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Trump has had a lot of lawyers but still longs for his wartime consigliere

Roy Cohn (left) and Donald Trump attend the Trump Tower opening in New York City in October 1983.
Sonia Moskowitz
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Getty Images
Roy Cohn (left) and Donald Trump attend the Trump Tower opening in New York City in October 1983.

The language might have been meant to shock, but it was not really a surprise when former President Trump this week responded to his arraignment on federal criminal charges by vowing to return to office and "appoint a real special counsel to go after the most corrupt president in history, Joe Biden, and the whole Biden crime family."

It was also amazing — but in character — that Trump spent the afternoon prior to his arraignment interviewing prospective lawyers to represent him in a legal matter that has been bubbling to a boil for two years.

Throughout that time, of course, Trump has had a platoon of lawyers battling for him and his claim to ownership of national security files. Although their roster has seen some shuffling, they have been resisting subpoenas and filing motions in Washington, D.C., and in Florida since the National Archives first notified the ex-president he needed to comply with the law in 2021.

Yet with hours to go to court time, Trump was still looking for a top-drawer lawyer who had a federal practice in South Florida and was willing to take his case.

On display in these fraught moments of American legal history was the attitude Trump has taken toward the legal profession and the court system itself, an attitude he has maintained for half a century. The problem, time and again, has been that Trump is not just looking for a lawyer. He seems to be looking for a wartime consigliere.

That phrase came into popular use with The Godfather movies in the 1970s. Early in the first film, a temporary head of the fictional Corleone family berates his attorney for negotiating.

"Do me a favor, Tom. No more advice on how to patch things up, just help me win," he says, adding that what he really wants is "a real wartime consigliere."

While the Italian word connotes an advisor or counselor, the meaning is in the modifier. This particular kind of counselor is meant to be a warrior at heart, a chief strategist and a weapon personified. And Trump had a model in mind.

'Where's my Roy Cohn?'

"Other than his father, the most important influence on the future president was Roy Cohn," wrote the New York Times' Maggie Haberman in her Trump biography: Confidence Man.

Cohn had been notorious since the early 1950s, when, fresh out of Columbia Law School, he was the staff attorney for Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) when the latter conducted his hearings into communists in government.

McCarthy's efforts collapsed and he was censured by the Senate, but Cohn slid into private practice back home and made a fortune. His client list included individuals from all five of New York's actual crime families. (It also included famous figures from the worlds of sports and entertainment and even a Catholic Cardinal.)

He and Trump met in 1973 and Cohn was soon advising the young businessman on how to deal with the federal government and fight enforcement of laws against racial discrimination in housing.

"Don't tell me what the law is," Cohn would say, "tell me who the judge is."

But Cohn died in 1986, and Trump is still in search of a substitute. In his account of Trump's first year in the White House, writer Michael Wolff said Trump would often ask the question out loud, to no one in particular: "Where's my Roy Cohn?"

After Cohn died, Trump often relied on far less expensive legal help. Legal services for his Trump Organization or for personal matters were farmed out to a wide variety of available attorneys with an eye on minimizing cost.

That was important because Trump and his company were often involved in lawsuits. He and the company have been sued in civil court hundreds of times and they have sued and counter-sued often.

One of Trump's longest-serving counselors was Michael Cohen, who from 2006 to 2018 operated as both a lawyer and a "fixer" — cleaning up messes for Trump. One of these, the payment of hush money to a porn actress just before the 2016 election, eventually earned Cohen disbarment and a three-year prison sentence for tax evasion and other charges. Cohen in 2020 published a tell-all about Trump titled Disloyal: A Memoir.

Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer and confidante for President Donald Trump, leaves federal court after a hearing in New York City on April 16, 2018. Cohen and lawyers representing Trump had asked the court to block Justice Department officials from reading documents and materials related to Cohen's relationship with Trump that they believe should be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Yana Paskova / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer and confidante for President Donald Trump, leaves federal court after a hearing in New York City on April 16, 2018. Cohen and lawyers representing Trump had asked the court to block Justice Department officials from reading documents and materials related to Cohen's relationship with Trump that they believe should be protected by attorney-client privilege.

Lawyers, lawyers everywhere

Trump was frustrated upon entering the White House because he was virtually surrounded by lawyers but could not regard any of them as his lawyer.

His first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was a well-established lawyer in Wisconsin before becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee and eventually joining Trump.

For his first attorney general, Trump had turned to Jeff Sessions, who had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump for president – the only one to do so before the primaries. Sessions, too, was a lawyer, and he seemed as loyal to Trump as he could be.

And then there was Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, who had worked on Trump's 2016 campaign. Washington Republicans knew his work as a top-flight campaign finance lawyer and as past chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Finally, Trump had reason to feel good about yet another lawyer in what he hoped would be his inner circle. That was James Comey, the director of the FBI. Although appointed by President Obama, Comey was a lifelong Republican with a strong conservative reputation.

There had been disappointment in the GOP when Comey's investigation did not result in the indictment of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he called her "extremely careless" use of a private email server while in office. But he had redeemed himself for some when he briefly re-opened the case 11 days before the 2016 election. Much was made of that apparent breakthrough, and far less notice was taken when Comey closed the case shortly thereafter.

But after his inauguration, Trump wanted to know where Comey stood, and he brought him to the White House for a dinner chat. According to Comey, Trump asked if he had the director's loyalty. When Comey said Trump would always have his honesty, Trump was not satisfied. "I need loyalty," he said. "I expect loyalty."

Comey said Trump had made that "request" in the same manner as Salvatore "Sammy The Bull" Gravano, leader of the Gambino crime family (whom Comey had prosecuted).

That was a week after Inauguration Day. Less than four months later, Comey was fired while on a trip to visit FBI field offices. But the attrition among Trump's lawyerly staff had just begun.

Priebus lasted just six months, being fired by tweet while waiting for transport on a tarmac. Sessions, presented with evidence that Russians had sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, possibly to help Trump, recused himself from the issue as required by Department of Justice policy. But when his next-in-command appointed a special counsel (former FBI director Robert Mueller) to investigate the charges, Trump was furious. After initially telling Sessions he was fired, Trump let him stay until just after the 2018 midterm elections.

By that time, McGahn was also gone. He had helped shepherd scores of candidates for federal judgeships into the confirmation process, but he had also clashed repeatedly with Trump, who thought the White House counsel should operate as his private attorney.

Barr fills the bill — until he doesn't

For a time, it appeared that Trump had found his man in William Barr, his second attorney general, who was confirmed early in 2019 and almost made it through the end of 2020. Barr had been attorney general for about a year under former President George H.W. Bush and thereafter served as in-house counsel for major corporations such as Verizon.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr (with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) at the White House on July 11, 2019.
Alex Brandon / AP
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AP
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr (with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) at the White House on July 11, 2019.

Barr had been out of the government for almost 30 years when he sent an unsolicited letter to the administration criticizing the appointment of a special counsel in the Russian interference case. Mueller's voluminous report found extensive Russian interference (without finding specific coordination with the Trump campaign) and cited instances of what could be seen as obstruction of the investigation itself. It explicitly declined to exonerate Trump, but said the Office of Special Counsel "accepted" the Department of Justice policy that a sitting President cannot be indicted.

Barr announced the results of the report and treated it as an exoneration, as Trump did himself.

But Trump would be far less pleased with Barr's response to allegations of election fraud in November 2020. Barr had his department look into the allegations and reported back that they were without basis.

According to several published accounts of that report, which took place at a White House meeting of Trump's inner circle, the president reacted by saying "You must hate Trump" and accepted Barr's resignation. But Barr was persuaded to return for a few weeks by McGahn's successor, Pat Cippolone.

During this same period, a frustrated Trump turned to an entirely different set of attorneys, an unofficial group assembled largely by Rudy Giuliani. Trump and Giuliani had been allies and associates since the latter was mayor of New York in the 1990s (and on Sept. 11, 2001).

Giuliani brought in a team of attorneys, including Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell, both of whom have since faced disciplinary action by state or bar authorities. Giuliani himself has had his license temporarily suspended and is awaiting a final ruling.

Also part of the mix in the last days of 2020 was John Eastman, a California lawyer and former law school dean who thought it plausible that the Electoral College results could be challenged at the point of certification in Congress on Jan. 6. Seizing on that theory, Trump and Giuliani and others thought Vice President Mike Pence and some members of Congress together could block certification and send the election back to the state legislatures in several swing states — potentially making Trump the winner.

Cippolone, who as the White House counsel had helped defend Trump in his first impeachment trial in 2019 and in his second in 2021, pushed back on the plotting from Giuliani's group. In particular he resisted the notion that Trump could elevate a lawyer from the department ranks at Justice to serve as Barr's temporary successor and thereby bolster claims of fraud and demands for recounts or new rounds of voting.

In this Oct. 10, 2016, file photo, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, stands with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he buys cookies during a visit to Eat'n Park restaurant in Moon Township, Pa.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
In this Oct. 10, 2016, file photo, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, stands with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he buys cookies during a visit to Eat'n Park restaurant in Moon Township, Pa.

Meanwhile, back in Miami

As it turned out, Trump came before the magistrate judge in Miami this week flanked by two veteran attorneys who have worked for him in the past and are admitted to practice in Florida. But they were not the two who had been handling the case up until the indictment the previous week. Jim Trusty and John Rowley left the team on June 9. This week, Trusty also asked that his name be removed from a case Trump has pending against CNN.

Instead, Trump was represented at arraignment by Christopher Kise and Todd Blanche. Kise is a veteran Florida attorney associated with the statewide campaigns of Republicans Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott. Kise had been part of the documents team for Trump in 2022 but then reassigned to deal with civil proceedings Trump's business is facing in New York.

Blanche is expected to lead the team in the Florida case but has a similar role in the criminal case in New York involving the hush money payments and subsequent bank fraud.

Whoever represents Trump at trial will face one specific problem regarding what Trump has said to some of his previous attorneys. Unless the evidence is suppressed, the indictment includes dialogue between Trump and two of his (unnamed) lawyers in which Trump proposes lying about the documents he has kept.

At this point, that conversation would appear shorn of its "attorney-client privilege" because it attempts to involve the attorneys in furthering a crime.

Barr and others have made clear this testimony is especially damning on the charge of obstructing justice.

Whether it provides the crucial evidence for that crime or not, it certainly makes Trump sound like a man who expects his lawyer to do what he is asked. And to have undivided loyalty.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 21, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been a judge. Sessions had been a U.S. attorney in Alabama in 1986 when he was nominated to a federal judgeship that was not confirmed by the Senate.
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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.