More than a dozen attorneys and crisis communications specialists have already started working for Trump associates touched by the unfolding Russia scandal, according to a POLITICO tally. People close to the probes say that number is only expected to grow as more than 20 other senior campaign aides and White House officials begin receiving subpoenas, grand jury summons and other requests from special counsel Robert Mueller as well as congressional committees.
“He may well be bringing back white-collar defense jobs in Washington,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied special counsel investigations for decades. “Those are probably not the jobs he intended to create.”
White-collar lawyers relish these kinds of cases, and not just because their fees can top $1,500 an hour. The Russia investigations are likely to drive the narrative in Washington for the coming months, if not years. And while high-profile White House probes often – rightly or wrongly – get compared to the Watergate scandal that sank Richard Nixon’s presidency, the current Trump-Russia saga may wind up being more like the O.J. Simpson trial, which captured the public imagination and turned the lawyers involved into multi-media celebrities.
“If you’re doing it right, it’s a career maker. This is the material that great books are made of,” said Harlan Loeb, a crisis management expert who worked for Enron and other corporate clients and now chairs Edelman’s crisis and risk practice.
Trump associates are still lining up attorneys.Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who according to The Associated Press has been under FBI investigation since 2014 for his work on behalf of pro-Kremlin officials in Ukraine, was among the first to retain outside counsel.
His lawyers include Reginald Brown, a former George W. Bush White House associate counsel who works at the same law firm that Mueller just left, and Richard Hibey, whose past clients have included former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and one of the key figures in the Iran-Contra investigation, the CIA’s Clair George. Manafort has also hired Jason Maloni, a former senior vice president at Levick, to handle crisis communications.
Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is under investigation for his lobbying on behalf of a Turkish businessman with Russian ties and contacts with Russian officials, is being represented by Covington & Burling’s Robert Kelner, a longtime Republican Party attorney; former federal prosecutor Stephen Anthony; and Brian Smith, who worked on scandal responses in the Clinton White House.
Kelner’s team initially resisted a Senate Intelligence Committee subpoena for documents, citing Flynn’s Fifth Amendment rights, but they have since worked out an arrangement with the panel and shipped over a first batch of about 600 pages earlier this week, according to a person close to the investigation.
Washington lawyers aren’t the only ones getting Trump business. The president himself has retained his longtime New York-based personal counsel Marc Kasowitz, to handle his response to the Russia investigation, and on Wednesday they added Mark Corallo, a former George W. Bush Justice Department chief spokesman, to handle media messaging and crisis response.
Trump confidant and former campaign adviser Roger Stone has hired three Florida-based lawyers as he faces document requests and other scrutiny over his communications with Russian hackers and WikiLeaks associates before the website began posting stolen emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Stone’s team includes Robert Buschel, who worked with the ACLU to defend Rush Limbaugh’s medical privacy rights; former U.S. attorney and Al Gore 2000 recount supporter Kendall Coffey; and Fort Lauderdale attorney Grant Smith.
Buschel in an email to POLITICO said Stone hired attorneys “that he knows, trusts and who know him and his political and business ventures.”
“Should specialized counsel become necessary, we would of course engage the appropriate resources,” Buschel added, noting this is his first case involving a congressional investigation.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign communications adviser who once worked in Russia, has also gone beyond the Beltway in seeking out legal help as he faces congressional attention and braces for an initial call from Mueller’s team. He’s retained Buffalo-based Dennis Vacco, a former New York State attorney general and former U.S. attorney under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who crossed paths with Mueller when he was serving in the Justice Department.
Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who according to The Associated Press has been under FBI investigation since 2014 for his work on behalf of pro-Kremlin officials in Ukraine, was among the first to retain outside counsel. | Getty
“I believe he’ll cover every base that he knows of, or he’ll uncover,” Vacco said of Mueller. “It’d not be surprising if he reached out to my client, who he might perceive to be a witness. Part of his mission is to gather information. I’d not be surprised if he’d want to talk to a lot of different people.”
Asked about his lack of experience in Washington-centric probes, Vacco replied: “It’s only the politics that makes those investigations different than any other white-collar investigation.”
Others in Trump’s orbit have retained legal help too, but they’ve kept the names of their attorneys under wraps, including Boris Epshteyn, a former campaign adviser who briefly served in the White House, and Michael Cohen, a longtime personal attorney to the president and former lawyer at the Trump Organization.
A white-collar attorney with a Trump White House client said the world of experienced Washington-based lawyers tapped for these kinds of cases is “a fairly small group of folks who actually have done these and know how to do these. You’d expect to see them get hired.”
“You go in for neurosurgery you want the guy who has done 8,000 of them and has an incredible success rate. You don’t want the guy who just happens to be in your country club,” the lawyer said. “Folks in this situation are facing an enormous threat. They want the best lawyer who’d represent them and not necessarily someone who’s politically congenial.”
Michael Forde, a trial attorney who represents Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the crisis experts in demand now face the unique task of having to handle both the congressional probes and the Mueller investigation, as well as complicated outside political factors that can be both personally and legally damaging – if managed incorrectly.
“You’re trying to preserve people’s liberty and also their reputation,” he said. “A lawyer representing a witness or subject in these cases is really playing chess in four dimensions. That’s a really unique skill set.”
While Mueller’s Russia probe remains in its earliest stages, the relentless pace of the news cycle means anyone working for a Trump associate must remain on perpetual alert.
“It’s a full-time job,” said a source working with one of the Trump aides under investigation, who added that attorneys and crisis managers find themselves having to “go to bed late with their cell phones and wake up early because there are developments continuously.”
The brutal hours – which one lawyer said have already driven some spouses to encourage their partners not to get involved – aren’t the only factors lawyers and crisis managers are weighing as they consider taking on a Trump client.
Yahoo News reported Tuesday four high-profile law firms turned Trump down on offers to work for the president, citing concerns he wouldn’t heed their advice, and several white-collar attorneys described to POLITICO their own widespread hesitation about getting involved with the Russia investigation. Their firms especially feared reputational risk if they become closely associated with a particularly polarizing White House.
“For all the money you’re making, you might lose five to ten other opportunities,” said one white-collar lawyer. “There might be a whole demographic that might not seek your services.”
Michael Flynn, right, the former White House national security adviser under investigation on several front, is being represented by Covington & Burling’s Robert Kelner, left, a longtime GOP attorney. | AP and Getty Photos
Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House staffer who helped spearhead the Democrat’s communication strategy during multiple investigations, said concerns among lawyers about working for Trump is a departure from past probes.
“Most lawyers don’t look at red or blue. They look at green,” Lehane said.
Hiring a top-tier attorney isn’t cheap. President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton were $4 million in debt when they left office, and White House Press Secretary George Stephanopoulos owed more than $100,000. A legal defense fund for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements during the investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity, set out to raise $5 million for his legal bills.
For the lawyers who work the White House investigation beat, taking a case involving an investigation can also go a long way toward both building a brand and attracting new clients. Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, became instantly famous in 1998 when he appeared on all five major Sunday morning talk shows. The feat became known as the “Full Ginsburg.”
Representing clients soaked in scandal is indeed a prominent feature of many white-collar lawyers’ websites. David Kendall’s biography notes his representation of the Clintons starting “in what was ostensibly a small savings and loan matter involving Whitewater Development Company, Inc.” and then morphed into “a variety of matters” that included his impeachment. Brendan Sullivan, a lawyer for Oliver North, Ted Stevens and Clinton Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, says in his bio that his “national practice continues to be the defense of persons caught up in the high-profile case.”
“There’s a real potential,” Lehane said, “to have a career making – or breaking – moment.”