Surrounded by lawyers, Trump back in familiar stance

Story highlights

  • Trump's lead lawyer is Marc Kasowitz
  • Kasowitz is Trump's longtime personal lawyer

Washington (CNN)When Donald Trump was seeking out a lawyer to represent him in his tabloid-bait divorce from first wife, Ivana, a swarm of attorneys descended on his office in Manhattan, hoping to proffer their services upon the real estate mogul.

"My office resembled an emergency room, but instead of patients, there were lawyers crowding around," Trump wrote in one of his books, "The Art of the Comeback."
The lawyers, who Trump claimed were meting out their services free of charge, each offered their own take on a legal strategy.
    "No one satisfied me," Trump wrote.
    Now, as President, Trump is looking for ways to best to confront the multiple investigations into Russia's election year meddling -- and is looking, again, to his lawyers.
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    Loyalty first

    In some ways, Trump's approach to legal representation hasn't changed much in the two-and-a-half decades since he was divorcing Ivana. People who have worked with him -- then and now -- say it's an 'I'm-right-you're-wrong' method, honed over years of different litigation fights, that places loyalty and bull-doggedness over nearly anything else.
    For lawyers he likes, Trump offers the world: trips to Mar-a-Lago, invites to rooftop parties, and -- if they're successful -- handsome compensation. But for lawyers he views as insufficiently aggressive or overly cautious, he's quick to part ways, according to people who have worked with him.
    Jay Goldberg is a lawyer who represented Trump in his first divorce and has remained a close friend for decades.
    "All he wanted from a lawyer," Goldberg says now, "is 'tell me how it can be done, not how it can't be done.' "
    As he gathers his legal team in the Oval Office, Trump has sought multiple viewpoints on how best to proceed in what all agree will be a prolonged battle against potential accusations of wrongdoing related to Russia. He's adopted some of his team's recommendations, sources close to the situation say, but discarded others.
    His driving focus, say people close to the President: batting back media reports about the ongoing investigations, some of which have driven Trump into rages that few of his own staff members can break.
    Leading the effort is Marc Kasowitz, Trump's longtime personal lawyer, who regularly charges clients $1,500 per hour for his services. His firm's previous tasks for the President have included filing defamation suits against a biographer who allegedly understated Trump's wealth; legal proceedings to keep Trump's divorce records sealed; and intricate bond-restructuring proceedings for Trump's casino properties in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The defamation suit was dismissed.
    Trump and Kasowitz have been meeting several times a week, people familiar with the situation said, mainly in the Oval Office. A person involved in the discussions said the outside legal team has yet to develop a daily or weekly routine, but suggested that with months or even years of Russia-related investigations ahead, the group will soon fall into a regular pattern of reviewing documents and preparing the President for testimony, if necessary.
    At one point, Kasowitz considered moving into office space inside the White House complex, potentially in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, for more convenient access to Trump, according to two people familiar with the team's operations.
    But that idea has largely been put aside, according to these sources. For now, Kasowitz and his team are working from the Washington offices of his law firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, located two blocks east of the White House in downtown Washington.
    Other members of the legal team include John Dowd, a Washington legal veteran who helmed Major League Baseball's gambling investigation into manager Pete Rose; Jay Sekulow, a conservative pundit and lawyer at a Christian legal advocacy group; Michael Bowe, a New York-based partner in Kasowitz's law firm; and Mark Corallo, a public relations professional who has worked previously as a spokesman for then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
    Sources said Kasowitz is still looking to add at least one additional lawyer to the President's team as it prepares for extended work related to the Russia investigations. Several prominent Washington lawyers have declined to join the effort for a variety of reasons -- including conflicts of interest, concerns about payment, and a general sense that associating with Trump could damage their legal reputations, or the reputations of their law firms, according to people familiar with the situation.
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    'No notification of an investigation'

    At this stage, the team has not received document or information requests from Robert Mueller, the Justice Department-appointed special counsel looking into Russian election meddling, according to people close to the team.
    "The President has not been notified by anyone that he's under investigation," Sekulow said on Fox News Sunday this week. "There's been no notification of an investigation."
    That means the bulk of the team's time so far has been spent managing fallout from media reports about the Russia probe, a task the White House has now fully outsourced to the legal team.
    Sekulow has emerged as Trump's primary television defender on all Russia related matters, appearing on Sunday morning shows and elsewhere during the week to insist that Trump has committed no wrongdoing. His arguments have veered recently into accusations against fired FBI Director James Comey, who he suggested this week should be looked at by a grand jury for releasing a memo about his conversation with Trump to the media.
    It's that kind of aggressive approach which Trump for decades has sought out, and rewarded, in his legal teams -- and is insisting upon this time around.
    When Sekulow stumbled during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" and said, twice, that Trump was under investigation -- despite his insistence on other programs that the President is not being probed -- he reappeared the next morning on "Fox and Friends" to clear up the statement. Trump himself encouraged his Twitter followers to tune in -- a sign of how closely he's become involved in his own defense. He deleted the tweet shortly after.
    Trump's legal collective doesn't believe there's a historic model to follow in their current assignment, according to people close to the team. Previous attempts to defend US presidents from legal troubles -- including Bill Clinton -- came before the age of social media, one source pointed out, meaning there's little precedent for Trump's team to follow as it navigates the President's own penchant for firing off Twitter diatribes about the investigations.
    According to people familiar with their conversations, Trump is extremely comfortable speaking with Kasowitz given their decades-long history, but he's not shy about flouting some of the recommendations that Kasowitz has delivered -- namely, that he not tweet about the Russia investigation.
    Trump has told Kasowitz that he's not likely to cease the tweeting, at least not for good, according to a person familiar with their conversations. The latest evidence came Thursday morning.
    "By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn't they stop them?" Trump wrote on Twitter, going on to post: "Why did Democratic National Committee turn down the DHS offer to protect against hacks (long prior to election). It's all a big Dem HOAX!"
    It was the freshest example yet of Trump weighing in on the very matter the White House has repeatedly tried to move past, and another indication that Trump's legal instincts haven't changed much since his days of high-profile lawsuits and myriad other legal dealings.
    "I don't like lawyers," he wrote in "The Art of the Deal," his 1987 urtext. "I think all they do is delay deals, instead of making deals, and every answer they give you is no, and they are always looking to settle instead of fight."