In the Trump era, the lawyer jokes are on us

Robert Mueller helped make counselors seem special indeed.
Robert Mueller helped make counselors seem special indeed.
Image: Reuters/Jim Bourg
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What do you call an honest lawyer? An oxymoron, as the joke goes.

The word “lawyer” said in certain accents sounds a lot like “liar,” and for many Americans, that sums up what attorneys do: They lie, professionally, for lots of money, and can’t be trusted with much, which is why they are the butt of endless punchlines. (Think Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s personal attorney and now in prison based on work he did for the now-president).

Of course, the truth is far more complex than that, as any lawyer will tell you. Attorneys are annoying in part because they often think things that seem simple to others are complicated and because they can endlessly parse “terms of art” that sound like just plain old words to everyone else. But during Donald Trump’s presidency, the frustration with and disdain for counselors is at a whole new level, and they mostly have themselves to blame for it.

Take special counsel Robert Mueller’s statement on May 29 about his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and whether Trump obstructed justice by impeding this work. Mueller, whose nearly-500-page report failed to charge the president with a crime but also did not exonerate him, has steadfastly refused to explicitly opine on whether Trump should be impeached. He again declined to do so, relying on the report to speak for him.

Yet the report was incomprehensible because Mueller seems to hate plain speech and thinks like a lawyer. His conclusion on obstruction of justice was that he couldn’t—under current Department of Justice rules—conclude. Because a sitting president cannot be tried in criminal court for an offense, Trump is only subject to prosecution via other proceedings while in office (read, impeachment). And because having a criminal charge over his head until he’s a common citizen again would leave Trump without his constitutional right to a speedy trial, Mueller made no “traditional prosecution determination” and “declined” to consider the criminality of Trump’s actions.

The implication is that representatives could attempt to impeach the president based on the information Mueller uncovered. But he never came out and said so because, you know, lawyers.

As the humorists say, the definition of a lawyer is a person who puts two people into a fight and runs off with their clothes. That’s pretty much what Mueller has done to Trump and congressional Democrats. The special counsel resigned but the fight over whether the president should be impeached or is merely the subject of a “witch hunt,” as Trump puts it, goes on and on and on.

Trump himself has little respect for attorneys, though he’s got a fleet of private and public ones, and certainly employed lots of lawyers before he was in government service. And they don’t seem to appreciate their colleagues much either.

His current personal representative on Mueller’s investigation is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The old mayor called Trump’s former lawyer, Cohen, a liar when he reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in November. Giuliani later claimed that because Cohen’s story shifted over time, the ex-fixer couldn’t be trusted. Yet when confronted about Trump changing his tune repeatedly, Giuliani basically acknowledged the president lied and distinguished his client from Trump’s prior counsel, saying, “The president’s not under oath. And the president tried to do the best he can to remember what happened back at a time when he was the busiest man in the world.”

Meanwhile, the president—blessedly unburdened by actual knowledge of the law—called former White House counsel Don McGahn, his own attorney, “a lying bastard” for refusing to lie for him, according to the Mueller report. So it seems deceptive counselors are everywhere, giving credence to the joke, “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”

Trump’s disdain for the law and its practitioners is so profound that even prominent conservative attorneys have banded together in a group called Checks and Balances to call out the president. On April 23, they issued a statement about the Mueller report, saying it “revealed a pattern of behavior that is starkly inconsistent with the President’s constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.'”

Still, the president does have defense attorneys on his side, willing if not to lie necessarily, at least to be extremely lawyerly. Most notably, attorney general Bill Barr, who summarized Mueller’s investigation for the public in March, indicating that Trump did not obstruct justice. Special counsel wasn’t happy about it and privately accused Barr on March 27 of failing to “fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation and for undermining public confidence in his work.

Nonetheless, Barr went on to testify about the report in front of Congress in early April, before releasing a redacted version on April 18, telling representatives he didn’t know whether Mueller “supported his conclusion” as summarized in March. This two-step led some—like House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat—to call for Barr’s resignation for perjury once the unhappy March letter from Mueller went public.

California Democratic congressman Ted Lieu in a tweet on April 30 didn’t try to be delicate about his assessment of Barr’s earlier testimony: While other Democrats said Barr “misled” the government, Lieu, who is a lawyer, opted for unusually plain speech and accused the AG of lying.

The National Review utterly disagreed and wrote that “the big lie” is that Barr lied. The publication accused representatives of hysteria. After all, what do you call a lawyer who has gone bad? A senator.

Sadly, the joke is on all of us, the public. The common lawyer tropes have all been on display of late and it’s not making counselors or America great again, just eroding the little trust in the fumbling US government that still remains.