Lawyers love to talk tough about how they’ll fight to death for their clients, in much the same way that journalists love to talk tough about their commitment to free speech. But both groups are not only made up of paper tigers, on average, both tend to have commitments that are best described as transient and mercenary, as this account of President Trump’s legal team demonstrates in an account that rings disturbingly true.
After some time (20-30 minutes), three lawyers appeared together. They did not introduce themselves, and stood huddling in the back of the Oval Office, listening. In addition, Mark Meadows and someone else joined us by speaker phone. Eventually the lawyers in the back began muttering things to make their displeasure and disagreement evident. Finally President Trump said something indicating this was new to him, wondering why no one had shown him this route through the impasse. I said again, “Sir, again, CEO to CEO, you are not being served well by those around you in the White House. I’ve gotten to know staffers in your White House, and they tell me they are being told that leadership here is telling them to get you to concede.”
Trump started to say something to Mike and Sidney, but he stopped himself and turned back towards me. “Who?” He asked angrily, “Who wants me to concede?”
I was taken aback by his anger, because I thought what I was telling him was common knowledge. I thought it was generally understood that about half the White House was in on the program of getting him to concede, for that was the estimate I was repeatedly told. “Sir, I am surprised you’re surprised…. In your White House leadership is telling junior staff this everywhere. I am told that this fellow Pat Cipollone [indicating the lawyers behind me as I spoke, not knowing which was Cipollone] has been telling people since November 4, ‘Just help us get the President to concede.’ And for the last couple of weeks, Mark Meadows has been telling staff, ‘Help get the President into transition mode.’”
Trump turned to White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone, who began sputtering. “Mr. President, you know how hard I work, you know how many hours I have been putting in…” Both of which were mealy-mouthed, and neither of which was a direct denial, as was obvious to everyone in the room. Trump faced him, his face darkening in anger.
“Sir,” I continued, “in 30 minutes I can have a number of staffers from within your White House here to tell you that those are quotes from Pat Cipollone and Mark Meadows. This guy is lying to you through his teeth. They want you to lose.”
Trump turned, knowing I was correct. He indicated one of the other lawyers, said, “Did you know that this is his last day? He has a job starting Monday at a law firm up the street, getting paid 10 times what I can pay him here.” He continued wistfully, “Pat, can you imagine what I could have gotten done here, if I had not been fighting my own people?”
Cipollone and the other two lawyers scurried out the back door of the Oval Office. I heard them stay out in the ante room, caucusing. Meanwhile, the President, Sidney, Mike, Alyssa, and myself continued for a while walking through more of the details, reviewing some of what we had said earlier. At some point Allyssa, that quiet but razor-sharp female lawyer assisting Sidney, took over for a few points, and concisely explained aspects of the executive order, always clarifying with great precision whatever needed to be clarified.
After 10 minutes the three lawyers walked back into the room and stood, this time not in the back, but abreast and to the left of we four visitors: Alyssa, myself, Mike, and Sidney, sitting in chairs in a half-moon in front of the Resolute desk. Mike continued taking operational questions that arose, while Sidney and Alyssa handled the legal questions that arose. The three male lawyers edged closer to the front, and then as though as some hidden signal, they all started being bitches.
First was some comment about it not being right to use the National Guard. “The optics are terrible, Mr. President,” said one. “It would have to be the DHS.” I liked the National Guard idea because we needed to reestablish trust of the American people in the electoral process, and the US institution with the most trust is the one where people dress in military uniforms. Yet the National Guard is local, they are all around us, our colleagues at work, our “Citizen Soldiers”. But perhaps in a sign of flexibility, Flynn and Sidney allowed as how one could use the DHS instead of the National Guard.
“The press would tear your apart,” predicted Pat Cipollone at one turn in the conversation. Sidney said what Mike and I were both thinking: The press is going to tear him apart? Really? What are they doing now?
At some point Cipollone objected, “Never in American history has there been this kind of a challenge to an election!” Flynn responded, “Never in American history has there been a situation like this, with counting being shut down for hours, foreigners connecting to our equipment, …..” and so on.
“He does not have the authority to do this!” Cipollone thundered eventually. Sidney rejoined, “Of course he does,” citing EO 13848 (and something else signed by Obama). “Without question he has the authority.” Alyssa whipped out EO 13848 again and showed the relevant language that we had just covered. Trump looked at Cipollone with an expression that said, You never even brought this to my attention, Pat. He said to Cipolloner, “You know Pat, at least they want to fight for me. You don’t even fight for me. You just tell me everything I can’t do.”
Fortunately, you can reliably tell when a lawyer is BS’ing you, as they transition from discussing the genuine legal issues to the practical implications without even noticing that they have done so. Once they do that, you know you can safely disregard everything they are saying, since lawyers tend to know considerably less about the practical realities than their clients who actually work in the real world.
The mistake most people make is allowing their lawyers to make strategic decisions for them, which usually doesn’t work out well for the obvious reason that lawyers are trained to think in a purely tactical manner. My advice is that if you have a lawyer who prefers telling you what you can’t do instead of helping you figuring out what you can do, don’t hesitate to get rid of him.