Trump’s team of le­gal ad­vis­ers shrinks

Ripon Bulletin - - Nation -

WASHINGTON (AP) — In­creas­ingly con­vinced that the West Wing is wholly un­pre­pared to han­dle the ex­pected as­sault from Democrats if they win the House in Novem­ber, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s aides and al­lies are pri­vately rais­ing alarm as his cir­cle of le­gal and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vis­ers con­tin­ues to shrink.

With va­can­cies abound­ing in the White House and more de­par­tures on the hori­zon, there is grow­ing con­cern among Trump al­lies that the brain drain at the cen­ter of the ad­min­is­tra­tion could hardly come at a more per­ilous time. Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s swirling probe of Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence and po­ten­tial ob­struc­tion of jus­tice by Trump has reached ever closer to the Oval Of­fice, and the up­com­ing midterm elec­tions could grant his po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries the power of sub­poena or, more wor­ry­ingly, the votes to at­tempt im­peach­ment.

Nine cur­rent and former White House staffers and ad­min­is­tra­tion al­lies ex­pressed con­cerns Thurs­day that the West Wing is sim­ply un­pre­pared for the po­ten­tial trou­bles ahead. They spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity over con­cerns about es­trang­ing col­leagues.

At­tri­tion, job changes and fir­ings have taken their toll across the White House, but their im­pact has been felt par­tic­u­larly in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and le­gal shops — two de­part­ments cru­cial to Trump staving off the loom­ing threats. The up­com­ing de­par­ture of White House coun­sel Don McGahn has high­lighted the chal­lenges in an of­fice that has shrunk by a third since last year.

McGahn’s deputy and chief of staff, An­nie Don­ald­son, is also ex­pected to leave soon af­ter McGahn de­parts, two staffers said. Sim­i­larly, the White House press of­fice is down to four press sec­re­taries work­ing on day-to-day White House mat­ters, in­clud­ing Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, and the regional and Cabi­net af­fairs me­dia teams in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice have been hol­lowed out.

The staffing short­age and strug­gles to re­cruit top-flight tal­ent have left the White House ill-pre­pared to han­dle the le­gal on­slaught that may come when Mueller is­sues an ex­pected re­port sum­ma­riz­ing his find­ings and the flood of con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions that could fol­low a Demo­cratic takeover of the House.

Former Fox News ex­ec­u­tive Bill Shine, who joined the White House ear­lier this sum­mer as com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor and deputy chief of staff, is look­ing to re­build a shrunken me­dia af­fairs team in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the chal­lenges ahead.

Shine is said to be look­ing for sea­soned com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sion­als to han­dle both Mueller-re­lated ques­tions and con­gres­sional over­sight re­quests.

“He’s do­ing a lot of think­ing about how to prop­erly struc­ture ev­ery­thing, not only for a Trump White House but for what the next cou­ple of years will be like,” said former White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer.

But like other White House de­part­ments, the ef­fort to fill jobs is prov­ing dif­fi­cult. Qual­i­fied can­di­dates are steer­ing clear of the volatile West Wing, ig­nor­ing pleas from Shine and oth­ers to join the ad­min­is­tra­tion over fears to their rep­u­ta­tion and even po­ten­tial le­gal ex­po­sure, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and former of­fi­cials and one can­di­date ap­proached by the White House. Those peo­ple and oth­ers spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss pri­vate de­lib­er­a­tions and con­ver­sa­tions.

Oth­ers are wary of join­ing the team to de­fend the pres­i­dent, know­ing full well he will of­ten ig­nore their ad­vice or could turn on them by tweet.

A White House of­fi­cial dis­puted that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has had dif­fi­culty fill­ing po­si­tions with tal­ented peo­ple.

Trump al­lies have long boasted that he was his own po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign and serves as his own com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor in­side the White House, but they are in­creas­ingly cau­tion­ing him that he can’t be his own at­tor­ney as well.

In­deed, his out­side le­gal team reached out to some of Washington’s most prom­i­nent at­tor­neys, in­clud­ing Supreme Court lit­i­ga­tor Ted Ol­son, be­fore former New York Mayor Rudy Gi­u­liani — a long­time friend of the pres­i­dent whose er­ratic tele­vi­sion in­ter­views have de­fined his ten­ure — joined the team in April. Since then, Gi­u­liani has been the pri­mary pub­lic face of the de­fense team, along with Jay Seku­low, a lawyer spe­cial­iz­ing in con­sti­tu­tional law and re­li­gious lib­er­ties. A hus­band-wife duo, Martin and Jane Raskin, was also added to work be­hind the scenes.

At the same time, the pres­i­dent is more volatile than ever, cre­at­ing new chal­lenges for both his com­mu­ni­ca­tion and le­gal teams.

Trump built his pro­fes­sional em­pire on a foun­da­tion of se­crecy, en­forced by fix­ers, lawyers, hush pay­ments and non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. See­ing that world col­lapse around him in re­cent weeks has yielded in­tense frus­tra­tion in the pres­i­dent, who has an­grily told con­fi­dants that he feels betrayed by a num­ber of former al­lies, in­clud­ing at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen and Na­tional En­quirer head David Pecker.

Trump has de­nounced the “sweet­heart deal” re­ceived by Co­hen, fumed about the overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tion of former cam­paign chair Paul Manafort and seethed over the pres­sure on Pecker to agree to an im­mu­nity deal, ac­cord­ing to two Repub­li­cans close to the White House but not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

Trump sig­naled Thurs­day that he has set­tled on a suc­ces­sor for McGahn. “I am very ex­cited about the per­son who will be tak­ing the place of Don McGahn as White House Coun­cel!” Trump tweeted Thurs­day. He sent a later tweet that spelled “coun­sel” cor­rectly.

Trump also took a shot at re­ports that McGahn had threat­ened to re­sign last year if the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued to press for Mueller’s removal.

“I liked Don, but he was NOT re­spon­si­ble for me not fir­ing Bob Mueller or Jeff Ses­sions. So much Fake Re­port­ing and Fake News!” Trump said, re­fer­ring as well to his at­tor­ney gen­eral, who re­cused him­self from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, much to the pres­i­dent’s an­noy­ance.

The widely ex­pected pick to re­place McGahn is White House is at­tor­ney Em­met Flood, who joined Trump’s White House in May as in­house coun­sel for the Mueller probe and has McGahn’s sup­port in tak­ing the role.

Praise for Flood, a vet­eran at­tor­ney who de­fended Bill Clin­ton dur­ing his im­peach­ment process and rep­re­sented Ge­orge W. Bush in ex­ec­u­tivepriv­i­lege dis­putes with Congress, poured in Thurs­day.

“His rep­u­ta­tion is stel­lar and he brings the req­ui­site skillset and pretty much un­matched ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing been in both the Bush and Clin­ton White Houses and now serv­ing in Pres­i­dent Trump’s coun­sel’s of­fice,” said Mark Co­rallo, a former spokesman for the pres­i­dent’s out­side le­gal team. “You couldn’t ask for a more qual­i­fied and bet­ter-pre­pared at­tor­ney.”

“I think Flood of all peo­ple seems to have clearly the ex­pe­ri­ence that would be re­quired if in­deed it’s needed,” said Spicer.

If the Democrats win, Trump is ex­pected to face not only pos­si­ble im­peach­ment hear­ings, but a bom­bard­ment of Con­gres­sional sub­poe­nas, in­quires and hear­ings that Democrats hope will hob­ble his ad­min­is­tra­tion, giv­ing it lit­tle room to do much else.

“At that point,” said Co­rallo, “the pres­i­dent’s go­ing to need some very skilled at­tor­neys” — Con­sti­tu­tional schol­ars who are fa­mil­iar with the past im­peach­ments of Clin­ton and former Pres­i­dent An­drew Johnson, have dozens of Supreme Court ar­gu­ments un­der their belt, are highly re­spected and un­der­stand the me­chan­ics and the pol­i­tics of im­peach­ment hear­ings.

But oth­ers were less con­cerned. “Ev­ery­body wants to make sure he gets the best ad­vice,” former cam­paign ad­viser Barry Ben­nett said of the pres­i­dent. “But bat­tling is some­thing he’s very good at, so he’s got some home turf ad­van­tage.”

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