A Guide to Trump’s Fractured and Increasingly Sparse Legal Team

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Michael Cohen, with who we assume are more lawyers.

As a man facing a special-counsel probe, several lawsuits from alleged former lovers, and numerous policy-related legal disputes, there are plenty of people who fit the description of “President Trump’s lawyer.” But what exactly do these people do? What’s their relationship with Trump? And why are we now hearing from these lawyers’ lawyers?

The various Trump attorneys who have recently risen to fame met Trump at different points in his career, work on different teams, and represent different interests. That’s part of the reason why they often seem to be at odds with each other, and Trump himself (another big element is that Trump keeps looking for a lawyer who can replace the infamous Roy Cohn). The good news for those trying to keep track of all the key players in Trump’s legal drama is that they keep quitting or being fired. Here’s a guide to the attorneys who are still in Trump’s corner — for now.

Attorneys Focused on the Mueller Probe

Who: Ty Cobb, White House special counsel.
Background: Cobb grew up in Kansas and attended Harvard and Georgetown. During the 1980s he was a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, leading the area’s drug-enforcement-and-organized-crime task force. As a white-collar defense attorney, he’s been involved in a number of cases involving previous administrations. He represented an attorney involved in Iran-Contra investigation and several people in the Ken Starr probe, and investigated corruption allegations against Ronald Reagan’s HUD secretary.
Role: Cobb was hired in July 2017 to “enforce discipline in the White House regarding Russia matters,” as Bloomberg reported. As the White House’s Mueller probe point person, he coordinates all the special counsel’s interview and document requests for staffers.

Cobb is in an odd position as he reports directly to the president, but his duty is to make sure the Executive branch isn’t harmed in the Mueller probe, rather than protecting Trump personally. He and Trump probably don’t have attorney-client privilege, though their conversations may be covered by executive privilege.
Controversies: Cobb tends to advocate for cooperation with the Mueller probe, and initially kept Trump’s worst impulses in check by assuring him — again and again — that the probe would be over in a matter of weeks. However, it seems Trump eventually caught on. Last month Vanity Fair reported that Cobb has lost standing with Trump, who is scouting for a replacement who will pursue a more aggressive strategy “Trump is looking at this saying, I did it your way for months, now I’m fucking doing it my way,” a former West Wing official said.
Fun Facts: Believed to be distantly related to the famous baseball player of the same name. Once loudly blabbed about conflicts among Trump’s lawyers while dining near a New York Times reporter. Possesses the best White House mustache. (That’s right, John Bolton. Best. White House. Mustache.)

Who: Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney.
Background: Born in Brooklyn and raised Jewish, Sekulow found Jesus in college and is now a Messianic Jew. Sekulow started out as a tax attorney, but his firm collapsed when he was sued for fraud and securities violations. He declared bankruptcy in 1987, but bounced back quickly. Sekulow became general counsel to Jews for Jesus and a year later he successfully argued a Supreme Court case on the group’s right to distribute pamphlets at Los Angeles International Airport.

Sekulow then partnered with televangelist Pat Robertson, and eventually took over as head of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) — a nonprofit law firm Robertson founded as the conservative Christian answer to the ACLU. Sekulow has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, mostly related to Christian right causes, winning eight and losing four.

In recent years Sekulow’s career had focused more on politics and punditry. He advised the George W. Bush administration on judicial issues, as well as Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. He hosts a widely syndicated radio show and makes frequent appearances on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, among other news programs.
Role: With his extensive media experience, Sekulow was initially expected to be the public face of Trump’s legal team. But last month John Dowd, the lead attorney representing Trump personally in the Mueller case, quit as Trump was “increasingly ignoring his advice,” according to the New York Times. Thanks to Dowd’s departure, and Trump’s inability to retain other legal talent, Sekulow is now the lead attorney representing Trump as an individual (according to Vanity Fair, he’s also the one full-time attorney on Trump’s Russia-related personal legal team.) While Sekulow is known as a gifted litigator, he has no experience managing a complex criminal investigation.
Controversies: Most journalists do not regularly tune into Sekulow’s radio show, which he claims has 1.5 million listeners, but maybe they should. Politico reported last month:

Fourteen of the past 19 episodes of “Jay Sekulow Live” have involved freewheeling conversations about the Trump-Russia saga and what he calls the “deep state” bureaucrats out to get the president. 

Fun Facts/Additional Controversies: Through the ACLJ and other charities, Sekulow and many of his family members have become quite wealthy. In 2005, the Legal Times reported that he used nonprofits to build “a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle — complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.”

White House Counsel

Who: Don McGahn, White House counsel.
Background: An Atlantic City native, McGahn graduated from Notre Dame and earned law degrees from Widener University and Georgetown. From 1999 to 2008, he served as chief counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which supports House Republicans’ campaign efforts. President George W. Bush named him as chair of the Federal Election Commission in 2008, and he’s credited with doing much to undermine campaign finance laws. McGahn met Trump when he was exploring a political run in 2014, and was one of the first Washington insiders to get behind him. As the Trump campaign’s general counsel, he beat back a number of legal challenges to his candidacy, such as efforts to keep him off the ballot in New Hampshire, and the Never Trumpers’ attempt to free Republican National Convention delegates to vote for any candidate they wanted.
Role: The proper role of the White House counsel is a subject of debate, and perhaps never more so than with McGahn. As New York’s Cristian Farias put it: “A common misconception is that the White House counsel represents the president, but the client is in reality the institution of the presidency — its interests, its policy goals, the integrity of its personnel, the processes by which all of these things are held together.” Of course, Trump thinks everyone in the Executive branch should serve him personally, and for the most party, McGahn has complied.
Controversies: From the earliest days of the Trump administration, McGahn has been at the center of various scandals. To name just a few, McGahn was warned that national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI, but he wasn’t fired for 18 days; he made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe; he heard about domestic-abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter several times, but let him continue serving under an interim security clearance for more than a year.

McGahn met Trump when he was exploring a political run in 2014, and was one of the first Washington insiders to get behind him. As the Trump campaign’s general counsel, he beat back a number of legal challenges to his candidacy, such as efforts to keep him off the ballot in New Hampshire, and the Never Trumpers’ attempt to free Republican National Convention delegates to vote for any candidate they wanted.
Role: The proper role of the White House counsel is a subject of debate, and perhaps never more so than with McGahn. As New York’s Cristian Farias put it: “A common misconception is that the White House counsel represents the president, but the client is in reality the institution of the presidency — its interests, its policy goals, the integrity of its personnel, the processes by which all of these things are held together.” Of course, Trump thinks everyone in the executive branch should serve him personally, and for the most part, McGahn has complied.
Controversies: From the earliest days of the Trump administration, McGahn has been at the center of various scandals. To name just a few, McGahn was warned that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI, but he wasn’t fired for 18 days; he made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe; he heard about domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter several times, but let him continue serving under an interim security clearance for more than a year.

On occasion, McGahn may have also tempered some of Trump’s worse impulses. He reportedly threatened to quit rather than passing along Trump’s order to fire Mueller last summer, and the president backed down.

This has left McGahn in the odd position of being a key witness in the Mueller probe, and also having a voice in how the White House should handle the investigation. McGahn is reportedly often at odds with Cobb (who, unlike McGahn, is focused only on Mueller). McGahn has reportedly argued for more aggressive tactics against Mueller, and has privately questioned whether Cobb leaked negative stories about him. Meanwhile, a reporter overheard Cobb worrying that another attorney was “a McGahn spy.”
Fun Fact: McGahn is the nephew of Patrick “Paddy” McGahn, an Atlantic City lawyer and power broker who helped Trump start opening his casinos there.

Attorneys in the Stormy Daniels Case

Who: Charles Harder, one of Trump’s personal attorneys.
Background: Unlike many of Trump’s other lawyers, Harder is based out of Los Angeles (though he’s opened a second office in New York). He built his career helping celebrities including Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Clint Eastwood with smaller legal disputes, such as the unauthorized use of their names. He became a nationally known figure when he represented Hulk Hogan in the lawsuit that eventually bankrupted Gawker. He then took on more high-profile cases for celebrity clients, such as Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein, and sent various media outlets cease and desist letters on their behalf (including New York).
Role: As Forbes reports, it’s not entirely clear when Harder started working for Trump. In April 2017, he won settlements for Melania Trump, who sued a Maryland blogger and the Daily Mail for running articles that claims she had worked as an escort. Next he tried to prevent the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, but publisher Henry Holt and Company insisted the book wasn’t libelous and moved up its publication.

Harder’s involvement in Trump’s dispute with Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims she was paid hush money to cover up their affair, was revealed in a legal document last month. Along with Trump’s other personal attorneys, Harder requested that Daniels’s suit against Trump be moved from state court to federal court in California, and alleged that she could owe more than $20 million for violating the nondisclosure agreement.
Controversies: Last week attorney Douglas Mirell announced that he is leaving the law firm he co-founded with Harder, as it no longer reflects his values, and work with controversial figures like Trump is drawing complaints from long-term clients. “I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the docket of matters we were handling,” Mirell said. “They seemed irreconcilable with my core commitment to the defense of the First Amendment.”
Fun Fact: Harder was added to Jared Kushner’s legal team last fall, shortly after former chief of staff Reince Priebus spent hours testifying before Mueller.

Who: Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney.
Background: Cohen grew up on Long Island and has said he’s been “admiring Donald Trump since I was in high school.” After working as a personal-injury lawyer and earning a fortune in the taxi-medallion business, he started buying up Trump properties as real-estate investments. Trump hired him 2007, and he became his special counsel and executive vice-president of the Trump Organization.
Role: For years Cohen was Trump’s “fixer,” a job others compared to Vito Corleone’s consigliere in the Godfather films. He claims he paid Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket days before the election, and it appears he had a role in coordinating with the tabloid publisher American Media Inc. to “catch and kill” other unflattering stories about Trump.
Controversies: Too many to list. Cohen has drawn Mueller’s attention for his role in pursuing Trump’s interests in Russia and Ukraine, and in recent weeks legal experts have expressed amazement at the numerous missteps he made in drawing up an agreement with Daniels, suggesting he could be disbarred or worse. It’s almost like he was hired for his loyalty, not his legal skills.
Fun Facts: According to Newsweek’s list, he likes to threaten journalists, he claimed spousal rape is legal, he tweeted out a picture of his college-age daughter in lingerie with the tag “Jealous?”, and he read Trump’s Art of the Deal at least twice in his teens. Hey wait, at least 75 percent of those aren’t fun at all.

A Guide to Trump’s Fractured, Increasingly Sparse Legal Team