Donald Trump faces another testing time this week amid a myriad of challenges over healthare and tax reform while fighting off revelations about his campaign’s contact with Russians.
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WASHINGTON — President Trump has for months decried the investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia as the greatest “witch hunt” in American political history. But Trump’s quiet appointment of prominent Washington criminal attorney Ty Cobb as White House special counsel shows just how seriously he’s taking them.
Trump’s outside legal team is already sprawling. Marc Kasowitz, his longtime corporate lawyer, is leading a team of four attorneys to shield him from potential peril of three congressional committees and a special Justice Department counsel investigating possible collusion with Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats.
Yet by tapping former federal prosecutor Cobb as White House point man for the Russia probes, Trump is sending a clear signal that an internal legal bulwark is equally necessary to keep the administration from being consumed by the growing storm of questions about his campaign’s ties to Russian-linked operatives.
“He brings to the White House a lot of experience the president has not had,’’ said John Dowd, a prominent member of Trump’s outside legal team who recommended Cobb for the job.
Cobb will come to the White House at a particularly tense time, after revelations the president’s son, son-in-law, and former campaign chief took a highly controversial meeting in June 2016 in the hopes of obtaining damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. And it’s increasingly clear the current White House staff lacks the bandwidth to defend a president facing a criminal investigation.
“Ty’s easily one of the best lawyers in Washington, if not the country,’’ Dowd said. “Given the load they have (at the White House), they need someone like him.’’
Cobb, who has built a formidable reputation as a criminal lawyer and crisis manager, is meant to be a counterpoint to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, an expert in election law and former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission.
The addition of Cobb to the White House post also equips Trump with a seasoned criminal lawyer available to advise at any time.
He will also serve as a conduit to Trump’s hard-charging chief outside legal counsel Kasowitz, who does not possess Cobb’s criminal law expertise. Kasowitz, who has also been under scrutiny lately for firing off profanity-laden emails to a stranger, also must commute from his New York offices for occasional meetings with his client.
A former federal prosecutor in Baltimore, Cobb headed the office’s criminal division and organized crime task force. In private practice, he represented a far-flung roster of clients in bribery and corruption cases in 44 states and 35 countries, according to his firm Hogan Lovells.
Among his clients: former Democratic Party fundraiser John Huang, who emerged as a target of the Justice Department’s Campaign Finance Task Force during the Clinton administration. Huang pleaded guilty in 1999 for violating federal election law. The same year, Cobb successfully defended Hudson Foods related to a Justice investigation into a massive recall of beef contaminated by E. coli.
As a special White House counsel, Cobb will serve as the primary White House contact with the congressional investigating committees (the Senate and House Intelligence panels and the Senate Judiciary Committee), and special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is conducting the Justice Department’s wide-ranging criminal inquiry into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Cobb’s appointment also is expected to help relieve mounting pressure on chief White House counsel McGahn, who has been helping to direct both the White House response on Russia matters in addition to providing legal guidance on myriad policy issues confronting the administration.
“Within the counsel’s office, there are various attorneys that have different portfolios,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said. “And while we have outside counsel (handling Russia-related matters), a lot of times the requests that we get…require us to go to counsel and say, ‘Can we answer that question? What can we say or can’t we say?”
In fact, the White House is seeking to model its Russia legal response effort in part off the one that President Clinton put together in the midst of the various Whitewater investigations during the 1990s into the real estate investments of the Clintons and their associates.
One difference: The Clintons assembled a unit of lawyers and other professionals within the administration; so far, Cobb is the only lawyer to be brought onto the White House staff with the specific portfolio to handle investigations.
Lanny Davis, among those who served as a special White House counsel during the Clinton administration, said lawyers recruited for such jobs need to come with an understanding of the complex intersection of the law, media and politics.
“Working in a White House under attack is like working in the midst of a political campaign,” Davis said. “The first rule is to get the bad news out. There can’t be any B.S. Building a support group for what (Cobb) will have to do is not going to be easy.”
Even with Cobb’s broad experience and formidable reputation, Davis said he will need something more than his own acumen: the support of the president.
“You can’t do the job without the backing of the president,” said Davis, cofounder of the crisis management firm Trident DMG.
Cobb’s friends and former associates said colorful lawyer, who bears the name of a distant relative and baseball great known for his relentless competitiveness on the field, is up for the challenges of the task – and Trump.
“He is not a fixer, he is not a political operative,” said Robert Weber, a longtime friend and former general counsel at IBM. “He is a pure lawyer. He understands the client. He knows there are no shortcuts, and that success depends on on hard work. He’s fearless.”
James Ulwick, a fellow former prosecutor in the Baltimore, described Cobb as “the guy on everybody’s short list when you need help.”
“He likes being the center of attention, he revels in that role,” Ulwick said. “Some people would shrink from that, not him.”
Ulwick said Cobb is a natural storyteller – a lover of literature and history – who possesses a keen sense of humor that have all worked in his favor countless times both in court and out. “He is used to the challenge of persuading large groups of people,” Ulwick said.
Cobb also brings another potentially valuable commodity to the job: a long-standing friendship with Mueller.
“He’s known (Mueller) for years,’’ Dowd said. “They are both professional acquaintances and good friends. They have great respect for one another.’’