The hiring caught many of his advisers by surprise, prompting fears that Trump is preparing for bigger changes to his legal team — including possible departures — as he goes on the offensive in the primary legal challenges facing him.
Trump is not consulting with top advisers, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and chief White House lawyer Donald McGahn, on his Russia legal choices or his comments about the probe, according to one person with knowledge of his actions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. He is instead watching television and calling friends, this person said.
The president continues to complain that his lawyers are not protecting him and that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — who is supervising the probe — is up to mischief, said the person, who spoke to Trump in recent days.
At the White House, the president and his aides find themselves besieged by legal threats. Last week, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, Michael Cohen, filed papers alleging that he has the right to seek at least $20 million in damages from porn star Stormy Daniels for allegedly violating a nondisclosure agreement 20 times by talking about what she says was an affair with Trump.
Over the weekend, another Trump attorney, John Dowd, went on the attack in the Russia inquiry, arguing that the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III should come to an end — though he backtracked on whether he was speaking on behalf of the president in saying so.
Finally, on Monday, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s legal team recently shared with Mueller’s office documents containing written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation — in the hopes of curtailing the scope of a potential presidential interview. The lawyers are worried that Trump, who has a penchant for making erroneous claims, would be vulnerable in an hours-long interview.
The developments suggest that the tumult that has already engulfed Trump’s White House now threatens to overtake his fractious legal team. The half-dozen key lawyers tasked with defending Trump are increasingly operating with conflicting information, feuding internally, and pursuing strategies that many legal analysts and friends of the president view as dubious — if not downright dangerous.
“It does seem as though it’s mirroring the dysfunction in the West Wing and this is not some complicated chaos theory of management — it’s just chaos,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “Common sense tells you that it’s critical that everyone be on the same page, not just the White House staff but especially the legal team on whom he’s relying for survival.”
Members of the legal team — which the president has already overhauled once — dispense legal advice and counsel while also serving as Trump’s publicists and therapists, according to people familiar with the relationships. The lawyers employ a range of strategies to try to manage the impulses of their uncooperative client, these people have said.
But the attorneys also often find themselves in conflict, both among their team and with the president.
At different times, Trump has erupted with anger at Mueller’s probe, which he has long called a “witch hunt,” believing it is overshadowing his accomplishments and hampering his ability to do his job, according to multiple people familiar with his frustrations.
Trump vents about the probe to his lawyers frequently and also channels his friends’ criticism of them, according to these people. His lawyers have told him that the White House is required to provide some minimum cooperation with Mueller and have reassured him that they’re not leaving him exposed.
Emmet Flood, a white-collar defense lawyer who was interviewed by Trump a few weeks ago, continues to be eyed as a possible deputy to McGahn, two Trump aides said.
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer tasked with handling the Russia probe, initially helped calm Trump by assuring him that Mueller’s inquiry — or at least its focus on the president — would conclude quickly. Cobb last year promised a deadline of Thanksgiving, then the winter holidays, then the New Year, but the Mueller investigation has only appeared to expand. Cobb has stopped offering a tidy timetable for the investigation to wrap up by, two people familiar with his comments said.
Over the weekend, Trump grew restless and appeared to be heeding the advice of outside confidants and advisers who told him he was being ill-served by his legal team and needed to take a more aggressive stance. In tweets Sunday, Trump blasted Mueller’s probe and questioned the integrity of former FBI director James B. Comey and his former deputy, Andrew McCabe, saying that the notes both men kept of their conversations with him were “Fake Memos.” He also tweeted Monday that the investigation is a “WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!”
Cobb has largely counseled caution and cooperation, while Dowd has most frequently urged the opposite, according to one person familiar with the dynamic.
Dowd called on Mueller to end his inquiry in an interview Saturday with the Daily Beast, first saying he was speaking on behalf of the president before backtracking and saying he was speaking only for himself.
Another Trump personal attorney in the Russia probe, Jay Sekulow, was unaware of Dowd’s comments before he made them, one person familiar with the situation said. Cobb also did not know about Dowd’s plans, this person said.
“You have a lawyer issuing a statement apparently on behalf of his client, then amending that to say, no, he was speaking only for himself, although it was on the very matters about which he was advising his client on,” said Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama. “That is certainly an unconventional way of mounting a legal defense.”
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. In December, after Trump tweeted that he had fired his former national security adviser Michael Flynn because Flynn had lied to both the vice president and the FBI, Dowd later claimed that he was the one who had drafted the missive.
One outside adviser described Dowd as “the weakest link” in the team.
McGahn and Cobb have also had their share of tension. While Cobb has urged the president to cooperate with Mueller and hand over documents to his investigators, McGahn has pushed a more aggressive approach, according to people familiar with his work.
McGahn has said the legal team should make the special counsel subpoena every document, explain every interview and fight for every piece of information, one person said. A second White House aide said McGahn has questioned the constitutional status of the special counsel position.
But McGahn and Trump have also clashed repeatedly since entering the White House, and one former administration official said the president mused at least three times that perhaps he should hire a new counsel.
McGahn has told associates that he is exhausted and frustrated at times in the job, but that he has been able to make a historic impact on appointing judges and reducing regulations and that he would like to be around for a second Supreme Court opening, one friend said. McGahn also has a strong relationship with Kelly.
Before joining Trump’s team, Dowd was perhaps best known for giving the finger to reporters at a New York trial and appearing to read his closing argument from a piece of paper in court.
When a reporter overheard Dowd and Cobb, at a crowded downtown Washington steakhouse, talking about an internal dispute within the legal team over how to handle the probe, many Washington lawyers questioned how the president could continue to trust their judgment.
Some of Trump’s closest friends, including Tom Barrack and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, have told the president that he needs a legal heavyweight on his personal team, or someone with a record of defending clients in hot water with the Justice Department and winning, according to multiple White House aides.
Even as Trump’s legal team is working with Mueller to try to limit the scope of any interview, the president has been telling aides since January that he is looking forward to sitting down with Mueller and his team.
“Everyone knows who is going to decide about the interview,” one adviser said, “and that’s the president.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.