Steve Bannon is not a lawyer, but the chief White House strategist is poised to become the senior partner in a heavyweight firm of bareknuckle barristers at the center of President Trump's counter-offensive against Russia collusion claims.
Bannon, the former Breitbart executive whose no-holds-barred approach served Trump well in the homestretch of his presidential campaign, headed home from Trump's foreign trip and is reportedly the quarterback of an emerging war room of high-powered lawyers, surrogates and researchers.
Their mission: Respond, rebut and refute bad press and legal issues emanating from the special counsel probe led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into Russian influence on the 2016 election.
"Steve is super savvy dealing with the media and dealing with crises," Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy told Axios.
While Bannon is poised to oversee the entire operation, the legal team being assembled is an eclectic roster of seasoned streetfighters and well-known litigators.
“A big legal team, even one with people with titanic reputations, can greatly benefit the person represented by that big team,” said former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy. “The Justice Department can throw endless resources at cases, so it makes a difference to be capable of matching them.”
Talks are still underway but Trump is reportedly leaning toward a well-rounded legal team as part of the overall strategy. Only the hiring of Trump’s long-time attorney Marc Kasowitz has been confirmed.
Others believed to be in the mix include a self-described 60s-era hippie close to Democrats, a conservative stalwart who has long known Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey, and two corporate “uberlitigators.”
Finalists are reportedly Theodore Olson, Reid Weingarten and Robert Giuffra. Olson would not confirm whether he is being considered for the Trump war room. “I’m not commenting one way or the other on this situation, at least for now,” he told Fox News. The others did not respond to requests for comment.
Olson and Weingarten have extensive high-level connections in Washington, albeit on opposite sides of the aisle. Giuffra, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, is Volkswagen’s top attorney fending off lawsuits arising from the German automaker’s admission it cheated on diesel emissions tests in the U.S.
A room full of high-powered attorneys could bring risks along with reward, said John Quinn, the name partner in the Los Angeles firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
“I would be surprised that would be a choice getting serious consideration, to have a team consisting of attorneys who are all used to being leaders,” Quinn, who has known Kasowitz for decades, told Fox news. “I can’t imagine that would work out very well.”
Weingarten has called himself a “hard-core child of the 60s,” yet when the time came for retribution for the credit crisis, his close friendship with none other than President Obama’s former Attorney General Eric Holder, appeared to pay off. Holder’s DOJ announced it would not prosecute Goldman Sachs or disgraced former Goldman banker Jon Corzine, both represented by Weingarten, despite intense pressure from Obama’s left-wing base to pursue justice after the credit meltdown.
About a decade before, the lawyer who once proclaimed his guiding principle was “to bring peace to this earth” represented executives from another era of financial scandal: WorldCom, Enron, Tyco, and Rite Aid. At the time, Weingarten reportedly said, “I feel like I'm in the French Revolution, defending the nobility against the howling mob. They want to guillotine these people without any evidence."
Weingarten has employed a straightforward strategy for years with clients like Trump, say legal observers. He paints a picture of a misunderstood soul with basically good intentions who may have erred a bit but do not deserve draconian prosecution.
“These are all big-ego, extraordinarily successful people who find themselves dramatically at odds with Uncle Sam, because typically people don’t come to me unless the Justice Department wants to put them in prison for a long time and take all their money,” Weingarten said in 2015.
Olson is the attorney with perhaps the most dramatic tale to tell of Washington intrigue. Olson has much more than a passing acquaintance with both Mueller and Comey. The three were at the center of a crisis in March 2004 when Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized, and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez wanted him to extend former President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program. Comey believed such an extension was illegal.
That precipitated one of the stranger moments in Washington history, when Comey jumped into a car with FBI agents and went on a high-speed pursuit to prevent Gonzalez from reaching Ashcroft before it was too late. Comey at the time was deputy attorney general.
They got to the hospital in a nick of time, to find Gonzalez and other White House officials just starting their meeting with Ashcroft at his hospital bed.
“I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man,” Comey later said in Congressional hearings. It was a moment of incredible tension. Comey actually instructed his team of FBI agents to prevent the White House security detail from removing him from Ashcroft’s presence.
Comey’s first and second choices for support in the standoff: then FBI Director Robert Mueller and Ted Olson, who was Solicitor General.
“Mueller had been a great help to me that week,” Comey said. After Ashcroft rejected the program, Comey jumped into a car with Olson and went straight to the White House to meet with the President.
The value of such close ties with the key players is questionable, say legal experts.
A longstanding professional relationship between Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Comey didn’t prevent Rosenstein from issuing a memo harshly critical of Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails. That memo was the rationale for Comey’s firing.
“Rosenstein probably hated writing the memo, but if you have to write the memo, you write the memo,” McCarthy said.
On the other hand, worries by Trump supporters that attorneys from the Washington establishment can’t be trusted to reliably represent the President are also probably unfounded, said McCarthy.
“I never worry about whether a guy of this caliber is going to do the right thing by his client,” McCarthy told Fox News, “the Washington bar is not a huge bar. These lawyers get along personally very well, and people at this level are pretty clinical about legal questions.”