When Steve Bannon sits down with special counsel Robert Mueller later this month, at the former White House strategist’s side will be one of the most important—and busy—lawyers in the Trump-Russia saga.
Bannon is represented by William Burck, a veteran attorney and former federal prosecutor who helped send Martha Stewart to jail, and who also counsels two other Trump insiders of interest to Mueller: former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House counsel Don McGahn.
No other lawyer involved in the multiple investigations into Russian election interference is publicly juggling three clients of such high profile.
The unusual arrangement raises the question of possible conflicts for Burck, particularly if one of his clients should contradict—or even incriminate—another.
At a minimum the dynamic could be awkward. At worst, it could create tensions that would leave Burck’s clients looking for new legal representation.
In an interview with POLITICO, Burck—who is rarely quoted by reporters—acknowledged the potential for ethical conundrums and said he will keep reassessing the situation as the special counsel’s investigation develops.
“It’s a general pool type of relationship where, if a conflict arises, where everyone in good faith will try to figure out what the best way to proceed is,” Burck said. “I can never be adverse to one of those guys.”
Mueller himself has signed off on Burck’s triplet of Trump insiders, according to a source familiar with the arrangement.
Burck’s many admirers at the top of the legal profession say he’s up to the task.
“Bill is a guy who I think is as smart as they come as a lawyer and as smart as they come strategically,” said Preet Bharara, a close Burck friend and former Justice Department colleague whom Trump fired from his post as a U.S. attorney last March.
Burck gave money to the 2016 presidential campaign of Trump primary rival Jeb Bush, but could have wound up a Trump insider himself. Early last year Trump aides gauged his interest in serving as a personal attorney to President Donald Trump on the Russia investigation, and later approached him about a job leading the White House’s legal response to the probes, a source familiar with the discussions said.
Burck, 46, is no stranger to high-profile cases. He worked on the team in 2004 that prosecuted Martha Stewart in relation to insider stock trading after being hired by an up-and-coming U.S. Attorney named James B. Comey.
More recently as a partner at the Washington law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, he led the successful defense of Maureen McDonnell, then the first lady of Virginia, against corruption charges that went all the way to the Supreme Court. He has also represented the bombastic Internet file-sharing mogul Kim Dotcom, who is accused of massive copyright infringement.
Burck knows how a White House works too. He served as a top lawyer for President George W. Bush at the end of the Republican’s second term, helping the administration manage Democratic congressional investigations and Bush’s decision to side against his own vice president and deny a pardon for the convicted former White House staffer, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
“He’s a really good lawyer with good judgment. If I was in a similar situation I’d hire Bill Burck,” said Joshua Bolten, the former Bush White House chief of staff. “I’m not surprised he’d be in demand by more than one of the folks who are requiring counsel in the course of these investigations.”
McGahn came calling in May amid the fallout from Trump’s decision to fire Comey from his post as FBI director — an explosive move that prompted Mueller’s appointment. Priebus hired Burck soon after he was ousted as Trump’s chief of staff last summer.
Bannon is the last of the three to turn to Burck. Up until late last year, the bombastic former Trump aide had been telling associates he didn’t have a lawyer and wasn’t worried about his potential legal exposure.
But Bannon has since drawn the attention of the House Intelligence Committee and of Mueller, thanks in part to author Michael Wolff’s controversial book “Fire and Fury,” which quotes Bannon describing a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton — attended by Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort — as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”
Trump was furious at Bannon, who later sought to make amends with a statement saying that he had only meant to criticize Manafort’s participation in the Trump Tower meeting.
But the damage was done: FBI agents visited Bannon earlier this month at his Washington town house, attempting to serve him with a subpoena to appear before the Mueller grand jury. A source familiar with the case said their appearance likely stemmed from Bannon’s shifting statements about the Trump associates.
Bannon referred the FBI to Burck, who negotiated an in-person interview for Bannon with Mueller’s investigators in lieu of a grand jury appearance.
Burck also served as the middleman for Bannon during his contentious closed-door appearance last week before the House committee, where Republicans and Democrats tried to get answers from the former Trump aide about his time working in the White House.
Burck relayed the committee’s questions by phone back to White House lawyers who insisted that the questions about Bannon’s tenure on the Trump presidential transition team and inside the White House were out of bounds. The White House was concerned that Bannon’s testimony might be covered by executive privilege, which shields presidential deliberations from legislative scrutiny, though Trump has not yet actually asserted the privilege.
Bannon’s posture angered both Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committee, which slapped Bannon with a subpoena. Burck is currently negotiating his client’s possible return — perhaps as soon as next week — under clearer terms that are also acceptable to the White House.
Burck is also preparing Bannon to meet with Mueller’s team, and executive privilege is not expected to be an issue.
“My view is Mueller is going to get everything and he’s really the person who should be hearing it,” Burck said.
“My guys are there to be witnesses,” he added. “They’re there to tell whatever it is they’re supposed to tell, to answer questions truthfully.”
Lawyers in corporate settings often represent multiple employees, and it’s also not uncommon for attorneys to take on several clients involved in white-collar cases. The arrangement can save both time and money because an attorney is already up to speed on multiple facets of the case. Former federal prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, for example, represented four senior Hillary Clinton staffers in the FBI’s probe into the former secretary of State’s use of a private email server.
Still, some critics warn that Burck has placed himself in a risky situation where he could be forced to step aside if any one of his three clients ends up in conflict with one of the others. Mueller’s office would likely flag any potential conflicts to Burck, including if they see material differences in his clients’ testimony or if one is holding incriminating evidence against another.
Speaking on MSNBC last week, Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, questioned the propriety of Burke representing Bannon at the same time as McGahn, the chief lawyer in Trump’s White House.
“That means that basically the White House’s lawyer’s lawyer will sit in the room when Bob Mueller asks Steve Bannon these questions and they will know what Steve Bannon said, they will know if he said something bad about the president or his son or whatever,” Klain said.
But Mueller himself is apparently untroubled by the arrangement, given the approval he has communicated to Burck. Mueller’s spokesman declined comment when asked about Burck’s arrangement. But several sources familiar with the investigation said that’s a sign that neither Bannon, Priebus nor McGahn — the latter two who have already been interviewed by the special counsel’s team — is a target of Mueller’s investigation.
Burck insisted there’s no coordination on testimony between his clients and the Trump White House. But he said White House lawyers have provided him with reams of documents related to his clients’ work there, and that a four-person team at his law firm is combing through them in search of any potential legal land mines.
“That’s a big part of doing this, especially when you’ve got multiple representations,” he said. “You’ve got to be sure that you’re not stumbling into a conflict.”