By Associated Press
President Donald Trump, whose combative instincts are to lash out and never retreat, appears to be shaping a legal team in his own image. His clear directive: Fight, fight, fight.
In aggressively worded statements and confrontational TV appearances, Trump’s personal lawyers and newly hired proxies have shown themselves more than ready to defend him in the manner to which he is accustomed — with arguments seemingly aimed at public opinion as much as at warding off any actual legal threat from prosecutors.
“The president has not been and is not under investigation,” lawyer Jay Sekulow has declared repeatedly the past few days, only to add to the statement Monday that he didn’t know for certain if that was true. “The legal team has not been notified,” he said on CNN.
The Trump team’s style makes for a study in contrasts when compared to the seasoned group of prosecutors and criminal law experts working under Robert Mueller, the tight-lipped, respected ex-FBI director. To make it even more difficult, their client’s public statements often threaten to undercut their work.
“I don’t care who Trump hires. There’s no reason to think he’s going to listen to legal advice,” said Washington defense lawyer Peter Zeidenberg. “Good luck trying to represent him.”
It’s too early to say for sure what legal strategy his team will settle on, especially since the full contours of the probe aren’t known and no public allegations have been leveled by investigators. But two avenues appear clear so far: The lawyers are prepared to paint Mueller’s investigative team as somehow politically motivated, or too aligned with the interests of fired FBI Director James Comey; and they will argue the president didn’t illegally exert pressure on the investigation.
Already, they’ve floated the idea that Mueller could be biased because some members of his investigative team have made campaign contributions to Democrats and because Mueller interviewed for the FBI director’s job after Trump fired Comey.
Attacking the idea that the president tried to obstruct the investigation also seems key. Comey did tell Trump he was not personally under investigation, but that was before the director was fired. Comey has since said he suspects the circumstances of his firing will be scrutinized by Mueller, putting pressure on Trump’s supporters to deny any illegal intent — critical to an obstruction of justice case. Some suggest his actions were wholly legitimate, based on ignorance rather than malevolence or on anger at an FBI director who would not repeat publicly his private reassurances.
“If you can prove that there was something there and the president knew about it, then the obstruction case looks far stronger,” said Washington attorney Justin Dillon. “But if it’s just, he’s acting impetuously because he doesn’t like having himself or his friends investigated for something he genuinely believes he didn’t do, then I think that’s a much harder case for obstruction.”
Whether Trump himself is under investigation at this stage also is still unclear. On Friday, he seemed to confirm news reports that he was, tweeting, “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.” Pressed by TV interviewers, Sekulow declared that Trump was not being investigated, then tried to walk that back, at least slightly, saying there had been no such notification.
That lack of formal notification wouldn’t be unusual in the early stages of an investigation. Federal prosecutors sometimes, but not always, advise an individual if he is at risk of being charged or is the subject of an investigation. Prosecutors early on also are generally focused on understanding how a particular circumstance unfolded, rather than in pursuing a particular target.
One thing’s for certain: Even with Mueller’s team working in silence, declining to discuss or confirm the most basic details, Trump’s team is determined to make his case in public. That may be an understandable approach in such a high-profile matter, though not always an advisable one.
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