WASHINGTON – The FBI seizure of records from President Donald Trump’s personal attorney last week deeply rattled the president – souring him on his long-stated preference to sit down for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller III and prompting him to renew efforts to hire more legal firepower, people familiar with the discussions said.
Trump, who had previously expressed a desire to submit to a special counsel interview, changed his mind following the April 9 raid of lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room and is now leaning against an interview, according to two people familiar with his turnabout.
The president’s lawyers are still open to talks with Mueller’s office about the possibility and advisers caution that the president frequently changes his mind, but his legal team now sees a Mueller sit-down as less likely.
Trump was infuriated by the seizure of possibly sensitive correspondence involving work that Cohen – his close friend, consigliere and personal “fixer” – was doing on his behalf and believed Mueller’s team was operating in bad faith, two people familiar with the president’s frustration said.
Trump was so upset, in fact, that he had trouble concentrating on plans that were laid out for him that day by his national security team about potential options for targeted missile strikes on Syria, and told aides he was cool to the idea of doing an interview, said two people familiar with his comments, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
After last month’s resignation of attorney John Dowd, the president’s legal team consists primarily of Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer dealing with the investigation, and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney on the Russia matter. Trump and his advisers expect the legal team may expand in size as early as the end of this week, according to one person familiar with the discussions.
Both Sekulow and Cobb declined to comment Tuesday.
Trump’s team has reached out to Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and former member of President George W. Bush’s administration, about representing Trump, two people familiar with the outreach said. Bonner is a former Customs and Border Protection commissioner and is credited with ushering in a more consolidated government approach to securing America’s borders in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Unlike other lawyers the Trump team has approached, Bonner retired from his role as a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in 2008 and thus does not have to worry about potential objections from law partners that might prevent him from taking the job.
Bonner declined to comment about his status as a potential candidate to represent Trump.
On the day that news of the Cohen raid broke last week, Sekulow and other Trump advisers were in a preparatory session for a scheduled meeting that afternoon at the special counsel’s office to negotiate final terms for a possible interview with the president.
Sekulow and Cobb had been proponents of having Trump sit down for a limited interview with Mueller’s team on four predetermined topics in hopes of speeding up the conclusion of the probe into the president’s actions.
But the raid alarmed and angered Trump and led to a tense afternoon meeting between Trump advisers and Mueller’s team, according to one person familiar with the talks. The president viewed the raid on his personal attorney as a breach of his team’s cordial working relationship with Mueller’s investigators and swiftly turned on them, another person said.
“That greatly diminished the trust the team had,” the first person familiar with the president’s reaction to the raid said.
Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said that unexpected raids like the one executed against Cohen “are generally reserved for mafia dons and drug kingpins.”
“It is not every day that you see no-knock search warrants authorized by a federal judge on a lawyer and a law firm in white-collar matters,” Corallo said. “I don’t know how serious it is for President Trump, but it is very serious for Michael Cohen.”
Mueller’s team had made no prior mention of federal investigators’ focus on Cohen, which they would not be expected to divulge before a pending raid. The special counsel’s office had privately referred their investigative findings about Cohen to the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York.
That office conducted the raids last Monday, following several months of investigating Cohen for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations, according to people familiar with the probe. A search warrant indicated the probe is focused on Cohen’s role in tamping down possible negative publicity for Trump during the campaign and payments that were made during the campaign to women who claimed to have affairs with Trump.
In recent days, Trump has grown increasingly agitated, railing against members of his beleaguered team, said someone familiar with the situation. The president has also been personally involved in the hunt for new members of the legal team, making phone calls to potential additions, this person said.
There is a growing sense that Trump’s lawyers are not prepared for the rigors and challenges still to come in the Mueller probe, although James Schultz, a former Trump administration lawyer who now works at the law firm Cozen O’Connor, rejected that notion.
“I haven’t seen any indication they are overwhelmed by work,” Schultz said. “They don’t seem overwhelmed to me.”
Within Trump’s orbit, the concern surrounding the raid targeting his lawyer is largely focused on what remains unknown about the dealings of Cohen, whose reputation was for handling Trump’s dirty work. One White House aide described Trump as angry at the what appeared to him to be a violation of attorney-client privilege.
Trump’s legal team has struggled for weeks to bring additional lawyers into their ranks.
One outside adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Trump is upset that he hasn’t been able to attract top-notch lawyers, but he has long struggled in business to attract good lawyers because he underpays and sometimes pays late. He is also a difficult client, the adviser added.
New York litigator Marc Kasowitz, who has helped Trump in a series of business disputes and was the original leader of the president’s Russia legal defense, is still involved with Trump’s team and has been helping in the search for new lawyers, two people familiar with the situation said.
Corallo said that while he believes the president deserves top-notch representation, he also understands the particular challenges facing Trump.
“I think the president of the United States – no matter what you think of him – deserves the best legal talent he can get, and I think a lot of the big law firms have not covered themselves in glory saying no the president,” he said. “Now on the other hand, I do understand why a lot of high-profile lawyers don’t want to take the case.”
Legal struggles have dogged Trump’s presidency. The Trump campaign paid $4 million between January 2017 and March 31, 2018, in legal consulting fees to 13 law firms and Trump Corp., a company run by Trump’s two older sons. The bulk of the fees – about $2.7 million – have gone to Jones Day, a law firm representing the campaign in investigations by Mueller and several congressional committees into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The reelection campaigns of sitting presidents typically would spend less in attorneys fees in a nonpresidential cycle, hiring one or two law firms for ongoing campaign finance compliance needs, said Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign finance lawyer. Issues that arise over campaign finance or personnel matters typically are resolved within a year or less, Kappel said.
Since January 2017, however, the president’s 2020 campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each on law firms representing the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Cohen and the president in the special counsel investigation, as well as a new legal challenge from an adult-film star, Federal Election Commission records show.
Though the expenditures are notably high, there is nothing illegal about the use of campaign funds. Under federal election laws, campaigns can pay for any expenses that relate to their candidacy or activities that occurred while holding elected office.
The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman, Alice Crites, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.