Donald Trump’s legal team is back in limbo after the president reversed course and decided against hiring two controversial lawyers who had made unfounded claims about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other Russia-related situations.
In a statement released Sunday morning, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow cited conflicts of interest as the reason Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a married couple, would not be signing on. The two had been set to represent the president personally, not the White House, in the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“We thank the president for his confidence in us and we look forward to working with him on other matters,” diGenova and Toensing said in a joint statement.
The personnel turmoil comes as Trump’s attorneys negotiate a potentially critical interview between the president and Mueller’s investigators. It’s unclear who is representing the president in those talks. While Trump last week signaled that he was willing to answer questions from Mueller, he’d been urged by John Dowd, his lead personal lawyer since last June, and outside advisers to avoid doing an interview because of the possibility he might commit perjury.
The short-lived prospect of adding the husband-and-wife legal team caused waves from the start. DiGenova’s hire was announced Monday, and the pair visited the White House with Sekulow on Thursday night to meet with the president. It caught Trump’s existing legal team by surprise. Dowd resigned over the move, even though the couple hadn’t yet completed an ethics review needed to officially make them part of the team.
A senior administration official said Trump’s lawyers pleaded with the president against hiring diGenova and Toensing, citing conflicts of interest, their ages (he’s 73, she’s 76), and saying that their penchant for extolling unfounded theories could put them at odds with Mueller’s investigators.
In January, diGenova told Fox News regarding the Russia investigation that Trump had been framed by the Justice Department and FBI “with a falsely created crime.” Toensing has been among the leading voices calling for a second special counsel to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation surrounding a U.S. government panel’s approval of the 2013 sale of a large uranium firm to Russian interests.
The senior administration official said the couple also looked disheveled when they came to meet with the president on Thursday, which helped convince Trump they weren’t the right fit for the team.
Both diGenova and Toensing did have potential conflicts in the Russia case. Their firm represented Mark Corallo, the former Trump legal team spokesman who was interviewed in February in the Mueller probe. And they represented Sam Clovis, a Trump 2016 campaign official who supervised foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in October for lying to the FBI.
Corallo told POLITICO last Monday he had signed a standard waiver clearing his attorneys to represent Trump. Clovis did not respond to a request for comment about his lawyers’ potential new client.
Trump has denied his legal team is in turmoil.
“Many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case...don’t believe the Fake News narrative that it is hard to find a lawyer who wants to take this on. Fame & fortune will NEVER be turned down by a lawyer, though some are conflicted,” Trump wrote in two tweets Sunday from his South Florida retreat.
“Problem is that a new…lawyer or law firm will take months to get up to speed (if for no other reason than they can bill more), which is unfair to our great country - and I am very happy with my existing team. Besides, there was NO COLLUSION with Russia, except by Crooked Hillary and the Dems!”
For now, Trump’s personal response on the Russia case is being led by Sekulow, a conservative attorney who has served as the team’s most prominent public face since joining last June. Behind the scenes, he’s been spearheading the president’s legal defense research on some of the constitutional questions involved in Mueller’s investigation.
Four attorneys with ties to Sekulow’s non-profit, the American Center for Law & Justice, have also contributed: Emory law school senior lecturer Mark Goldfeder; Stuart Roth, a longtime legal partner and a Mercer University law school classmate; former federal prosecutor and Georgia state attorney Andrew Ekonomou; and ACLJ senior counsel Benjamin Sisney.
Informally, Trump also continued to speak with his longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz, a New York-based attorney who originally led the president’s Russia response but stepped down last summer. He’s also been in contact with Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News Channel host who the president has known for decades.
The official White House response has been led by Ty Cobb. The president has told Cobb his job is safe but has also been soliciting outside advice on whether a shake-up is needed. Cobb has preached cooperation with Mueller as the best approach for clearing the president from the cloud of investigation, though he’s repeatedly been overly optimistic in his attempts to signal when the probe could end.
Cobb has not responded to a series of requests for comment over the last week, though he said Thursday night he still worked at the White House. In an interview, former Cobb law partner Robert Bennett last week called for Cobb to resign to preserve his professional reputation.
“I hope my friend Ty Cobb will leave the team. He’s not helping himself or his reputation,” said Robert Bennett, a former personal attorney to President Bill Clinton.
Trump has been gauging interest for weeks from other prominent attorneys, including former George W. Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson, who recently turned down an offer from Trump by citing conflicts with his law firm.
“The notion of saying no to represent the president of the United States is kind of amazing,” Bennett said.
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.