Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan.
Washington, D.C., a refined Italian restaurant downtown. Spring 2017.
In the past, wine was poured to celebrate the chance to reconnect.
But as he bustles in, it becomes clear that won’t be the case today.
Turns out, this gregarious Insider Everyman needs to dash in an hour for a flight to New York. The new president’s private lawyer has encountered choppy waters and would like to talk to Mr. Ty Cobb - who is about to head down the rabbit hole of what already looks like an interesting adventure in the presidency of Donald Trump.
What is not particularly surprising is that our White Rabbit would reach out to Cobb - a storied D.C. lawyer who made his name as a federal prosecutor in Maryland, then went on to serve as a top white-collar litigator specializing in, among other subjects, foreign bribery and corruption investigations while a partner for 29 years at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells).
What’s curiouser and curiouser, however, is that the dedicated public servant is a middle-of-the road Kansan, who has represented many elected and appointed Democrats and is passionate about the environment and civil liberties.
He dashes off with promises to tell us what he decides when he can.
Within weeks, he confides the news reports are true. Cobb has agreed to join the Trump administration, but not to represent Trump. Instead, his role is to represent the Presidency as an institution and his goal is to uphold the democracy he holds dear against a very clear threat from inside and out. Cobb served from July 2017 to June 2018 reporting directly to the President. He counseled Trump to permit the White House to cooperate in the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference, then led the effort that proved the Russian collusion story was a baseless politically contrived fraud.
“How could you abide helping Trump?” we ask, the tone of our question in October 2021 exposing some distaste. But to be fair, it’s a dialogue we’ve had with Cobb throughout his time in Trumpland, visiting him at the White House, over breakfast at the Hay-Adams and in Charleston, S.C., after he left the administration and was deciding to open his own practice.
His response: He didn’t take the role to help any single individual, nor to make any friends.
“Originally, I turned down the request to represent Trump personally. When asked a couple weeks later to represent the White House and the institution of the Presidency, I ultimately agreed after negotiating certain conditions. I then left my partnership of almost 30 years to become a government lawyer once again, because either the President had done something very wrong or had been falsely accused for political purposes that divided the country and weakened us around the world - either of which was a threat to the future of democracy and the United States.”
He wasn’t shocked, he says, by the “vitriol of the mainstream media or the countless false stories.” And while he expected personal attacks, it turned out few ensued. In fact, as others have observed, Ty Cobb was among the very, very limited number of whom served without tarnishing his reputation.
“Someone had to take on the challenge without concern for anything but finding the truth and building a White House response that would not hinder future Presidents,” Cobb says. “It was best if that person wasn’t a political hack but was instead experienced in precisely the type of investigative, legal and analytical work required. But, yes, it affected me and cost me perceived friends and stressed important personal relationships.”
In Cobb’s view, people need to do a better job at seeing past their passions and realizing that both political parties need good public servants.
“Failure for any President is failure for the country, and who roots for that?” Cobb says. “It was never about ideology for me - it was about the job.”
Cobb says that Mueller’s reported findings in March 2019 acknowledged what he and the former FBI director knew shortly after 95% or more of witness interviews had been completed in January 2018: “There was no evidence of Russian collusion - the Steele dossier was phony, the related Alpha Bank story was also a hoax and each had been bought, paid for and marketed by a campaign, a national party and political operatives for political purposes recklessly putting the country and its institutions in peril. Seven Days in May, the terrifying military coup best seller and movie of the mid 60’s, was nothing compared to the threat on our country posed by the perpetrators of these false narratives. Criticize Trump as you should for many things he actually said or did (like the “Big Lie” and January 6) but be real and even handed in assessing the reality of what happened in the fabricated, politically financed, and press hyped - yet totally false - Russian hysteria which so divided the country it hasn’t recovered and emboldened those abroad who would do us military and economic harm. It could happen again without deterrence and vigilance.”
The consequences of that divisiveness have been disastrous, however.
“It still has a strong hold on the nation and has set us on a death spiral of hatred, intolerance and international decline that is accelerating, not abating,” Cobb says.
As the son of a former Naval fighter pilot who was raised in rural Western Kansas as the oldest of 8 children, Cobb’s values are rooted in the soil where he grew up and forged through the idealism of his college years. He describes himself as having been, “A long-haired Harvard activist” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, having participated in numerous marches over racial justice, Vietnam, Cambodia and Kent State, among other issues. “We got rid of Nixon and ended the Vietnam war. There was great optimism on all social fronts. It was a magical time until it wasn’t.”
Following college and after many months of bicycling the country, managing a rock band, and failing as an aspiring writer, Cobb - still concerned about the issues of the times - went to work on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Assistant and Press Secretary. Subsequently, his father fell ill. Shortly before his father passed away at 53, Cobb had promised him he would go to law school.
And so, of course, he did.
While in law school, Cobb became interested in becoming a public defender. As a result, post-graduation, he clerked for a federal district court judge, who also served on the FISA court. As Cobb notes, “Things got very real very quickly.” As he acquired a newfound sense of how complex the administration of justice could be and how fragile the world order was, his determination to serve grew. The first trial he witnessed while clerking resulted in the acquittal of a very dangerous and, to Cobb, a blatantly guilty man. That miscarriage of justice led Cobb to believe that perhaps it was the prosecution who needed help. He became a federal prosecutor. He loved the experience of trying cases and the pressure to win. “It was competition, required intense preparation, creativity, strategy, execution, frequent adjustments and stamina,” he explains. “I loved the competitiveness. I loved the challenge of being more prepared than the other side and trying to think around corners so that you could anticipate where the vulnerabilities and opportunities were and be ready when they presented themselves.”
Once he became a prosecutor, Cobb says he was also driven by the high stakes of his cases: “If you wear the white hat, you must take special care to play fair and you have to win!”
Though his work carries that competitive spirit and intensity, in life Cobb is focused and contemplative. An “imperfect” Buddhist of 50 years, he cares deeply about equality in his personal, spiritual and legal spheres. “Tolerance, honesty and compassion are really the simple guides,” he says of Buddhism, and that philosophy carries over to his work. He notes that there is also a warrior or Samurai dimension – a tireless work ethic, frequent polishing of skills, respect for your opponent and the honorable fight. When pressed about a perceived conflict between his philosophy and the adversarial process, he quotes, “Better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”
His career went on to include a wide-ranging number of star-studded cases and causes. Highly regarded as a federal prosecutor, he became a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers during his first year of eligibility. He spent 29 years at Hogan Lovells, where he entered as a partner and later served on the firm’s elected Executive Committee and in other leadership roles. After leaving the White House, he started his own firm, and currently has the benefit of being highly selective as to clients he represents or to whom he provides strategic advice.
At Hogan, he specialized in high-profile corporate and individual white-collar crime matters, including regulatory crimes, FDA violations and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations, as well as the representation of multiple political figures. He also handled many Congressional and Independent Counsel matters, once serving as Special Trial Counsel for the Independent Counsel inquiry involving the Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Secretary from 1981-1989, Samuel Pierce. In that role, Cobb brought charges of influence peddling against former Department of Interior Secretary, James Watt, a conservative Republican, who later pled guilty.
He represented Hudson Foods (later Tyson’s) during the then largest e-coli recall in the country. A rural Nebraska meatpacking company, Hudson was forced to sell to Tyson’s in the face of an “overreaching” government prosecution (much like the later Arthur Anderson prosecutorial debacle). When the case finally tried, it was held in Lincoln, Neb., thanks to Cobb’s successful efforts to change the venue from the government’s preferred jurisdiction of Omaha.
“Individuals were on trial along with the company,” Cobb recalls. “The stakes were high in terms of potential financial penalties, regulatory consequences, and, for the individuals, prison time.”
Mid-trial, upon the defense learning it had been deprived of exculpatory information during pre-trial discovery, a hearing was required outside the presence of the jury. The judge was a no-nonsense but very kind, fair, collegial, and experienced jurist, Warren Urbom, who had been selected earlier in his career to try the Wounded Knee FBI shooting case. The government was forced to call their lead case agent to testify before the judge. Cobb conducted a lengthy cross examination that turned the agent into the defense’s key witness when Cobb called him to the stand at the beginning of the defense case before the jury. The jury was out less than 90 minutes, which included their lunch, after the month-long trial. Everyone was acquitted.
One of his early cases with Hogan was for the fledgling environmental group, Grand Canyon Trust, for which he went on to become a Trustee and serve as Chairman of the Board for several years. That passion for nature and conservation now finds him fighting to preserve Kiawah Island, S.C., as a member of the Board of the Kiawah Conservancy. He applies his legal experience to his community, working with the talented staff of the Kiawah Conservancy and his fellow Conservancy trustees (including his wife of 45 years, a lawyer and public health advocate) to protect the local fish, wildlife and ecosystem from threats including rising sea levels, offshore testing for oil, and countless other concerns.
His other notable work over the years reads like a who’s who and what’s what of a half century of politics. Since the Reagan administration, he has featured in scandals and controversies far and wide, representing a Bush 41 cabinet member, a former Tyson Foods General Counsel in connection with lucrative options trading by Hillary Clinton, several members of the Clinton administration in Department of Justice and Congressional inquiries in ethics cases, Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster’s suicide, the discovery of the Rose Law Firm billing records, the Gore Campaign Buddhist Temple fundraising, among others. He secured the exoneration of Clinton Cabinet member Eli Segal in an Independent Counsel investigation and represented Jean Kennedy Smith in a DOJ matter involving her service as Ambassador to Ireland.
“Independent Counsel investigations, like Congressional investigations, became a subspecialty in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s for a handful of white-collar specialists,” Cobb says. “I was fortunate to have worked on the Hill before law school and to have been a federal prosecutor. As a result, active participation in Congressional hearings for major corporations and for individuals were a significant part of my practice for 25 years or so.”
Cobb also represented Blue Cross/Blue Shield, The American Red Cross, Medtronic and AIG (after the crash of 2008), along with multiple other financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device manufacturers in Congressional inquiries over the years.
Cobb credits his success over such varied terrain to his collaborative approach with clients and colleagues, hard work, “strategery,” instinct and humor - particularly of the “self-deprecating” kind.
“If you can get a jury or an intended audience or opponent to laugh and realize that you’re a genuine person, not just a stuffed shirt or actor, they can relate to you,” he says. “When that happens, your presentation of the narrative becomes less pedantic and more conversational. Your questions become their questions and your beliefs become accessible. Passion may help, at times, but preparation and persuasion matter.”
As does a voice of sanity in a crazy world.
Lawdragon: So, after you left the White House, you started your own firm? Why did you decide to do that rather than return to a firm?
Ty Cobb: Right, put out my shingle. I already lived down in South Carolina on the ocean on Kiawah Island, and while I was contacted by and spoke with several firms where I had close friends, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I liked the idea of essentially being a Cal Ripken type, a one-firm guy for 29 years at Hogan. I couldn’t muster the desire to be a free agent to the highest bidder. I was excited to be free to pick and choose my own things rather than returning to the role of a rainmaker within a large bureaucracy. I also liked the idea of being unhampered by conflicts and doing more strategic consulting and crisis management for Boards of Directors and other clients.
LD: That makes sense. So now you’re choosing what you work on.
TC: Yes. Throughout my career, one of the biggest challenges for me has been learning how to say no. I probably took on more than I should have immediately after leaving the White House. I had a couple of extremely busy years. Now, I’m down to doing what I enjoy most, strategy and advocacy while supervising a handful of other lawyers when necessary. It’s starting to feel like what others describe as a normal life.
LD: What a concept. So, what cases are you working on now?
TC: I was, for the past couple years and until recently, outside general litigation and strategic counsel to a company that manufactured treatments for those afflicted by opioid addiction, and we had a variety of challenges including criminal and regulatory matters. We also had several hundred MDL cases. That was intense and very busy.
I am also representing a senior intelligence official in the so-called “Durham Investigation” by the DOJ into the FBI and assorted other agencies and individuals with regard to the controversial initiation of the Russian investigation, creation and misuse of the infamous “Steele Dossier,” and the collusion of politically sponsored lawyers, consultants and others, including the media, to push false narratives. I have a handful of other matters as well, including pro bono matters.
Then, I’m also working with a couple of campaigns on ensuring compliance with election laws. Plus, I’m still on the Kiawah Conservancy board and that’s enjoyable for me because of the people involved and the fact the focus of our efforts is my adopted low country and seashore in South Carolina. I can bring my work and experience with the Grand Canyon Trust into play in that role.
LD: Right, that was a massive early case of yours. Tell me about that.
TC: At the request of a former prosecutor friend of mine, Edward Norton, I took on a pro bono case back in the late ‘80’s early ‘90s. We succeeded in intervening in an about-to-be dismissed environmental challenge in federal court in Utah. We won an injunction against the government which we then got codified with the assistance of a bipartisan group of lawmakers as the Grand Canyon Protection Act. That injunction and later the Act limited the government’s ability to manipulate hydroelectric power flowing from Glen Canyon Dam, which was being done in a way that was detrimental to the Grand Canyon. After that, I was asked to join the Board. I was chairman for several years and loved every minute of it. The issues were and remain compelling, like restoring the Antiquities Act designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, and perpetual focus on Native American concerns, fire, drought, climate, flora and fauna. The people there are wonderful and selflessly dedicated to the Colorado Plateau and science.
LD: How did you first get the idea to become a lawyer?
TC: My dad first got the idea that I should be a lawyer when I was 16 and we were flying to D.C. for Boy’s Nation. I resisted it as long as I could. I failed as a rock-n-roller and as a writer, rode my 10-speed pedal bike around the country for a while, and finally a couple years after college, having tried those things, being unqualified for anything, I got one of the only jobs available to such people, which was working on Capitol Hill.
While there, I worked for a Congressman who was a Harvard Law School graduate and a Rhodes Scholar and concluded that maybe going to law school wasn’t such a bad thing if it freed you up to make a difference. My father still really wanted me to go to law school, and he was not well. I applied, and he passed away. The last thing I promised him was that I would go, so I did.
LD: Wow. Was your dad a lawyer?
TC: No. He was a small-town broadcaster and cable TV entrepreneur who rose through the ranks to become the chairman of the board of the National Association of Broadcasters.
LD: Oh, very cool. So, what happened next?
TC: I thought about being a public defender and went to law school with that purpose and took a federal clerkship assuming I’d go down that route. Then, the first trial I witnessed as a law clerk, there was a bank robber who was blatantly guilty. It was an overwhelming case as far as I was concerned, but he was acquitted. And I thought, “Well, maybe the other side needs more help,” so I became a prosecutor.
LD: I love that. Is there a case that stands out from your time as a prosecutor that’s particularly memorable? I know you handled a high volume of trials.
TC: We had a very accomplished office which was very collegial, everyone rooting for each other and willing to help each other grapple with evidentiary and ethical issues. Many of the best lawyers I ever knew I met there. Best job I ever had.
I had a wide variety of cases, and I have clear memories of them all. Many cases involved continuing criminal enterprises - drug dealer cases that ran the gamut from the Mafia to street distribution; and lawyers, accountants, real estate people and car dealers who were at the trough. I had a couple cases where I was put in protective custody, had to wear a bullet-proof vest and carry a gun because of death threats. It was wild West stuff in Baltimore where years of racism and corruption had put the town in crises of every sort - crime, education, housing and poverty.
In fact, David Simon, who wrote all the Baltimore crime sagas from “Homicide’’ through “The Wire,” was a young reporter during the time that I was there. Many of the early homicide stories he wrote about were from a Baltimore Police Department Homicide squad that I worked with closely as part of my role in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. He was serious and talented from the get-go. All his work has been brilliant in translating the consequences of urban decay, public corruption, educational indifference, poverty and dated criminal justice practices.
And Oprah. Oprah was another young reporter in the building on our beat. She was very sweet but also very determined.
LD: Any particular trials that come to mind from that era?
TC: I tried a case where a friend of mine, Marty Ward, who was a Baltimore City police detective on the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force with the DEA and FBI and countless other agencies, was murdered undercover. His partner was and is to this day a dear friend of mine. That friend and other courageous law enforcement folks were racing up a stairway to try to save Marty and got in a serious shootout.
Everybody was traumatized. It was a bleak night, Dec. 3, 1984, rainy and cold and solemn and sad. I don’t think anybody emotionally recovered for a long time. I prosecuted the killer. So that was an extremely memorable and emotional case that posed many challenges.
In another case, I tried the Vice-Consul of Thailand for importing heroin in diplomatic pouches some of which was sold regularly to the Mafia. We got the first search warrant ever for a diplomatic pouch. That generated several trials and stories.
At the end of the day though, if I’m out on the porch looking at the sun setting and listening to the birds and ocean and suddenly that time period comes to mind, a moment I often remember is one that never merited a headline. The case involved the murder of a young woman on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. She had been a call girl in D.C., and the murderers were another call girl and two heroin-dealing brothers.
It was a particularly difficult case to crack as the remains hadn’t been discovered for many months after the murder on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Once the agents had figured it out and the three had been apprehended, each person had to be tried separately for evidentiary reasons. There had been an elderly woman in the gallery at all three proceedings who I’d noticed but never spoken to. At the conclusion of the third trial - which was over a year after the first trial - she approached me and said, “Mr. Cobb, I’d like to thank you for what you did for my daughter despite what she did.” She was the mother of the victim. That was real and raw. I have contemplated the dignity of that moment often since.
LD: Wow. So, where did your career take you after that?
TC: I briefly joined another firm, and then I got approached by Hogan & Hartson to join their D.C. office. I suggested the possibility of a Baltimore office and the then-managing partner, a Texan named Bob Glen Odle, who once worked for Sam Rayburn when he was Speaker of the House, thought it was a good idea. We both had cowboy boots on in our first meeting and connected immediately. He was a great leader who taught me so much about leadership, sustaining a culture and friendship. One of the most important things he taught me was about leadership. He exemplified the fact that the best leaders are those who don’t seek credit but instead put people in positions to succeed in a way that they feel responsible for their individual success. He had a way of making everyone from the mailroom to the receptionists to those in the corner offices feel like they had a hand on the steering wheel. Anyway, within 90 days we were up and running in Hogan’s first extra-territorial venture, in Baltimore.
LD: That’s great. And, you later became part of management.
TC: I was elected to the executive committee of the firm less than three years later, and I spent a lot of time in management thereafter in the litigation practice group with John Roberts (now our Chief Justice) and other very talented lawyers from whom I learned so much. I was the head of our Enforcement and Investigations practice for well over two decades as it grew exponentially.
LD: Ty, while much of your work at Hogan was very confidential, I’ve always been intrigued by your jet-setting around the world to help sheiks, royalty and billionaires facing thorny issues. Can you describe the nature of that practice and share any good stories?
TC: It may not have been as glamorous as it sounds. I did represent a member of the Saudi royal family and his son for many years, usually in challenging circumstances. A long and highly public case involved false charges of rape in Spain. The legal system had been manipulated effectively by the alleged victim and her mother and their representatives. The Prince didn’t even know about the case until he had already been charged and technically convicted of the alleged crime. After several trips to Ibiza, the site of the alleged offense, and Mallorca, where the appellate office for Ibiza was located, it became clear we needed to get creative or the case could take 5 years or more - which the Prince, owner of banks and properties and other businesses around the world, could not endure.
As a result, we successfully created a perceived opportunity that enticed the complainant (a dual Spanish and German citizen) to file a new complaint in Germany. By doing so she was forced to give a statement. The statement she provided was wildly at odds with the original complaint in Spain. As a result, her statement in Germany provided us the “new evidence” legally required, under Spanish law, to reopen the case in Spain. The Prince was fully and publicly exonerated. We had video conclusively demonstrating the Prince was in another country with his family and local dignitaries at the time of the alleged event, hundreds of photographs and dozens of witness affidavits, including some from law enforcement. But without the German legal twist, creating “new evidence,” it would have taken years to restore the reputation of the Prince.
LD: Any others?
TC: For another uber wealthy client, I remember a night over 30 years ago now. My friend and partner, Rich Dunne, and I were standing on a dark isolated pier in NYC. We were accompanied by several armed Customs agents and Port Authority folks. It was about 4 a.m., and it was really cold. We were drinking bad coffee, eating the obligatory donuts and swapping war stories while waiting for the client’s $100-million-plus yacht to arrive.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Customs had attempted to forfeit the yacht because it had been used to illegally transport ivory and whalebone. It was a serious situation, but working transparently with the government we quickly had demonstrated the owner’s obliviousness to the wrongful activity by certain of his crew and worked out an agreement that there would be no forfeiture in exchange for the owner’s cooperation in arranging for access to the yacht once it docked in the U.S. Some contraband was seized and one or more of the crew were arrested, but the boat was released to the owner as had been agreed. Some of the other clients’ stories remain secret but because of them I got to spend many, many weeks over time in Argentina, Uruguay, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and a few other spots around the world.
LD: Fascinating. So, moving to your work at the White House – suddenly, the media just had a lot to say about you and your role. I know it’s not the first time you were in the spotlight, but with such a polarizing president, the Mueller investigation was so incredibly important. What was that like for you?
TC: Well, while many people associate me with Trump, historically I had represented a number of Democrats during various scandals going back years. I represented Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith during an inquiry regarding her service as Ambassador to Ireland. I represented Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, a former partner, in connection with the Whitewater investigation in which he was a witness. Later I was counsel to several people in the Clinton White House. In fact, the Trump White House is one of the few Republican related assignments I had in my career. My most widely known case involving a Republican was when I was a Special Trial Counsel working with Judge Alvin Adams on the HUD Independent Counsel team. While there I brought an indictment of a conservative Republican, former Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who later pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement. Just as with Trump, that case had nothing to do with ideology.
I was approached to come to the White House after the investigation had commenced and Mueller had been appointed. Originally, I was asked to represent the President in his personal capacity. I declined. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to represent the Presidency and become a government employee. After considerable thought, I agreed. I knew it would be accompanied by some...
TC: Well, I knew 50 percent of the people would hate me and 50 percent of the people might not, and the media was not going to be kind. But I thought it was important to the country that a competent person who knew the legal and ethical path through the independent counsel maze manage that for that White House and for future Presidents. They didn’t have anybody there with that skill set. Usually, the White House counsel would be able to manage that, but [White House Counsel] Don McGahn was not a litigator and his previous handling of several issues was done in a way that failed to preserve executive privilege. This forced him and others in his office and elsewhere within the White House into the category of witnesses. As a result, he recused himself and the bulk of his office from the Russia investigation.
Things were very tense between the White House and the Mueller team when I arrived as the White House had responded with dead silence to the many pending attempts to arrange an exchange of certain specific documents. There was not much trust. That needed to be addressed immediately. Together, over the following few weeks, the Office of Special Counsel and I, with the assistance of the Office of Legal Counsel within DOJ, negotiated a series of constitutionally sound ground rules that enabled the White House to fully cooperate, so we never once received a subpoena. We had a very collaborative approach to assisting them and assimilating the facts demonstrating there really was nothing to the alleged Russian collusion, and it was successful in that regard.
LD: What was the legal importance of the president not being subpoenaed?
TC: That is the most significant question of the whole exercise. It was certain early on that the Mueller team would want to interview the President. The governing caselaw on that is the Espy case involving former Clinton administration Secretary of Agriculture, Michael Espy from Mississippi. I represented the Clinton transition team in that matter and was very familiar with the case.
The boundaries of executive privilege are addressed in part in one of the reported opinions in that case, In re Espy. That opinion refines the U.S. v. Nixon analysis of executive privilege holding that while the President’s executive privilege is based upon the Constitution’s separation of powers requirements, it can be overcome by a showing of substantial need and a related showing that the information cannot be obtained with “due diligence” through other means. One of the reasons underlying the decision of the White House to cooperate fully, was to maintain the privilege if at all possible – a strategy important to maintaining the separation of powers.
The compelling Constitutional framework for that important effort was based upon the approach of total and complete cooperation in providing documents and witnesses pursuant to and governed by the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel on July 15, 2008, under Attorney General Michael Mukasey, an opinion later invoked by Eric Holder on behalf of President Obama to prevent production of documents and information in the Fast and Furious scandal.
The second leg of the legal approach was to utilize that protected cooperation to meet the Espy standard challenging the investigators. At the end of the day, no subpoena was issued for the testimony of the President. Had one been issued, the Espy standard assured a lengthy court fight with no assurance of victory for the Mueller team. For the benefit of future administrations, separation of powers was fully protected as was executive privilege, although the White House ultimately chose not to assert the privilege in full and allowed publication of the Mueller report.
LD: I see. How did you feel entering into that arena?
TC: I went in curious and cautious. I didn’t know what the facts were and was determined not to commit the White House to a strategic course until I had mastered them. I spent several weeks, actually, assimilating them. I had to build a staff gradually, as legal resources that had been committed to me when I was recruited were withdrawn on my arrival by the White House Counsel. As a result, I didn’t start with lawyers. I started with technicians, document people and computer people, and gradually accumulated a small but very high-quality group of lawyers.
Now, just like with me, Bob Mueller didn’t create the job or the issue. He was asked to fill a role. He’s somebody I had known and respected for 30 years, and still respect.
So, I think there was a mutual confidence in each other, understanding we were on different sides but that we weren’t personal enemies, that made it go smoothly. Along with his senior staff, particularly Jim Quarles who is an excellent lawyer and a better person, a constitutionally sensitive format was worked out that facilitated our ability to be collaborative. The issues were dense and required an agreed-upon understanding of certain Office of Legal Counsel opinions, one of which I mentioned moments ago, with regard to Executive Privilege, and other significant Constitutional issues. Certainly there were a few lawyers on his team who were ideological obstacles to moving the investigation at the pace it deserved, and there were legal issues, like the novel view of some on his team of law of obstruction that prompted disagreements. Yet, in dealing with Bob and Jim in particular, things went smoothly and professionally.
By the time I left, everybody in the White House had shown up voluntarily without the necessity of subpoenas, we’d preserved executive privilege, they had all the necessary information, and I was done. While I had frequently been asked about my interest in other positions at the White House or within the Administration, I was never interested. My sole client was the Office of the Presidency. I didn’t represent President Trump personally and I wasn’t auditioning for another job. I came to do a specific task, and by the time I left that job was done. The President was well represented personally during my time there by Jay Sekulow and John Dowd.
LD: That makes sense. And how did handling the press go while you were there?
TC: It was a confounding challenge. Not so much because the information itself that needed to be assimilated and shared was controversial or embarrassing (although there was certainly some of that) but because of the fact that an astonishingly large percentage of what people were being told or asked to believe was either made up, speculation or presented one-sidedly. Some of the reasons for that were recently disclosed by the indictment of Michael Sussmann of Perkins Coie who represented the Clinton campaign and the DNC and, it appears, when the Steele dossier his firm paid for and helped to circulate failed to derail the Trump campaign, another “Russian” conspiracy allegedly involving Alpha Bank was fabricated and peddled to the FBI and an eager press - that, of course, ended up being a hoax, too. I ended up doing far more press than I ever wanted to, but only actually responded in detail to the questions where the reporting was so far out of bounds and incorrect that it required some balance.
As a non-political appointee, I did not deal with the press as a cheerleader for the Administration, nor would I have done so had I been asked. Instead, I repetitively highlighted the simple facts necessary to correct gross distortions. I tried to do it in a lawyerly way. I made mistakes (as I have on occasion throughout my lifetime), and tried to learn from them, but mostly sought to stay on course to complete the task of shepherding the information required cooperatively to the Special Counsel with the hope of ending an intensely divisive event for the country. People constantly needed to be reassured the White House was still cooperating and Mueller was not going to be fired - at least not while I was there. To that end, by the way, there were a handful of occasions I called Mueller or Quarles to alert them to alleged stories that were untrue or to upcoming comments by me or others of which I thought they should be aware. I also received the same courtesy from them a couple of times - totally professional.
LD: With hindsight, would you go back down the rabbit hole and take the job in the Trump administration again? And what is your takeaway from that presidency for our democracy?
TC: Everyday! It is about service. And, doing one’s best to assist the country through challenging times.
I think democracy is and remains under assault. I think the media has a lot to do with that particularly now that it is largely an industry where facts are ignored or abused in order to sell a narrative to an audience addicted to a bias - liberal or conservative. Facts seem revenue based now. It is sad. We have so few real leaders. Division and decline are the order of the day and there is no obvious help on the way. I would love to hear a bugle and help coming but I don’t.
LD: Right. That is crazy. Now, I wanted to ask you about your kids – are any of them lawyers?
TC: Yes, before mentioning the “kids,” remember my wife is a lawyer and also has a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins. We have four children. Our youngest is also a lawyer. She and her wonderful husband are in Atlanta, and she’s a lawyer at King & Spalding. She was an intern for an 11th Circuit judge after her first year of law school, worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office while in law school, and clerked for a federal judge. She has had a lot of experiences similar to my own. We are really proud of all the children, their spouses and significant others and, of course, my granddaughters who are the reason I wake up with a smile!