By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is restructuring his legal team with lawyers more at home in a courtroom than a television studio as he shifts from dealing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to battling Democratic-led investigations in the U.S. Congress.
The long-time leaders of Trump’s team – Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani – remain in place. But other attorneys, known for their litigation skills, are taking on larger roles on the team: William Consovoy, Patrick Strawbridge, Marc Mukasey and Stefan Passantino.
The first legal offensive from Consovoy and Strawbridge has encountered early setbacks. Their law firm, Consovoy McCarthy, filed two lawsuits in April on behalf of Trump intended to block congressional subpoenas seeking the Republican president’s personal financial records, but both were rejected last week by federal judges. Trump is appealing those decisions, and House Democrats agreed not to enforce the subpoenas during that process.
Some lawyers scoffed at Consovoy’s handling of the litigation, particularly a courtroom moment when he sought to cast doubt on the authority of Congress to investigate presidential corruption because it is not a “law enforcement” agency.
“Kudos to the judge if he managed not to burst out laughing in open court at this,” George Conway, a prominent conservative lawyer and frequent Trump critic, wrote on Twitter. Conway is married to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Others said Consovoy and Strawbridge are losing simply because the law is against them as they advocate for executive branch protection from congressional scrutiny.
“They were hired to do an impossible job,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a Washington lawyer who worked on the independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Trump is defying congressional investigations into his administration, his family, his business interests and his finances, calling them “presidential harassment.” His administration has ignored subpoenas, refused to let current and former aides testify and declined to hand over documents in the aftermath of the April release of a redacted version of Mueller’s report that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election to boost Trump’s candidacy.
The Trump Organization, the president’s company, has its own lawyers in the subpoena fights. They include Mukasey, a criminal defence lawyer in Manhattan and former Giuliani law partner whose father Michael Mukasey served as U.S. attorney general from 2007 to 2009 under Republican President George W. Bush, and Passantino, a former lawyer in Trump’s White House who is now at a law firm.
Consovoy and Strawbridge both served as clerks in 2008 for Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices. The firm Consovoy McCarthy, with offices in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, and in Boston, is known for arguing against affirmative action policies that benefit racial minority groups that have faced discrimination and for battling women’s healthcare and abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
The firm also is defending Trump in a lawsuit by the Democratic attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia accusing him of violating a U.S. Constitution anti-corruption provision, called the emoluments clause, barring U.S. officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments. The suit cites Trump’s refusal to disentangle himself from his businesses including a Washington hotel blocks from the White House.
Consovoy, Strawbridge, Mukasey and Passantino declined to provide comment for this story.
Early in Trump’s presidency, several high-profile lawyers turned down invitations to represent Trump, according to people familiar with the discussions. They included Ted Olson, a prominent Republican lawyer who served as U.S. solicitor general under Bush, and Dan Webb, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
Consovoy and Strawbridge lack the experience and name recognition of such veterans. But people who have worked with them said they will be effective advocates for Trump.
“I don’t think Trump ended up with a tier-two type of lawyer,” said Jay Edelson, a liberal-leaning attorney in Chicago who is friendly with Consovoy.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said Trump has hired an unusually large number of personal lawyers compared to some other presidents. Clinton, a Democrat, also retained some high-profile attorneys to handle impeachment proceedings launched in 1998 by congressional Republicans in a failed bid to remove him from office.
Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, hired a personal lawyer, Judith Corley, to release his birth certificate and quell false rumours he was not born in the United States. But for legal advice he relied on government lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office who did not have a direct lawyer-client relationship with him, Tobias said.
“I don’t think Obama had any lawyer who was doing what a number of lawyers seem to be doing for Trump,” Tobias said, noting that Trump’s need for outside legal help stems in part from the issues faced by a businessman who serves as president.
Before representing Trump, Consovoy and Strawbridge’s most high-profile case was a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, part of a conservative campaign against racial preferences in university admissions that are aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students on campuses. A judge has not yet ruled on the Harvard claims, which the university denies.
“Consovoy McCarthy has a strong reputation for doing good work, but it takes on what many members of the bar might think are very controversial cases – conservative cases, politically,” Tobias said.
Firm partner Tom McCarthy said in a statement that “politically oriented litigation” is only part of Consovoy McCarthy’s work and that it is “best described as a boutique law firm with a traditional D.C. practice.”
For almost two years, Trump’s team negotiated with Mueller’s team over whether the president should sit for an interview with the special counsel. Ultimately, Trump declined, instead providing written responses to questions from the special counsel. Mueller finished his inquiry in March.
Trump also engaged in a public relations campaign featuring Sekulow and Giuliani – both experienced in television appearances – to influence public opinion of Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Moscow and the president’s attempts to impede the inquiry.
Giuliani is a former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor. Sekulow is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit organisation that advocates for religious and constitutional freedoms and is known for supporting Christian causes.
Trump was also represented during the Mueller probe by Emmet Flood, an experienced Washington lawyer who holds the job of special counsel to the president. Both Flood and Pat Cipollone, who holds the post of White House counsel, represent the presidency as an institution, not Trump as an individual.
Similarly, the U.S. attorney general, a post held by William Barr, is the top U.S. law enforcement official, not the president’s personal lawyer. Some Democrats have accused Barr of simply serving Trump’s political and personal interests.
With Mueller’s probe concluded, Trump has turned his attention to fending off congressional investigations. That battle will require more courtroom arguments and may ultimately be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees.
The shift from dealing with Mueller to coping with Congress necessitates a reshuffling of the president’s legal team, said Alan Dershowitz, a criminal defence lawyer and prominent on-air defender of Trump.
“It would be wise to shift his legal team,” said Dershowitz, adding “you always add to your legal team based on the realities you face.”
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Will Dunham)