The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a liberal power lawyer represents the Trump family, things can get ugly

Lawyer, Jamie Gorelick poses for a portrait on Friday June 09, 2017 in Washington, DC. She is the attorney for Jared Kushner. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Four decades ago, soon after a president of the United States interfered in an investigation of his actions, a young lawyer named Jamie Gorelick was assigned her first big case. Gorelick, raised in a liberal Long Island household, would defend Richard Nixon as he fought the government’s efforts to control his White House papers.

The work was exhilarating. But there she was, an activist for women’s rights working for a president she had fought against, a president her friends considered beyond the pale. When Nixon came to her firm’s office and offered to have his picture taken with the attorneys working on his case, Gorelick made herself scarce.

Four decades later, Gorelick, now one of Washington's most prominent lawyers, once again represents famous clients who symbolize much of what she and her friends have spent their lives working against. When Gorelick signed up Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — the president's close advisers, as well as his son-in-law and daughter — as clients, she knew her friends might raise their collective eyebrows. She didn't know that some of them would call her a turncoat.

For generations, the premier D.C. lawyer-fixers were lions of the bar, permanent power players in a city where influence can vanish in a moment. Men such as Clark Clifford, A.B. Culvahouse Jr., Edward Bennett Williams, Howard Baker, Lloyd Cutler and Robert Strauss smoothly glided across the great divide, amassing thoroughly bipartisan client rosters.

But now Gorelick, one of the first women to join that elite club of lawyers, finds herself under attack for taking on a share of the Trump family’s legal woes. Whether that reflects the cynicism and polarization of the times, or results from the particular antagonism between the Trumps and the city they promised to drain, the reaction has been painful.

In the most public slap, Hilary Rosen, a prominent Democratic strategist and lobbyist, tweeted, "Hey Jamie Gorelick, you've just poured that 'Complicit' perfume on yourself," a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" parody ad that imagined an Ivanka Trump-branded scent. (Rosen declined to elaborate on the tweet, saying only, "It is what it is.")

“Representing Jared and Ivanka is a case of pushing the ethical envelope, helping a wealthy family on the brink of using the presidency to further enrich themselves,” said David Halperin, a speechwriter in the Clinton White House and former counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Gorelick is a Clinton supporter embracing the family that wanted to put Hillary Clinton in jail. People in Washington are all too willing to forgive that.”

This being Washington, some of Gorelick’s critics tuck their attacks behind the cloak of anonymity. “Do you want to be seen as a fixer available to all or a fixer for principles you believe in?” said a lawyer who has worked with Gorelick on campaigns since the Clinton and Gore era. “One probably pays better than the other, but every step you take has consequences.”

In a quintessentially D.C. move, some longtime friends of Gorelick contacted for this article offered complimentary comments about her on the record, and then, after asking if they could make other remarks without attribution, bashed their colleague to smithereens. Those people will not be quoted in this article, by name or anonymously, as one tiny bulwark against outright awfulness.

“For the first time, Jamie’s getting irrational criticism from her fellow liberals, who think that if you represent anyone associated with the other side, you must be a Republican in hiding,” said Alan Dershowitz, Gorelick’s mentor at Harvard Law School and a friend ever since. “Jamie is obviously a liberal Democrat, but this is not a betrayal. Jamie is being patriotic and heroic and consistent with the best traditions of the bar. We have to resist zealotry on both sides.”

Ethically, Gorelick has every right to represent Kushner and his wife. The legal profession has celebrated attorneys who take on unpopular clients since the American Revolution. In 1770, when John Adams agreed to defend British soldiers who shot American rebels in the Boston Massacre, he invited a torrent of criticism. As he later wrote, defending “the Soldiers procured me Anxiety and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life.”

At 67, Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, commands a breathtaking view of the city from her top-floor corner office at WilmerHale, the Pennsylvania Avenue NW firm where a gentle waterfall in the lobby greets power players who've found themselves in rough currents. She worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign, vetting potential Cabinet members, and she was "still mourning" when she got a call from an old colleague, asking if she might take on the ethical questions about whether and how Kushner and his wife could work for Donald Trump's administration.

A look at President Trump’s first six months in office

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, signs an executive order at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, D.C. U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Trump acted on two of the most fundamental -- and controversial -- elements of his presidential campaign, building a wall on the border with Mexico and greatly tightening restrictions on who can enter the U.S. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg (Chip Somodevilla)

“The questions seemed most interesting,” Gorelick said. “Whoever thinks they’re going to opine on the anti-nepotism law? And we are a very consciously bipartisan firm. However, I don’t think we had anyone in the firm who was a supporter of Donald Trump.”

She now also is advising Kushner as he navigates the media frenzy over the investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Gorelick, a former head of the D.C. Bar, said she doesn't "put my clients through a political litmus test." Indeed, people and businesses in serious trouble gravitate to her like flies to a light bulb. BP hired her after the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. She represented the Clinton Foundation against conservative gadfly Larry Klayman. The student loan industry brought her in to lobby against the Obama administration's drive to overhaul the business.

Through it all, she has continued her work for liberal causes.

“When my clients hired me, they knew who I was,” Gorelick said. She has kept Kushner and his wife informed as she continues to handle matters that push back against the Trump administration.

Gorelick's firm charges as much as $1,250 an hour for its top lawyers' time, but among the clients she represents for free is Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that serves immigrant women who are fleeing from violence. Gorelick recently worked for Tahirih on a challenge against President Trump's plan to strip local governments of their ability to declare themselves "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants.

“I sent the brief to Ivanka and Jared just so they would know, this is what your lawyer is doing,” Gorelick said.

Her clients were fine with the division between what Gorelick does in her day job and what she does as a political activist. Some of her friends, not so much. And that, Gorelick said, “has been hurtful. I’m not an advocate for the Trump administration; I take hard cases.” She said representing members of the Trump family will not hinder her from working for the Democratic cause. She even hosted family and friends who came to Washington earlier this year to march against the new president.

“The Trump administration has made people unusually uneasy, to say the least,” she said.

The controversy surrounding Gorelick’s decision comes as Washington’s legal industry — still huge but in recent years facing severe financial challenges — struggles to adapt to a thin-skinned president with a long history of using the courts to press grudges. As ever, D.C. lawyers are scrambling to make connections with the new administration, but this time, that effort has caused unusual tensions.

Holland & Knight, one of the city’s largest firms, lost the head of its media practice group, Charles Tobin, when he jumped last week to another firm after 16 years because, he said, “I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not sue this president.” As an attorney who represents media clients in conflicts with the government, Tobin said he could no longer work at a firm that “wanted to be in a position to help clients do business with the Trump administration and thought that being in an adversarial position with this president would hinder that ability.”

Tobin, who will now co-chair the media practice at Ballard Spahr, said Holland & Knight had no such concerns about previous presidents. “I sued President Obama, I sued President Bush, I represented journalists against other administrations without any problem,” he said.

Paul Kiernan, executive partner at Holland & Knight’s Washington office, said in a statement that the firm “has a long history of representing clients, including media clients, in matters adverse to governmental agencies and officials. . . . Contrary to some recent reports, the firm has not adopted a policy limiting our work on specific types of engagements.”

Another Washington firm — Morgan, Lewis & Bockius — lost a client because the firm decided to represent Trump in his effort to comply with government ethics’ requirements.

Scott Wallace, a trustee of the Wallace Global Fund, a nonprofit that had spent about $400,000 on legal help from Morgan Lewis since 2011, said he terminated the fund’s relationship with the firm because by helping Trump handle potential conflicts of interest between his family business and his job as president, the firm had “legitimized a complete non-solution” that “empowers and even encourages impeachable offenses.”

The law firm declined to comment; a person familiar with Morgan Lewis’s relationship with Wallace said the firm’s attorneys also helped Hillary Clinton vet her potential vice presidential candidates and continue to work for clients opposed to Trump policies.

The criticism of Gorelick is a symptom of the nation’s sharp political divisions, said Melvyn Fein, a sociologist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “When you have more polarization in Washington than in a long, long time, the first reaction of many people is to double down, to insist on purity. Everybody gets so concerned about proving how pure they are that they eat their own,” he said.

People in politics need both principle and flexibility, Fein said. “If you’re a hired gun, you’re being hired for your skill, not your principles. And that’s a reasonable thing in this world, to hire yourself out for your skills. That doesn’t preclude having principles.”

Most objections to Gorelick’s decision are less ethical than political. “I know a number of people who have said that anything that helps Trump in any way is heretical to my values,” said Ricki Seidman, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a strategic adviser to many Democratic politicians. “But I don’t think personalizing the polarization has any value. If you look at it just politically, then let [Kushner and Ivanka Trump] sink. But if you care about the country, look at what Mark Warner and others are doing to bring people together.” Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia, has worked closely with Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) to craft a bipartisan approach for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Many lawyers, even those who have dedicated their careers to political causes, defend Gorelick’s work with Kushner, if only because in legal circles, it’s gauche to judge lawyers by their clients.

“It wouldn’t occur to anyone to criticize someone who goes to work on behalf of indigent clients,” said Judith Lichtman, a longtime friend of Gorelick and for many years president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “I’m the purest girl around, but what I believe is pure is different from what somebody else does. Jamie is holding her principles near and dear, because she is always honest and ethical and she devotes herself not only to her paying clients, but to people who are unserved by the legal profession.”

“If you’re at a mission-driven non-profit, you put your principles front and center,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. “But in a major private law firm, there are different considerations. There’s a big difference between ‘I wouldn’t do that’ and ‘She shouldn’t.’ ”

Gorelick’s only regret is that the political atmosphere has grown so fractious that the kind of bipartisanship that allows her to represent Kushner and still work on cases involving challenges to the Trump administration is now looked on with suspicion in some quarters.

She recalled her time on the 9/11 Commission, when 10 people appointed from both parties tried to determine why the attacks happened and what went wrong. Determined to come up with a unanimous report, the commission avoided nettlesome language.

“We rejected calling what happened a ‘clash of civilizations,’ ” Gorelick said. “We rejected any notion of a ‘war on Islam.’ That all came from what I would call the sensible middle. How are you ever going to get that in an environment where people insist on a kind of political purity?”

She teared up, reached for a tissue, and, with her voice cracking, she added, “It would be a travesty for this country to go down that road. I believe in the facts. I believe in the law. I believe if you follow that system, you will get to a fair result. I don’t see that changing. Even now.”