President Trump’s advisers and allies are increasingly worried that he has neither the staff nor the strategy to protect himself from a possible Democratic takeover of the House, which would empower the opposition party to shower the administration with subpoenas or even pursue impeachment charges.
Within Trump’s orbit, there is consensus that his current legal team is not equipped to effectively navigate an onslaught of congressional demands, and there has been broad discussion about bringing on new lawyers experienced in white-collar defense and political scandals.
The president and some of his advisers have discussed possibly adding veteran defense attorney Abbe Lowell, who currently represents Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, to Trump’s personal legal team if an impeachment battle or other fights with Congress emerge after the midterm elections, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump advisers also are discussing recruiting experienced legal firepower to the Office of White House Counsel, which is facing departures and has dwindled in size at a critical juncture. The office has about 25 lawyers now, down from roughly 35 earlier in the presidency, according to a White House official with direct knowledge.
Trump announced Wednesday that Donald McGahn will depart as White House counsel this fall, once the Senate confirms Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Three of McGahn’s deputies — Greg Katsas, Uttam Dhillon and Makan Delrahim — have departed, and a fourth, Stefan Passantino, will have his last day Friday. That leaves John Eisenberg, who handles national security, as the lone deputy counsel.
Trump recently has consulted his personal attorneys about the likelihood of impeachment proceedings. And McGahn and other aides have invoked the prospect of impeachment to persuade the president not to take actions or behave in ways that they believe would hurt him, officials said.
Still, Trump has not directed his lawyers or his political aides to prepare an action plan, leaving allies to fret that the president does not appreciate the magnitude of what could be in store next year.
This account of the president and his team grappling with a potential crisis is based on interviews this week with 26 White House officials, presidential advisers, and lawyers and strategists close to the administration, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said he and the president have discussed the possibility that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will issue a damning report to Congress.
“We’ve talked a lot about impeachment at different times,” Giuliani said. “It’s the only thing that hangs out there. They can’t [criminally] charge him.”
If Democrats control the House, the oversight committees likely would use their subpoena power as a weapon to assail the administration, investigating with a vengeance. The committees could hold hearings about policies such as the travel ban affecting majority-Muslim countries and “zero tolerance” family separation, as well as on possible ethical misconduct throughout the administration or the Trump family’s private businesses.
White House officials defended Trump’s lack of preparation by saying he is focused squarely on helping Republicans preserve their majorities in the Nov. 6 midterm elections rather than, in the words of one senior official, “panicking about something that could happen.”
Any Democratic salvos would not happen until new members take office in January, which Trump advisers said seems like eons away in an administration juggling so many immediate problems. As a result, preparing for possible impeachment proceedings is not at the top of Trump’s to-do list.
“I don’t know if he’s really thought about it in depth yet,” Giuliani said.
One source of growing anxiety among Trump allies is the worry that the president and some senior White House officials are not anxious enough. Although Trump sometimes talks about impeachment with his advisers, in other moments, he gets mad that “the i-word,” as he calls it, is raised, according to his associates.
“Winter is coming,” said one Trump ally in close communication with the White House. “Assuming Democrats win the House, which we all believe is a very strong likelihood, the White House will be under siege. But it’s like tumbleweeds rolling down the halls over there. Nobody’s prepared for war.”
Trump has told confidants that some of his aides have highly competent lawyers such as Lowell, who represents Kushner, and William A. Burck, who represents McGahn as well as former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
“He wonders why he doesn’t have lawyers like that,” said one person who has discussed the matter with Trump.
Another adviser said Trump remarked this year, “I need a lawyer like Abbe.”
Giuliani said that he has not heard of Trump considering adding Lowell to the team but that he would be a great choice because of his thorough and aggressive style.
“This president might like that better,” Giuliani said. “If he thinks someone isn’t being tough enough, he has a tendency to go out to defend himself. And that’s not good.”
Lowell declined to comment, and people familiar with the talks said it was unclear whether he would have the time for or interest in working for Trump, considering that he already represents Kushner.
Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, recommended that the president hire lawyers who are “real scholars of the Constitution” and who are well versed in history’s impeachment proceedings for Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson.
“I would think that the type of lawyer most able to handle the impeachment scenario would be someone from the appellate and Supreme Court bar — someone of the Ted Olson or Paul Clement or Andy Pincus level, someone who knows how to make the kind of arguments should it come to a vote in the Senate,” Corallo said.
Emmet Flood, a White House lawyer and McGahn ally who handles the special counsel’s Russia investigation, has long been considered a top prospect to replace McGahn. People close to Flood said that if Trump offers him the counsel’s job, he would have to evaluate how best he could continue his priority of serving as the White House’s chief strategist with the Mueller probe.
Flood, often described as a lawyer’s lawyer, is in many ways the opposite of Trump and Giuliani, yet the president has told advisers he is impressed by Flood’s legal chops and hard-line positions defending the prerogatives of the White House.
“The next White House counsel needs to be prepared for a lot of interactions on the Hill,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “If the Democrats do take back the House, you can expect the White House counsel to be center stage in answering subpoenas and really in the middle of it all.”
White House officials said Trump is working hard on the campaign trail to prevent Democrats from winning a majority in either the House or the Senate.
“We don’t expect Democrats to take over,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Democrats have no message other than to attack the president. . . . If they want to go backwards, they can vote for Democrats. If they want to continue moving forward under President Trump, they should vote for people that support his policies.”
White House aides, including deputy chief of staff Johnny DeStefano and political director Bill Stepien, have tried to ratchet down Trump’s expectations for the elections, saying that projections look grim in the House.
Some of Trump’s advisers, including recently departed White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, have said that Democrats winning the House could help the president’s reelection chances in 2020 if they overplay their hand going after Trump, as Republicans did in Clinton’s second term.
Trump has so far not accepted that argument, often saying that Republicans are going to keep the House, according to people familiar with the talks.
Many Trump associates inside and outside the government say the opposite. They warn that a Democratic House majority could all but paralyze the White House with investigations, requests for documents and calls to testify on any number of issues, including Trump’s businesses.
One adviser recalled recently telling Trump, “They will crush you if they win. You don’t want them investigating every single thing you’ve done.”
Another concern is that the White House, which already has struggled in attracting top-caliber talent to staff positions, could face an exodus if Democrats take over the House, because aides fear their mere proximity to the president could place them in legal limbo and possibly result in hefty lawyers’ fees.
“It stops good people from potentially serving because nobody wants to inherit a $400,000 legal bill,” said another Trump adviser.
Trump allies privately worry that the West Wing staff is barely equipped to handle basic crisis communications functions, such as distributing robust talking points to key surrogates, and question how the operation could handle an impeachment trial or other potential battles.
Trump sees the administration as having a singular focus — him — and therefore is less concerned with the institution of the presidency and not aware of the vast infrastructure often required to protect it, according to some of his allies.
During the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, the White House staffed a robust war room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that included scores of lawyers, as well as communications staffers and other strategists.
Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel under Clinton, said his office had at least 40 lawyers and as many as 60 during key times. He estimated that he spent between half and three-quarters of his time dealing with investigations.
“I appreciate that Rudy Giuliani is doing a lot of the public speaking and perhaps some other things,” Quinn said. But, he added, “it’s a little bit of a mystery to me who is doing the outside legal work.”
“The president needs to have the very best lawyers he can get both in the White House and outside representing him personally,” Quinn said.
Trump allies lament that the current administration has no such infrastructure and fret that there are no indications it is building one.
“What he really has to get ready for is an onslaught from all of these committees,” Giuliani said of congressional inquiries. “Because what the Democrats want is death by a thousand cuts.”