White House shakes up legal team as probe gathers steam

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

Under intensifying fire over its handling of the Russia investigations, the White House is shaking up its legal team, bringing on board a veteran Washington criminal defense lawyer just as another high-profile attorney turns over responsibilities for representing a senior official in the cross hairs of the criminal probe.

Ty Cobb, who has represented multiple figures in Washington scandals dating back to the Clinton administration, will be joining the White House staff at the end of this month as a special counsel to the president, charged with handling all legal and media-related issues relating to the Russia probe, sources said.

At the same time, Jamie Gorelick, a politically well-connected lawyer who has been representing Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is turning over all responsibilities for the Russia investigation to Abbe Lowell, another well-known Washington criminal defense lawyer.

Attorney Ty Cobb in 2004 and Attorney Abbe Lowell in 2015. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty Images, John Mincillo/AP, AP, Getty Images)

Gorelick, for the time being, will continue to represent Kushner on issues relating to ethics and his security clearance form, the sources said. But Lowell, a skilled litigator who has represented clients ranging from former Sen. John Edwards to corrupt Washington fixer Jack Abramoff, will exclusively represent Kushner in inquires being conducted by congressional committees and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

Gorelick said the move was prompted by the fact that Mueller had been a partner at her law firm, Wilmer Hale, and brought three other partners with him to conduct the Russia investigation.

“As we have stated, once Bob Mueller and three of our partners left the firm to form the Special Counsel’s Office, we advised Mr. Kushner to get independent legal advice on whether to continue with us as counsel. As a result of this process, Mr. Kushner decided that Mr. Lowell would represent him in the Russia-related inquiries. We have been working to transition that matter to Mr. Lowell’s team. We continue to work on the matters for which we were originally retained, with regard to ethics compliance and related issues,” she said in an emailed statement released after Yahoo News first reported the move.

The legal moves come as the White House legal team is facing mounting criticism over allegations it has badly mishandled the president’s defense. Yahoo News reported Thursday night that Marc Kasowitz, the president’s chief outside lawyer, was informed in June about the existence of emails showing the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, hoping to receive “incriminating” information and documents about Hillary Clinton that had reputedly been assembled by the Russian government.

Washington attorney Jamie Gorelick. (Photo: Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Whether Kasowitz or other members of the president’s defense team informed their client about the emails is not known; Trump told reporters this week he only learned about the meeting “two or three days ago.” But Richard Painter, the former top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said it was “unbelievable” that the president’s lawyers would not have alerted President Trump to the matter when they learned about them. “You have a professional obligation to inform the client about information that he needs to make informed decisions,” he said.

There have been other stumbles by Kasowitz. On Thursday, he apologized for sending obscenity-laced and menacing emails to a stranger who had urged him to quit representing Trump. (Kasowitz, through a spokesman, said he regretted the emails, explaining they had “come at the end of a very long day.”)

And, after publicly vowing to file legal complaints against former FBI Director James Comey with the Justice Department inspector general, Kasowitz later dropped the matter “out of deference to Mueller to let him do his job,” Yahoo News reported last month.

Cobb, who is distantly related to the Hall of Fame baseball player of the same name, declined to comment about his new role. But he is known to take a different approach to Washington scandal management than the combative Kasowitz. His preferred modus operandi, he has told associates, is to get out in front of negative stories and publicly release as much information as possible under the theory that it’s likely to come out anyway and concealing it will only exacerbate future political problems.

Unlike Kasowitz and two other outside defense lawyers representing the president, Jay Sekulow and John Dowd, Cobb will be joining the White House staff. But he won’t be reporting to Don McGahn, the White House counsel. Instead, he will serve as “special counsel” to Trump himself, making him the point man in the ongoing struggle to persuade the president not to tweet about matters that could complicate his legal problems in the Russia probe.

Marc Kasowitz, personal attorney of President Trump, on June 8 after delivering a statement following the congressional testimony of former FBI Director James Comey. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The sources say Gorelick’s time as Kushner’s chief lawyer were numbered once Lowell came on board as a member of his legal team more than a month ago. It would be highly unusual for two such prominent lawyers from different firms to share responsibilities in a sensitive criminal investigation.

Gorelick was always in an awkward role as Kushner’s counsel. She is a prominent Democrat in Washington legal circles, having served as chief counsel to the Defense Department and later deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. She had faced quiet criticism from longtime friends and colleagues for being associated with the legal defense of a top official in the Trump White House. But sources familiar with the matter said that Gorelick’s departure was largely driven by the appointment of Mueller, who had been a partner in Gorelick’s firm, Wilmer Hale, to serve as special counsel. At that point, Gorelick informed Kushner that conflict-of-interest issues could arise over her representation, including the possibility that Mueller might be motivated to be tougher on Kushner — leaning over backward to avoid the appearance of going easy on him out of deference to his former law partner. After weighing the issues, Kushner chose to hire Lowell as his lawyer in the Russia probe.

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