Trump Legal Team Shakeup Could Strain Cooperation With Mueller

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s attorneys have approached Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team with cordiality and cooperation. But that may not last.

The departure of Trump’s lead lawyer, John Dowd, means that many important decisions are likely to be revisited. Those include whether Trump will talk with prosecutors, how to handle requests to interview administration insiders and how to respond to efforts by investigators to probe into Trump’s business.

The new-look legal team mulling those issues now includes Joseph diGenova, a combative lawyer who argued repeatedly on Fox News that the probe grew out of a secretive plot among FBI agents to frame the president.

“It appears that with the hiring of diGenova, the president has decided that he wants to play hardball,” said Robert Bennett, who represented President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Shift in Tone

What would such a tonal shift look like? It’s possible that Trump and his lawyers, instead of volunteering documents and allowing staffers to sit for interviews as they have done, could battle records requests, seek to discredit potential witnesses and step up a media battle against the probe. That could slow investigators if they’re forced to seek court orders requiring the White House to honor subpoenas.

Bennett, a partner at Hogan Lovells, said that in hiring diGenova, Trump may be looking to take a page “right out of Roy Cohn’s playbook.” Cohn, who represented and mentored a young Donald Trump, was famous for playing extremely aggressive offense.

Trump has already begun to take the gloves off. He referred to the special counsel by name for the first time on Twitter in recent critical tweets. Until this weekend, he had labeled the probe as a “witch hunt” without calling out Mueller himself.

“Donald Trump is like many clients I’ve represented over the years, who’ve been very successful and don’t like to be told what to do,” said Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who has defended Trump in the news media. “They’re genuinely not used to listening to anybody. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Dershowitz rejected any speculation that he might join Trump’s defense team, after a Trump tweet this week that quoted him. “I want to maintain my independence,” said Dershowitz, who has represented Claus Von Bülow, Leona Helmsley and O.J. Simpson. “I like what I’m doing.”

Views of Mueller

Trump’s lawyers have kept a more even tone than their client has. Longtime Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz viewed Mueller positively, as a seasoned professional who wouldn’t let politics dictate charging decisions, when he put together Trump’s defense team last summer, a person familiar with the matter said. Another lawyer representing Trump, Jay Sekulow, said in a statement Thursday that the legal team would continue its cooperation with Mueller’s office.

To the news media, Kasowitz has been more willing to throw punches. He’s known for his pugilistic style in his comments on behalf of clients, including Trump.

Regardless, the reshuffle could rattle a guiding principle that Dowd and fellow lawyer Ty Cobb appear to have expressed for both the public and their famously difficult client: That cooperation with Mueller would help wrap up the probe.

Trump Interview

Dowd, a former Marine, and Sekulow led talks with Mueller to negotiate terms of an interview between the president and special counsel. Dowd was deeply versed in the facts of the case. He and Cobb oversaw the tens of thousands of pages of documents that had been handed over to Mueller.

Dowd’s exit was prompted, people familiar with the matter say, partly over his pique at the arrival of the sharp-elbowed diGenova earlier this week. Kasowitz is now expected to help reorganize the legal team to make sure everything is in the right place, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Kasowitz himself was the first Trump lawyer to sit down with Mueller last year, this person said, so an expanded role for him could add continuity. But it’s too early to determine whether he would return to actively managing the president’s defense, the person said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.