WASHINGTON — A new figure has swept through the West Wing lately, a man with silver hair combed back across his head, rimless glasses perched on his nose, a white handkerchief tucked neatly into his suit pocket, a taste for legal pugilism and an uncertain role in a building confronted by a host of political and legal threats.
Marc E. Kasowitz, a New York civil litigator who represented President Trump for 15 years in business and boasts of being called the toughest lawyer on Wall Street, has suddenly become the field marshal for a White House under siege. He is a personal lawyer for the president, not a government employee, but he has been talking about establishing an office in the White House complex where he can run his legal defense.
His visits to the White House have raised questions about the blurry line between public and private interests for a president facing legal issues. In recent days, Mr. Kasowitz has advised White House aides to discuss the inquiry into Russia’s interference in last year’s election as little as possible, two people involved said. He told aides gathered in one meeting who had asked whether it was time to hire private lawyers that it was not yet necessary, according to another person with direct knowledge.
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Such conversations between a private lawyer for the president and the government employees who work for his client are highly unusual, according to veterans of previous administrations. Mr. Kasowitz bypassed the White House Counsel’s Office in having these discussions, according to one person familiar with the talks, who, like others, requested anonymity to discuss internal matters. And concerns about Mr. Kasowitz’s role led at least two prominent Washington lawyers to turn down offers to join the White House staff.
“The president’s private lawyer is representing only his interests, not the interests of the United States government or the individual interests of the White House staff,” said Robert F. Bauer, who was White House counsel under President Barack Obama.
The administration referred questions to Mr. Kasowitz. A spokesman for Mr. Kasowitz called the characterizations of his conversations with staff members “inaccurate,” but would not specify how. “The lawyers don’t disclose conversations they have had with anyone,” Mark Corallo, the spokesman, wrote in an email. “Of course people are free to hire a lawyer or talk to anyone they want.”
Mr. Kasowitz is not the first personal lawyer to represent a president facing legal issues. President Bill Clinton retained Robert S. Bennett to defend him in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, and David E. Kendall and Nicole K. Seligman to represent him in the Whitewater and Monica S. Lewinsky investigations.
The line between government lawyers representing the administration and private lawyers representing the president was always somewhat vague. But one important difference was that the president’s conversations with private lawyers were protected by attorney-client privilege, while those with his White House lawyers were not.
To many Washington hands, Mr. Kasowitz, 64 — who represented Mr. Trump during his Atlantic City casino financial troubles and represents other clients like Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host — seems an unusual choice for the mission. While he is widely respected as a fierce and successful lawyer, he has little experience in high-profile criminal cases or politically charged Washington investigations.
Mr. Kasowitz has been central to Mr. Trump’s recent legal battles, helping his client keep divorce records sealed and representing him in the Trump University fraud lawsuit, in which Mr. Trump ultimately agreed to pay $25 million to settle claims from former students that the institution had cheated them out of tuition money.
In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Mr. Kasowitz threatened to sue The New York Times for libel on Mr. Trump’s behalf over a story in which two women accused Mr. Trump of inappropriate touching years earlier. No lawsuit has been filed. A decade earlier, however, Mr. Kasowitz followed through on a similar threat, suing Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer and former reporter and editor for The Times, for libel and alleging that he had understated Mr. Trump’s net worth. That suit was dismissed by a New Jersey Superior Court judge.
Also raising eyebrows are two of Mr. Kasowitz’s other clients — Sberbank, the largest state-owned bank in Russia, on which the Obama administration imposed sanctions, and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian tycoon who is close to President Vladimir V. Putin and had business dealings with Paul Manafort, once Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.
While Mr. Trump is not known to be under investigation over potential collusion with Russia, the special counsel now leading the Russia inquiry, Robert S. Mueller III, has the authority to investigate obstruction of justice. Some in Congress have said that Mr. Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, coupled with his own statements about Mr. Comey, could be seen as evidence of attempted obstruction of justice.
Whether Mr. Kasowitz is having an effect on his client is unclear. He advised Mr. Trump to ease up on his use of Twitter, and when Mr. Trump’s account was quiet for nearly 48 hours last week around the time of Mr. Comey’s Senate hearing, some speculated that Mr. Kasowitz was responsible. But Mr. Trump began attacking Mr. Comey’s testimony on Friday morning, and he has defiantly told friends that despite his lawyer’s instructions, he has not changed his behavior.
As for Mr. Kasowitz’s conversations with presidential aides, the White House Counsel’s Office typically supervises such discussions to make sure the aides understand their rights and do not feel pressured to help a lawyer who does not represent their interests, legal experts said. The counsel’s involvement is all the more critical in this case, they said, because many of the aides — potential witnesses in the government’s inquiry — do not currently have personal lawyers.
Mr. Kasowitz’s advice to administration staff may benefit the president more than the aides themselves, the experts said. The conversations he has with aides could shape their testimony before Mr. Mueller has a chance to interview them, should they be called as witnesses.
Mr. Bauer said that the current White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should know Mr. Kasowitz’s schedule of conversations so that he could inform the special counsel. “He does not want Kasowitz to do anything that could be interpreted as an act of obstruction, a means of dissuading the witnesses from cooperating in the investigation,” Mr. Bauer said.
Since asserting influence in the White House in recent weeks, Mr. Kasowitz has discussed establishing an office on White House grounds — in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where much of the president’s staff works — according to multiple people familiar with the deliberations. Such an arrangement would have Mr. Kasowitz and his team frequently crossing paths with potential witnesses.
Mr. Corallo, the spokesman for Mr. Kasowitz, said the team was working in private space. “The lawyers do not have an office in the E.E.O.B. and are working out of their offices in D.C.,” he said. “They come to the White House to meet with their client, President Trump.”
Partly because of concerns that Mr. Kasowitz is undermining the White House Counsel’s Office, at least two veteran Washington lawyers — Emmet Flood, a partner at Williams & Connolly, and William A. Burck, a partner at Quinn Emanuel — rejected offers to join the counsel’s office to help represent the administration in the Russia inquiry, according to people familiar with the hiring discussions, although they may yet represent individual White House officials.
Other noted criminal defense lawyers have similarly rejected offers to join Mr. Trump’s private legal team because of a range of uncertainties, including how much control Mr. Kasowitz exercises over his client, whether their advice would be secondary to his and whether Mr. Trump would pay legal bills. Besides Mr. Kasowitz, Mr. Trump’s personal legal team includes his partner, Michael J. Bowe, and Jay Sekulow, a Washington lawyer who specializes in free speech and religious liberties.
“Kasowitz is looking for at least one criminal expert, but the problem is Trump is a difficult client notorious for not following legal advice and for not paying his bills,” said Norman Eisen, the White House ethics lawyer under Mr. Obama and a frequent critic of Mr. Trump.
Previous administrations tried to coordinate the activities of private lawyers before letting them interact with aides. Jane Sherburne, a White House special counsel who managed ethics issues during Mr. Clinton’s first term, said Mr. Kendall was not allowed to meet with White House staff members until “we had gone through a whole exercise of having conversations with employees ourselves, talking to them about whether they wanted to retain their own counsel and telling them they didn’t have to talk to Kendall.”
Under ethics rules, Mr. Kasowitz cannot interview any official who has hired a lawyer without that lawyer’s permission, meaning it would be in his interest if administration aides did not hire their own lawyers, experts said. “It is probably easier for him to represent Trump if he doesn’t have to deal with a bunch of other lawyers,” Ms. Sherburne said, adding that she believed it was inappropriate for Mr. Kasowitz to discourage aides from hiring their own counsel.
Richard Painter, the White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush who now teaches at the University of Minnesota’s law school, said that in a worst-case scenario, a staff member might listen to Mr. Kasowitz’s advice and “end up thrown under the bus.”
Some major figures in the Trump administration have personal counsel. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is represented by Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general under Mr. Clinton.
If the special counsel does explore obstruction, said Julie Rose O’Sullivan, who worked on the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration, the net cast by investigators will be wide and the list of witnesses long. “You’d have to find out what the president was thinking,” said Ms. O’Sullivan, now a professor of criminal law at Georgetown University. “That means calling everyone he talked to at the time before a grand jury, and none of those people should go near a grand jury without a good lawyer with Washington savvy.”
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