Donald Trump’s hiring practices seem to be limited to having a preference for quirks and belligerence. Or belligerent quirks. A bullet necklace paired with a screaming fatwah on all enemies of Trump counts far more than a polished resume. In fact, considering people with experience and competence seems to be a red line Trump is unwilling to cross. Those hiring practices have extended into Trump’s legal team.
When news broke on Aug. 3 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had begun using a grand jury in Washington to gather evidence related to his Russia probe, it appeared to catch the White House off guard. Although many news outlets were reporting the story, Ty Cobb, just four days on the job as the president’s lawyer, issued a statement saying he didn’t know about it, even as Jay Sekulow, another member of Trump’s legal staff, went on Fox News to say once again that the president himself wasn’t under investigation.
Meanwhile, over at special counselor central, Robert Mueller is putting together a team that looks like the Avengers of attorneys.
The team members include Michael Dreeben, a Justice Department deputy solicitor general who has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court; Andrew Weissmann, the chief of the Justice Department’s fraud section; James Quarles, who worked as an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force; and Jeannie Rhee, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel who also came from WilmerHale.
The biggest problem with Trump’s law team is that they are lawyers willing to work for Donald Trump. That means anyone with a sharpness exceeding a bowling ball is right out.
Top lawyers with at least four major law firms rebuffed White House overtures to represent President Trump in the Russia investigations, in part over concerns that the president would be unwilling to listen to their advice, according to five sources familiar with discussions about the matter.
And because they’re working for Trump, they’re also subject to the chaos and infighting that have marked everything Trump has ever “managed.”
In May, Trump brought on his longtime personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, to run his legal defense. But Kasowitz quickly fell out of favor with the president’s inner circle and by July had stepped out of his lead role. Although his firm remains available to the president, its expertise is primarily in business litigation and bankruptcy and less so in criminal defense.
Only one of Trump’s attorneys seems to have any relevant experience—though that experience is from two decades in the past.
Dowd represented Senator John McCain in the 1989 Keating Five investigation of lawmakers improperly intervening to save a failing bank during the savings and loan crisis.
How did that investigation come out for McCain? The Senate Ethics Committee determined spared him of a formal reprimand but issued a very special note to say he had displayed “poor judgement.” McCain was mostly spared punishment not because he was found innocent, but because he had been in the House when the primary actions occurred and the Senate and House couldn’t agree on who had jurisdiction. McCain ended up testifying against Keating in court.
Dowd has done some more up to date work.
More recently he defended hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, who was convicted of insider-trading charges.
Note the phrase “who was convicted.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Dowd’s legal chops.
Meanwhile, over at Team Mueller:
… Brandon Van Grack, a Justice Department national security division prosecutor; Rush Atkinson, a trial attorney in the fraud section; and Andrew D. Goldstein, who had headed the public corruption unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York; and Zainab Ahmad, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York specializing in terrorism cases, also had been assigned to work with the group. … Ahmad was recently profiled by the New Yorker for having prosecuted 13 terrorism cases without a single loss.
That profile of Zainab Ahmad would be right here.
Ahmad’s specialty is counterterrorism, her subspecialty “extraterritorial” cases, which means that she spends a great deal of time overseas, negotiating with foreign officials, interviewing witnesses, often in prison, and combing the ground for evidence in terror-related crimes against Americans. She spends time in American prisons as well, typically with convicted jihadists. A former supervisor of Ahmad’s told me that she has probably logged more hours talking to “legitimate Al Qaeda members, hardened terrorist killers,” than any other prosecutor in America.
The list above may be impressive, but it leaves out a number of key players, including appellate lawyer Elizabeth Prelogar, who studied in Russia on a Fulbright scholarship.
Prelogar, a former law clerk to Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, is a Harvard Law School graduate and formerly worked in private practice at Hogan Lovells. Her involvement in the Russia probe has not previously been reported.
The impressive team Mueller has assembled, and is still assembling, probably has a good deal to do with the difficulty that Trump has in either getting or keeping attorneys. That, and the difficulty of finding someone with really extreme personal grooming habits. But the results do not look pretty.
Trying to deal with Mueller without a high-powered legal operation “is like going to a knife fight with a stick of butter in your hand,” says Nicholas Allard, a former Washington attorney who’s now the dean of Brooklyn Law School. “The team should reflect the importance of what’s at stake, which is nothing less than the future of this presidency.”
If fighting Mueller without a good legal team is like bringing butter to a knife fight, we can only hope this means that Donald Trump is … toast.