WaPo: Is there a lawyer in the house for Trump?

AP Photo/Chris Seward

This may say something about the political and legal moment in which we find ourselves — if it’s an issue at all. It may not be what the Washington Post thinks it means, however. According to their team of reporters, the raid on Mar-a-Lago has Donald Trump “rushing to hire seasoned lawyers” with expertise in federal prosecutions and national-security matters.

So far, the Post reports that no one’s signing up for the opportunity to bill a multi-billionaire:

Former president Donald Trump and close aides have spent the eight days since the FBI searched his Florida home rushing to assemble a team of respected defense lawyers. But the answer they keep hearing is “no.”

The struggle to find expert legal advice puts Trump in a bind as he faces potential criminal exposure from a records dispute with the National Archives that escalated into a federal investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Act and other statutes.

“Everyone is saying no,” said a prominent Republican lawyer, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

Trump is no stranger to legal proceedings, and his scramble to hire lawyers in the face of an ominous federal probe recalls his predicament in the summer of 2017, when he was under scrutiny from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in the Russia probe. Once again, Trump is struggling to find a veteran criminal defense lawyer with a strong track record of dealing with the Justice Department in a sprawling, multipronged investigation.

In both cases, the alleged difficulty in finding legal representation seems mighty curious. Trump is no pauper, after all; he’s worth a lot on paper, at least, and likely has plenty liquid to fund a robust defense team. The exposure from such a fight would normally be seen as advantageous in public relations and marketing of one’s law firm. The travails of an impeachment might have been more esoteric for some attorneys, but a dispute over searches and defenses in federal criminal investigations has a much broader range of possibilities for attorney selection — or should.

So what’s going on here? The Post thinks it’s a combination of Trump’s personality and his lack of responsiveness to invoices:

Ordinarily, the prestige and publicity of representing a former president, as well as the new and complex legal issues at stake in this case, would attract high-powered attorneys. But Trump’s search is being hampered by his divisiveness, as well as his reputation for stiffing vendors and ignoring advice.

Well, maybe. One would think that attorneys would craft contracts well enough to avoid the payment issues, certainly better than most other “vendors” of the Trump Organization. As for clients ignoring advice, that bridge usually gets crossed well after attorneys bill for lots of hours — and then they have the option of walking away at that point anyway. Might those issues be so large as to outweigh the commercial benefits of representing Trump? Maybe, but that seems like a stretch.

Another possibility: It may well be that attorneys are reluctant to get involved with Trump due to the social and commercial damage it might do to them. Alan Dershowitz has complained for years about being shunned over his work for Trump, for instance. There has been a creeping trend among activists in both parties to put the allegations of misconduct by clients on the backs of the attorneys representing them, a trend that undermines the principle of attorneys representing clients with enthusiasm within the bounds of the law regardless of who they are as a way to ensure the rule of law and equitable justice. And if you’re skeptical about Dershowitz’ larger point, don’t forget that Paul Clement and Erin Murphy got pushed out of their law firm for winning a Supreme Court case:

Discord over gun rights erupted within the law firm that secured Thursday’s Second Amendment victory at the Supreme Court, with Kirkland & Ellis LLP announcing shortly after the decision that it would no longer take firearms cases and that it was parting ways with the two star partners who won the case.

After a Kirkland news release praising Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, and Erin Murphy, the two announced they were opening their own firm.

“Unfortunately, we were given a stark choice: either withdraw from ongoing representations or withdraw from the firm,” Mr. Clement said. “Anyone who knows us and our views regarding professional responsibility and client loyalty knows there was only one course open to us: We could not abandon ongoing representations just because a client’s position is unpopular in some circles.”

So let’s not pretend that attorneys aren’t facing cancel-culture pressures these days. Is that the case here, though? Maybe that’s a stretch too. Trump already has some experienced attorneys on board for this effort, as the Post acknowledges:

Others on the team have relatively more experience with federal criminal probes. Trusty formerly served in the Justice Department’s criminal division and headed the organized crime and gang section. He has recently represented clients accused of financial fraud, defrauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture and trading in counterfeit military uniforms. He referred questions to Trump’s spokesman.

Corcoran is a former federal prosecutor viewed by Trump aides as a serious and experienced attorney. His recent clients include a former Capitol Police officer accused of obstructing the Jan. 6 investigation by telling a riot suspect to remove Facebook posts, and a Pennsylvania man who pleaded guilty to participating in the riot and was sentenced to 60 days in prison. Corcoran also represented former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon in his contempt trial for defying a House subpoena in the Jan. 6 probe. Bannon was convicted in July.

Some of Trump’s interactions with the Justice Department have also been handled by John Rowley, another former federal prosecutor now at his own firm, Politico has reported. Rowley didn’t respond to requests for comment.

So … what’s the issue? It sounds as though Trump has significant outside counsel working on the case already. Maybe he wants more, and maybe he will need more to fight the kind of complex case that the Department of Justice might launch. If he can’t find attorneys because of a fear of cancel culture — and that’s still an if — then it not only says something about Trump’s predicament but also the one that we might face if accused of a crime in a politically unsympathetic context.

Perhaps the lack of interest in representing Trump really has nothing to do with Trump’s status as a social bete noire. The Post’s suggestions might survive an Occam’s Razor test for the best explanation. But it certainly seems like a possibility, and it reminds us that we should demand that people stop trying to “cancel” attorneys based on their work in representing people defending themselves in court.

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