Meet Trump's legal team
The president has assembled an unusual group of scrappy lawyers to defend him in the Russia investigation. Here's everything you need to know:
Who is heading the team?
Marc E. Kasowitz, the president's longtime personal lawyer and his go-to guy for legal battles over the past 15 years. When special counsel Robert Mueller put the Russia investigation into high gear, Trump initially tried to hire at least four of the nation's most prestigious law firms, with high-profile attorneys including former Solicitor General Ted Olson. But they all refused, according to a Yahoo News report, with the lawyers citing the difficulty of representing the mercurial Trump, who has a history of not paying bills. As one lawyer put it, "The guy won't pay and he won't listen." So Trump has turned to his old buddy to defend him from the most dangerous legal challenge of his life. Kasowitz, 64, makes for a "peculiar choice" to handle a major investigation and possible impeachment, a lawyer who is familiar with Kasowitz's work told The Washington Post. "He is not a white-collar lawyer. He is a bulldog civil litigator. You want someone who [Mueller] is going to respect. You don't go in there with your hair on fire."
What is Kasowitz's background?
The founding partner of Kasowitz Benson Torres, Kasowitz specializes in complex financial litigation — which is how he first met Trump. In 2001, the real estate mogul retained the $1,500-an-hour lawyer to represent him in an Atlantic City casino bankruptcy case. Kasowitz has since gone to court to protect Trump's sealed divorce records from being opened; unsuccessfully defended Trump University from a fraud lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman; and represented him amid allegations of sexual assault. "Trump has always favored scrappy lawyers and street fighters," says Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien, who has personally faced off against Kasowitz. "Kasowitz fits that profile."
How does Kasowitz operate?
Described as one of the toughest lawyers in Manhattan, Kasowitz goes on the attack against his clients' accusers. When Bill O'Reilly, another of his clients, was accused of sexual harassment by several Fox News colleagues, Kasowitz claimed that the TV host had "been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination...unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America." And when Trump sued writer O'Brien for challenging the real estate mogul's claim to be a billionaire in his 2005 biography, Kasowitz appeared at one of O'Brien's book readings — filming the event while using audience "plants" to goad the author into making damaging statements, says O'Brien. "It's just a trench fight with them," says Roddy Boyd, another reporter who has battled with Kasowitz. "It's brutal stuff."
Who else is on the team?
Former prosecutor John Dowd, a veteran white-collar lawyer known for his work on the Keating Five scandal, will bring some Washington expertise to the team. But on TV at least, the public face of Trump's Russia defense squad now appears to be Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for evangelical Christian groups and a conservative talk show regular. Sekulow serves as chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), a Christian-based nonprofit founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, and has argued 12 religious liberty cases before the Supreme Court. Sekulow, 61, was born to a Reform Jewish family in Brooklyn, and only became a Messianic Jew — or a "Jew for Jesus" — after attending Atlanta Baptist College. He has also defended organizations like the militant anti-abortion Operation Rescue.
Any experience with criminal cases?
Again, no. Sekulow has faced ethical questions of his own, regarding his work for both the ACLJ and another nonprofit called Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism. That second charity has steered more than $60 million over the years to Sekulow family members (including the lawyer's wife and brother) or businesses owned or partly owned by them, according to a report published this week by The Guardian. Those issues aside, supporters and critics alike say Sekulow will bring a media-savvy, polished front to Trump's legal operation, and serve the president well if the Russia investigation leads to a political impeachment battle. "Jay is extraordinarily good at explaining his side of things in the media," says Barry Lynn, head of the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He is an extremely articulate person — the toughest adversary I've had."
What about the White House lawyer?
The counsel, Don McGahn, represents the White House as a whole. But his job is to protect the institution of the presidency, rather than the president himself. Trump, who reportedly became disgusted with McGahn's failure to quash the FBI investigation, has largely handed the Russia portfolio to Kasowitz's team. Not trusting either McGahn or Kasowitz to defend their personal interests in a wide-ranging investigation, many of Trump's aides have hired their own lawyers — including Trump's son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence. If Pence is hiring his own lawyer, says former Clinton White House crisis communications official Adam Goldberg, that "tells White House staff two things: They're all potential witnesses in this investigation, and don't listen to Marc Kasowitz."
Another Kremlin connection
There's an intriguing irony in the fact that Kasowitz will lead Trump's defense against any allegations that he or his campaign team colluded with the Russian government: The New York City lawyer has his own financial ties to the Kremlin. Kasowitz's clients include Sberbank, the largest state-owned bank in Russia. The bank's former vice president, Sergey Gorkov, is now chief executive of Russian state-owned financial institution Vnesheconombank, and held a controversial meeting with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner in December. That sit-down is now one of the focuses of the FBI investigation. Kasowitz also represents a company controlled by Putin crony Oleg Deripaska, who has done business with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort — whose financial dealings with Kremlin-backed Ukrainians are also a focus of the FBI investigation. "Could there be some line of communication between these clients and the White House?" asks Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a public interest organization. "Is there any situation where the interests of one conflicts with the other? These are the questions that come up."