Af­ter twisty tac­tics, team takes bow

Strat­egy, prece­dent and blus­ter used to shield pres­i­dent

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Jonathan Lemire and Eric Tucker

WASH­ING­TON — First they co­op­er­ated. Then they stonewalle­d. Their television in­ter­views were scat­ter­shot and ridiculed, their client mer­cu­rial and un­re­li­able.

But Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s legal team, through a com­bi­na­tion of blus­ter, legal prece­dent and shift­ing tac­tics, man­aged to pro­tect their client from a po­ten­tially per­ilous in-per­son in­ter­view dur­ing spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. His lawyers are tak­ing a vic­tory lap af­ter a redacted ver­sion of Mueller’s find­ings re­vealed po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing con­duct by the pres­i­dent but drew no con­clu­sions of crim­i­nal be­hav­ior.

“Our strat­egy came to be that when we weren’t talk­ing, we were los­ing,” Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a re­cent in­ter­view. Given that Mueller could not indict a sit­ting pres­i­dent, Giuliani said, the team kept its fo­cus on Mueller’s “ca­pac­ity to re­port, so we had to play in the me­dia as well as legally.”

The af­ter­shocks from the Mueller re­port will help shape the next two years of Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. But while the re­port may cause some Democrats to take a re­newed look at im­peach­ment de­spite long odds of suc­cess in Congress, the legal threat to Trump that seemed so dan­ger­ous upon Mueller’s ap­point­ment in May 2017 has waned.

At the out­set, that ap­point­ment led Trump to pre­dict “the end of my pres­i­dency.” The White House strug­gled to re­cruit top Wash­ing­ton at­tor­neys, many of whom were re­luc­tant to work for a tem­per­a­men­tal, scan­dal-prone pres­i­dent who re­peat­edly claimed he would be his own best legal mind.

The ini­tial strat­egy of the Trump legal team, in­clud­ing White House at­tor­ney Ty Cobb and per­sonal de­fense lawyer John Dowd, was to be as co­op­er­a­tive as pos­si­ble with Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors and en­sure that in­ves­ti­ga­tors got ac­cess to the doc­u­ments they re­quested and the wit­nesses they wanted to in­ter­view. The Trump lawyers hoped to bring about a quick con­clu­sion to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Be­liev­ing he could ex­on­er­ate him­self, Trump ini­tially ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to sit for an in­ter­view with Mueller’s team. A date was set for that to take place at Camp David. But then the pres­i­dent’s lawyers moved away from the plan, in part by ar­gu­ing that the spe­cial coun­sel al­ready had got­ten an­swers to his ques­tions.

“It be­came the most trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion in history,” Jay Seku­low, one of the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal lawyers, said in an in­ter­view.

Still, there was in­ter­nal tu­mult along the way, in­clud­ing the March 2018 de­par­ture of Dowd, a vet­eran and ex­pe­ri­enced crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, and the ad­di­tions of Giuliani and the hus­band-wife team of Martin and Jane Raskin.

Even as the legal team pro­fessed co­op­er­a­tion with Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors, the lawyers ex­pressed im­pa­tience, frus­tra­tion and skep­ti­cism in a se­ries of pri­vate let­ters that chal­lenged the cred­i­bil­ity of the gov­ern­ment’s wit­nesses and the de­mands to in­ter­view the pres­i­dent.

Those com­plaints were dwarfed by louder public protests. Trump spent months en­gag­ing in daily, some­times hourly, at­tacks on Mueller’s team, declar­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion a “witch hunt” and ques­tion­ing the in­tegrity of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Giuliani, in many ways more a television spokesman than con­ven­tional lawyer, am­pli­fied those at­tacks. He went so far as to ac­cuse the in­ves­ti­ga­tors of mis­con­duct and to por­tray Mueller, who as a Marine of­fi­cer had led a ri­fle pla­toon in Viet­nam, as un­pa­tri­otic.

The for­mer New York City mayor be­came a hu­man smoke screen, mak­ing ac­cu­sa­tions and of­fer­ing the­o­ries of­ten meant to dis­tract and ob­fus­cate. He was a punch line on ca­ble news chan­nels, and his in­ter­views were mocked.

But there was a method to Giuliani’s shtick, at least at times. More than once he let slip rev­e­la­tions that ini­tially were per­ceived as gaffes but later were rec­og­nized as ef­forts to get out ahead of po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing news sto­ries. Two ex­am­ples in­clude pay­ments to Stormy Daniels, a porn ac­tress who claimed a sex­ual tryst with Trump, and a letter of in­tent to build a Trump Tower Moscow.

While Giuliani, with an eye to­ward the mem­bers of Congress who might even­tu­ally de­cide the pres­i­dent’s fate, fo­cused on the public re­la­tions bat­tle, the legal team also worked be­hind the scenes to ar­gue that Mueller could not use a sub­poena to com­pel Trump to give an in-per­son in­ter­view, which car­ried po­ten­tially grave risks for a pres­i­dent prone to mak­ing false state­ments.

“I think they were right to think that it would hurt him to speak to Mueller’s team, and as it turns out, they were right to think that he could get away with re­fus­ing to speak with Mueller’s team,” said Stan­ford law school pro­fes­sor David Alan Sk­lan­sky.

Mueller’s team, which spent about a year ne­go­ti­at­ing with Trump’s lawyers over a po­ten­tial in­ter­view, ul­ti­mately agreed to ac­cept writ­ten an­swers on Rus­sia-re­lated ques­tions but never spoke with the pres­i­dent in per­son.

Mak­ing the move to block an in­ter­view was “de­fense lawyer­ing 101” be­cause de­fense lawyers as a mat­ter of course don’t like to let clients in legal jeop­ardy speak to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, said Duke law pro­fes­sor Samuel Buell.


For­mer New York City Mayor Rudy Gi­u­lani be­came a hu­man smoke screen for Pres­i­dent Trump dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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