A dark joke has begun circulating among lawyers following the many legal travails of former President Donald Trump: MAGA actually stands for “making attorneys get attorneys.”
Over six years and nine major investigations by Congress, the Justice Department and local prosecutors, as Trump has managed to avoid removal from the presidency and indictment, it has become clear that serving as one of his lawyers is a remarkably risky job — and one that can involve considerable legal exposure. Time after time, his attorneys have been asked to testify as witnesses to potential crimes — or evaluated as possible criminal conspirators themselves.
While the consequences his lawyers faced were extraordinary when Trump was in the White House, the dangers have only intensified since he left office and have become increasing acute in recent weeks, as the former president has come under scrutiny in two different Justice Department investigations and has been forced yet again to find lawyers willing to represent him.
Last week, a Justice Department filing revealed that Trump’s lawyers had misled federal investigators about whether he had handed over to the Justice Department all the classified documents he took from the White House when he left office. That raised questions about whether the lawyers, M. Evan Corcoran and Christina Bobb, could be prosecuted themselves and might ultimately be forced to become witnesses against their client. (Bobb recently retained a lawyer, according to a person familiar with the situation.)
The revelation capped a summer in which a team of lawyers that had been advising Trump as he tried to overturn the 2020 election faced a range of repercussions across the country from federal investigators, local prosecutors, state bar associations and government accountability groups.
One of Trump’s highest-profile lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, was named as a target in a state criminal investigation in Georgia. Conservative lawyer John Eastman, who came up with what he conceded privately was an unlawful strategy to help Trump overturn the election, said he believed he was a target in that same investigation and declined to answer questions while being deposed before a grand jury. Giuliani and Eastman have also been named as subjects of interest in a flurry of federal grand jury subpoenas seeking evidence about attempts by Trump’s allies to create fake slates of electors to help keep him in office.
Two others who worked for Trump in the White House — White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone and his deputy Patrick F. Philbin — were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Washington investigating the efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including the roles that Giuliani and Eastman had played in helping Trump.
Cipollone, Philbin and at least nine other lawyers who worked for Trump have tested before the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks. Earlier this year, Cipollone and Philbin also were interviewed by the FBI as part of its investigation into the classified documents investigation.
And 17 mostly lesser-known lawyers who represented Trump in battleground states as he tried to overturn the election are facing ethics complaints, putting them at risk of being disciplined or disbarred by bar associations or the courts.
Vigorously defending the client — even one known for unscrupulous behavior or accused of an egregious crime — is part of a lawyer’s basic job description. But attorneys are bound by a code of professional conduct that forbids them from crossing certain lines, including knowingly making false claims, filing frivolous lawsuits or motions, and doing anything to further a crime.
The adage for lawyers representing clients accused of criminality, said Fritz Scheller, a longtime Florida defense lawyer, is that at the end of the day, no matter how bad it may have been for the client, the lawyer still gets to walk out the front door of the courthouse without any personal legal issues.
“That bad day for the criminal defense attorney becomes his worst day when he leaves through the courthouse door used for defendants on their way to jail,” Scheller said.
Long before he became president, Trump viewed lawyers as tools to carry out whatever unsavory errand he required. As president, his disdain for institutional norms and demand for unswerving loyalty meant that Trump expected White House lawyers to act in his personal interest, whether or not doing so was within the bounds of the law or in the interest of the country.
He is also known for refusing to pay his lawyers for their work; last year, the Republican National Committee agreed to settle up to $1.6 million of Trump’s personal legal bills.
Six weeks after taking office, Trump made clear to his aids what he expected of his lawyers when he raged about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, for recusing himself from the inquiry into whether Russia had meddled in the 2016 election.
“I don’t have a lawyer,” Trump said to aides in the Oval Office, including White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Trump was referring to the notorious New York fixer who had represented and mentored Trump in the 1970s when he was an up-and-coming real estate investor. Cohn, who was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings investigating suspected communists, was disbarred by a New York court in 1986 for unethical conduct.
Trump’s quest for such a lawyer fueled a destructive cycle: As his legal difficulties mounted, he hired more lawyers, who in turn faced problems for their work on his behalf, leading established lawyers concerned about their reputations to balk at representing him.
“There’s no way to adhere to your ethical integrity and keep your job,” Kimberly Wehle, a University of Baltimore law professor who has closely tracked the investigations into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said of the dilemma Trump’s lawyers have faced. “There’s just no way to not step into a mess.”
The personal ramifications of doing legal work for Trump became painfully apparent to lawyers around him four months into his administration when McGahn and several of his lieutenants — fearing they could be held responsible for Trump’s conduct — retained a high-powered Washington lawyer to represent them in an investigation into whether the president had obstructed justice.
Within two years, McGahn had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, and prosecutors had turned him into a chief witness against Trump.
Around the same time, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer, Michael Cohen, began a three-year prison sentence for his role in paying off a woman in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign to ensure she did not disclose an affair with Trump.
More recently, a long list of lawyers who have represented Trump have found themselves on the receiving end of ethics complaints and disciplinary action.
“Ultimately, we want to demonstrate to all the lawyers that the next time that Sidney Powell or Rudy Giuliani calls and says, ‘Hey, will you sign your name to this?’ they’ll say no because they’ll realize that there are professional consequences,” said Michael Teter, the director of the 65 Project, which has filed complaints against 40 lawyers who took part in suits challenging the 2020 results, including 17 last month.
Teter’s group has identified more than 110 lawyers across 26 states who agreed to participate in various plots by Trump and his allies as they sought to overturn the 2020 election. Thus far, at least 10 of them have been fined or sanctioned.
“This is part of a well-funded effort to attack every attorney who participated in any of the 2020 election challenges,” Eastman said in a statement in response to a bar complaint filed against him, adding that the goal of the 65 Project was to “shame them and make them toxic in their communities and their firms.”
The most serious repercussions have come for four lawyers who acted as ringleaders in the effort. Giuliani’s licenses to practice law in the District of Columbia and New York were suspended, while Powell has been sanctioned in Detroit and faces a disciplinary action brought by the state bar of Texas. Both are also facing separate defamation lawsuits by Dominion, a voting machine company that claims that the two acted recklessly in falsely asserting that Dominion machines had helped flip votes from Trump to Biden. The suits each seek more than $1 billion in damages.
Lin Wood is under investigation by the bar association in his home state of Georgia and was sanctioned in Michigan. Eastman, who has said he could also be a target of the Georgia inquiry, may face additional legal jeopardy; federal agents have chosen his phone, and a federal judge said in March that he and Trump likely committed felonies while trying to overturn the 2020 election.
Among the 40 lawyers whom Teter’s group has singled out for ethics complaints are James Bopp; Kenneth Chesebro; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Joseph in Genova; Jenna Ellis; Boris Epshteyn; Cleta Mitchell; and William Olson.
The House investigation into Jan. 6 has also focused on potential wrongdoing by Trump’s lawyers, particularly their role in the scheme to put forward slates of pro-Trump electors in states won by Joe Biden.
Giuliani also faced a federal investigation in New York by prosecutors who are said to be looking into his dealings in Ukraine to help Trump dig up dirt on Biden’s son. As part of that investigation, federal agents seized cellphones and computers from Giuliani in April during searches of his apartment on Madison Avenue and his Park Avenue office in Manhattan. The investigation is unlikely to result in charges.
Powell’s nonprofit organization, Defending the Republic, which raised millions of dollars by spreading lies about election fraud, is under investigation by a federal grand jury in Washington, according to two people with direct knowledge of the inquiry.
Ellis was also accused of professional misconduct in an ethics complaint in Colorado by the bipartisan legal watchdog group the States United Democracy Center. It said that Ellis assisted Trump in an “unsuccessful and potentially criminal effort” to stave off his electoral defeat.
Some lawyers who worked for Trump have managed to emerge with their careers intact, including Emmet T. Flood, who took the lead at the White House dealing with the Russia investigation, and two other lawyers who represented the president around that time: Jane Raskin and Joanna C Hendon.
Now two of them are among the lawyers being hired by Trump’s former attorneys to represent them as they deal with the fallout from their work for Trump.
Flood is now representing Cipollone, the former White House counsel, who is facing federal investigators’ questions about Trump’s conduct. And Raskin is helping to represent Ellis.
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