A growing number of White House and Trump campaign officials are hiring their own lawyers to handle the wide-ranging probe into whether the president’s associates colluded with Russia’s 2016 election-meddling effort.
The increasing number of lawyers could make life more difficult for a White House staff that is struggling to advance President Trump’s policy agenda by limiting communication and creating divisions between aides.
Trump, Vice President Pence and the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, have all hired personal lawyers. Several former aides and allies, including Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Boris Epshteyn and Michael Caputo, have also done so, as has Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.
Donald Trump Jr. became the latest member of Trump’s inner circle to seek legal help by retaining New York criminal defense attorney Alan Futerfas.
Trump’s eldest son isn’t a member of his administration, but emails that show he sought a meeting with a Russian lawyer offering compromising information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have dominated headlines this week, invigorating the swirling controversy over Russia’s involvement in the election and creating a serious disruption for the White House.
Hiring lawyers could place a heavy financial burden on some staff who did not enter government service with large bank accounts.
But Trump allies and White House veterans who have dealt with investigations say it’s prudent for staff members who might be swept up in the Russia probe to enlist their own legal help.
“It’s irresponsible and reckless for anyone near these allegations to not have counsel,” said one Republican operative with close ties to the White House. “They would be compromising their colleagues in the White House without it … we all know this is political, but they need to be hiring lawyers to defend themselves against these baseless allegations.”
White House counsel Don McGahn leads a large legal team at the executive mansion. But the counsel’s office is tasked with representing the office of the president, not the man himself.
That has created the need for Trump and those around him to enlist their own lawyers to fend off the Russia probe, which pertains to allegations related to their personal actions or events during the campaign.
Members of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations hired their own lawyers to handle the investigation led by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the Valerie Plame affair, respectively.
The president’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, has taken the lead role in countering the Russia probe. He’s hired veteran GOP operative Mark Corallo to handle a deluge of media requests and Jay Sekulow, a conservative lawyer who has his own talk show, to defend Trump on television.
The investigation has heated up in recent weeks, with special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly looking into whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with fired FBI Director James Comey.
Congressional investigators are likely to ask Trump Jr. to testify under oath about his June 2016 meeting with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, in which he was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. Trump Jr. has agreed to testify, if asked, but has denied that he did anything wrong by taking the meeting.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Wednesday he plans to ask Manafort to testify about the meeting, which he and Kushner attended.
Trump’s advisers hope the team of attorneys will prevent the investigations from overtaking the White House. Spokespeople increasingly refer questions about the inquiry to outside lawyers, and they have accused reporters of focusing on Russia at the expense of issues like healthcare and tax reform.
Inside the West Wing, staff are fearful that speaking out could result in them becoming entangled in the Mueller investigation.
White House officials were reluctant to speak about the probe, even anonymously, out of concern about possible legal pitfalls.
Deep-pocketed Trump aides and confidants have retained veteran Washington lawyers who command high fees to help them navigate the investigation.
Kushner, for example, has hired former Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick and renowned defense attorney Abbe Lowell, a Democrat who has represented former presidential candidate John Edwards and GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“There are famous stories from the Clinton White House about these astronomical fees,” said Robert Ray, a former independent counsel during the Whitewater scandal. “Some will be able to afford it, for others it will be an enormous financial burden, trying to do your job on a government salary on the one hand and making sure you’re protected legally on the other.”
Mid-level and junior staff largely have not yet hired their own attorneys. A law that allowed staff to seek partial reimbursement for legal fees lapsed in 1999.
“You feel bad for the mid-level people, even for some of the senior people. They don’t all have money laying around for high-powered lawyers, but they will need them,” said the GOP operative.
Kasowitz has reportedly offered to help White House staff without lawyers handle any legal questions surrounding the probe. But Ray said it’s important that staff don’t wait to hire their own lawyers if there is the slightest chance they will need them.
“You need a lawyer when you reach the point where you decide it’s reasonable that you’ll get contact from the special counsel’s office,” he said. “You don’t want to wait for that to happen, you want to be in position before you do, and that’s not just for targets or subjects of investigation – it’s for witnesses, too.”
Whether or not an aide hires a lawyer, ongoing investigations tend to sap staff morale.
Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as former President Clinton’s deputy press secretary, said the experience of working in a White House under investigation is “even more disorienting than it appears.”
“No one in a position of authority at the White House tells you what is happening,” she wrote in an op-ed last month. “No one knows. Your closest colleague could be under investigation and you would not know. You could be under investigation and not know. It can be impossible to stay focused on your job.”