In a twist on Shakespeare’s famous advice on governing – “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers” – President Donald Trump’s strategy for handling attorneys is reportedly to ignore their advice and alienate them to the point where they leave voluntarily. His reputation for being a difficult client, and one who is reluctant to pay his bills, is such that many top Washington lawyers won’t join his team in the first place.
There has been significant upheaval in Trump’s personal legal team over the past few weeks, even as the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller intensifies. He considered adding respected lawyers such as Emmet Flood and Theodore Olson, but was put off by Flood representing then-President Bill Clinton in his impeachment process, and Olson has declined to represent Trump. Meanwhile, John Dowd, the attorney leading Trump’s outside legal team, resigned on March 22, reportedly frustrated that the president often ignored his advice. Trump announced that two veteran lawyers, Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, would be joining his special counsel legal team last week, only to see the White House reverse course and say that the two attorneys could not represent Trump due to conflicts of interest. White House counsel Don McGahn also seems eager to leave the administration.
Meanwhile, another one of Trump’s personal lawyers, Michael Cohen, has been embroiled in controversy over allegedly arranging a payment of $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election to keep her quiet about an affair she had with Trump in 2006.
With so many attorneys coming, going and making the news, here is a guide to who is in the president’s personal legal team and their many New York connections.
Sekulow, who was born in Brooklyn and converted to Christianity, is a conservative commentator and chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian nonprofit legal advocacy group, who earned his reputation litigating religious freedom cases. He joined Trump’s legal team in June 2017, announcing his hire to listeners on his radio talk show. He has been a prominent defender of Trump, often making the rounds on cable news shows. The Washington Post reported that Sekulow and his family have received millions from charities they control.
The elaborately mustachioed lawyer joined Trump’s legal team handling the Russia investigation in July 2017. Cobb, who once described himself as having “rocks in my head and steel balls,” has reportedly displeased the president by urging him to cooperate with the special counsel. In September, Cobb and erstwhile Trump lawyer Dowd were overheard by a reporter at a restaurant discussing their strategy in handling the special counsel’s investigation. Cobb had also incorrectly predicted that the Russia investigation was likely to be over by Thanksgiving last year. Trump has allegedly considered firing him.
Cohen, known for his combative personality, is a staunch Trump loyalist who gained notoriety during the presidential campaign for challenging polls that showed his candidate trailing Hillary Clinton. In January 2017, he resigned from the Trump Organization, where was the executive vice president and special counsel to Trump, to serve as his personal attorney in the White House. A Long Island native, Cohen ran unsuccessfully for a Manhattan New York City Council seat in 2003 as a Republican. Like many close Trump associates, he was unable to vote for Trump in the New York Republican primary as he was a registered Democrat before and after his City Council campaign and he briefly challenged state Sen. Liz Krueger in the 2010 Democratic primary. (He switched his registration to Republican again in March 2017.)
In a hotly anticipated interview with “60 Minutes,” Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, said she felt threatened by Cohen to sign a statement denying her affair with Trump after reports of the relationship were published earlier this year. A lawyer for Daniels is trying to prove the case that Cohen acted to silence Daniels in his capacity as a Trump Organization attorney. After the “60 Minutes” interview aired, Cohen sent a cease and desist letter to Daniels’ lawyer alleging defamation.
The payment Cohen made to Daniels could potentially be used as leverage by Mueller in his investigation, to get information from Cohen regarding ties to Russia.
Kasowitz has been notorious in New York legal circles for decades for his attack-dog style and tough-guy bravado. He served as a personal lawyer and fixer for Trump since the early 2000s, assisting him in the fraud case over Trump University. His law firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres, specializes in real estate and bankruptcy, which comes in handy when representing Trump.
In May 2017, Trump retained Kasowitz to represent him in all matters related to the Russia investigation. The brash attorney, who is known for his hardball tactics, bragged to friends that he was responsible for the firing of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Kasowitz’s loose lips continued to sink his political career, as ProPublica reported in July that he sent a tirade of profane emails to a critic who had urged him to resign. This was after it was revealed that Kasowitz did not have a security clearance and would not seek one, perhaps in part because of his history of alcohol abuse.
On July 21, 2017, Kasowitz stepped down from Trump’s legal team. Mark Corallo, the spokesman for Trump’s legal team, also stepped down then. However, he and the president have remained in touch, and Trump is reportedly considering hiring Kasowitz back.