LAWYERING UP

Trump has retained a defense attorney in the Russia probe—and he’s a strange choice

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

US president Donald Trump trusts Marc Kasowitz. The New York attorney has been representing Trump for more than 15 years, helping the real estate-mogul-turned president face casino bond-restructuring in Atlantic City, fraud allegations at Trump University, and a $5 billion lawsuit against biographer Tim O’Brien for allegedly understating his net worth. (The suit was thrown out.)

Now, Trump has reportedly retained the feisty New York attorney to defend him in his most important case yet: the Justice Department probe into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russian officials. Here are a few reasons why, for all his familiarity with the Trump empire, Kasowitz is an odd choice for this vital role:

Kasowitz also represents Russia’s biggest bank

The optics aren’t great. Wearing one hat, Kasowitz is defending Trump from allegations of collusion with the Russian government; wearing another, he’s defending Sberbank—which is majority owned by the Russian government—against allegations related to corporate raiding.

Sberbank also happens to be run by Herman Gref, the influential former economy minister for president Vladimir Putin. This means Kasowitz can invoke attorney-client privilege with both the US president and an extension of the Russian government.

Political cases are not Kasowitz’s area of expertise

Kasowitz is a very successful Wall Street lawyer. He reportedly bills $1,500 per hour (paywall) and the firm he founded in 1993, Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, nets over $200 million in revenue per year. Kasowitz’s website quotes CNBC’s description of him as the “toughest lawyer on Wall Street,” and lists a host of successful cases involving massive corporate suits.

What Kasowitz is not, however, is a highly experienced political lawyer. That’s not even listed in his stated practice areas, nor are there any cases involving Congress or the Department of Justice featured on his website profile. Someone without a plethora of relevant governmental experience would seem a strange choice to defend his client in the DoJ investigation of the century.

Trump may be missing the chance to hire a massive name

The Washington Post reports that one of the names under consideration to lead Trump’s legal defense has been Theodore Olson, a DC-based lawyer steeped in government experience and a former solicitor general who successfully represented George W. Bush in the election-deciding Supreme Court case Bush vs. Gore. Picking Olson would have sent a strong statement, proving that Trump is taking the case seriously (he has until now called it a “witch hunt”(paywall), and has hired proper ballast.

Instead, he’s taken on an old friend (Trump’s modus operandi when dealing with something important), who has previously shown his willingness to bare his teeth for Trump, no matter the issue. Case in point: Kasowitz threatened to “pursue all available actions and remedies” if The New York Times didn’t retract a story that alleged Trump had touched two women inappropriately. The Times ignored the threat and Kasowitz took no action.

Trump could, of course, still bolster his team with another big-name political lawyer.

It seems to have nixed Trump’s top candidate for FBI director

This isn’t the only time Trump has tapped Kasowitz Benson Torres in recent months. He picked Kasowitz founding partner David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel, and last week said that Joe Lieberman, a former senator and current Kasowitz Benson Torres senior counsel, was a finalist in his search for the new FBI director. Picking Lieberman now would mean him heading the FBI investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, while his current boss, Kasowitz, defends Trump against the DoJ special counsel’s investigation.

Perhaps with this in mind, Trump has reportedly “hit the restart button” on the FBI director search.

The White House and Kasowitz Benson Torres did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment. We’ll update if they do.

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