Top lawyers with at least four major law firms rebuffed White House overtures to represent President Trump in the Russia investigations, in part over concerns that the president would be unwilling to listen to their advice, according to five sources familiar with discussions about the matter.
The unwillingness of some of the country’s most prestigious attorneys and their law firms to represent Trump has complicated the administration’s efforts to mount a coherent defense strategy to deal with probes being conducted by four congressional committees as well as Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
The president’s chief lawyer now in charge of the case is Marc E. Kasowitz, a tough New York civil litigator who for years has aggressively represented Trump in multiple business and public relations disputes — often with threats of countersuits and menacing public statements — but who has little experience dealing with complex congressional and Justice Department investigations that are inevitably influenced by media coverage and public opinion.
Before Kasowitz was retained, however, some of the biggest law firms and their best-known attorneys turned down overtures when they were sounded out by White House officials to see if they would be willing to represent the president, the sources said.
Among them, sources said, were some of the most high-profile names in the legal profession, including Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly; Ted Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Paul Clement and Mark Filip of Kirkland & Ellis; and Robert Giuffra of Sullivan & Cromwell.
The lawyers and their firms cited a variety of factors in choosing not to take on the president as a client. Some, like Brendan Sullivan, said they had upcoming trials or existing commitments that would make it impossible for them to devote the necessary time and resources to Trump’s defense.
Others mentioned potential conflicts with clients of their firms, such as financial institutions that have already received subpoenas relating to potential money-laundering issues that are part of the investigation.
But a consistent theme, the sources said, was the concern about whether the president would accept the advice of his lawyers and refrain from public statements and tweets that have consistently undercut his position.
“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’” said one lawyer close to the White House who is familiar with some of the discussions between the firms and the administration, as well as deliberations within the firms themselves.
Other factors, the lawyer said, were that it would “kill recruitment” for the firms to be publicly associated with representing the polarizing president and jeopardize the firms’ relationships with other clients.
Another lawyer briefed on some of the discussions agreed that the firms were worried about the reputational risk of representing the president. One issue that arose, this lawyer said, was “Do I want to be associated with this president and his policies?” In addition, the lawyer said, there were concerns that if they took on the case, “Who’s in charge?” and “Would he listen?”
None of the lawyers who turned down the White House overtures responded to requests for comment by Yahoo News.
The White House began discreetly reaching out to assemble an outside legal team several weeks ago, after the public uproar over the firing of FBI Director James Comey — who is due to testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday — followed by the appointment of Mueller as Justice Department special counsel.
Among those who began calling around on the president’s behalf were White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House counsel Don McGahn. In some cases, the discussions led to meetings or phone calls between the lawyers who were approached and the president himself.
Some of the sources who spoke to Yahoo News said the top lawyers and the four firms that rejected the overtures were not exhaustive of the list of firms approached by the White House. Among those who also were reportedly approached were Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson and A.B. Culvahouse Jr. of O’Melveny & Myers.
The hiring of Kasowitz has been criticized by some who view the New York lawyer as a pit-bull litigator who lacks the finesse to represent the president in probes that involve the public arena. Among the cases on which he has represented Trump over the years were lawsuits involving Trump University and divorce proceedings.
But one of the sources said that Kasowitz has been reaching out to Washington legal veterans to solicit ideas and suggestions about how to craft an overall defense strategy, including how and when to publicly release information that might be helpful to the president’s defense, the source said.