the personal wealth to cover his legal costs.

Some outside experts noted that the president’s decision to consider a team of legal advisers, rather than a single outside counselor, could exacerbate his existing problem of competing power factions within an already chaotic White House.

“The one thing he’s trying to do is to manage some of the disorder that seems to have affected his legal position,” said a lawyer who worked in a previous administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the president. “And so to create a Tower of Babel within his legal team is sort of mirroring some of the problems that got him in trouble in the first place. What you don’t need is some complicated team approach in which various people are competing for his ear.”

Giuffra, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, is the coordinating counsel for Volkswagen, which has admitted to cheating on emissions tests in the United States.

Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general, rose to prominence in 2000 when he argued the Supreme Court election case that delivered electoral victory to George W. Bush. He later teamed up with his former Democratic adversary in Bush v. Gore, David Boies, to successfully overturn the 2008 California ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriage.

Olson's wife, Barbara, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when the plane she was in crashed into the Pentagon. Olson, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's Washington office, is now married to Lady Booth Olson, a self-proclaimed lifelong Democrat.

Weingarten, a high-powered attorney at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington known for his folksy style, is a somewhat unlikely choice because he has represented Democratic clients and is close friends with Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama. Holder and Weingarten met during their early years at the Justice Department.

The four finalists did not respond to requests for comment. A White House official said the administration had no comment.

Michael D. Cohen, a longtime attorney for Trump and an executive at the Trump Organization, remains the president’s personal attorney and confidant, and also is involved in the discussions, the people said.

The outside legal team would be separate from the White House Counsel’s Office, which is led by Donald F. McGahn, who served as the Trump campaign’s attorney. In past administrations, presidents such as Bill Clinton have named outside counsel to help them navigate thorny legal problems.

A government lawyer who participated in Clinton’s legal defense said the former president paid millions of dollars in legal fees to Williams & Connolly to compensate the firm for representing him.

Trump’s push to put together an outside legal team comes as Robert S. Mueller III, a respected former federal prosecutor and FBI director, begins his work as a Justice Department-appointed special counsel on the possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Controversy and political drama swirling around the alleged Russia ties have engulfed Trump’s presidency from the start, fueling anger within a White House that feels under siege and unfairly scrutinized. That feeling, in part, drove the president to fire James B. Comey, the FBI director, and fallout from that decision led Justice officials to tap Mueller as special counsel.

Comey, who has agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open session, has told friends that he took contemporaneous notes of his exchanges this year with Trump. Democrats have seized on those news reports as evidence of potential obstruction of justice, with some Trump critics suggesting that impeachment could eventually be a possibility.

Matea Gold, Abby Phillip and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.