President Donald Trump has hired a veteran lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment process as the White House shifted to a more aggressive approach to the Russia investigation that has reached a critical stage.
The White House announced the hiring of lawyer Emmet Flood after disclosing the retirement of Ty Cobb, who for months has been the administration’s point person dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller.
It is the latest shake-up for a legal team grappling with unresolved questions on how to protect the president from legal and political jeopardy in Mr Mueller’s Russia probe, which is nearing its one-year anniversary.
White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Mr Cobb had been discussing the decision for weeks and would retire at the end of May, and that Mr Flood would be joining the White House staff to “represent the president and the administration against the Russia witch hunt”.
The replacement of Mr Cobb with Mr Flood may herald a more adversarial stance toward the Mueller team as Mr Trump’s lawyers debate whether to make the president available for an interview with the special counsel and brace for the prospect of a grand jury subpoena if they refuse.
Though Mr Cobb did not personally represent the president, he functioned as a critical point person for Mr Mueller’s document and interview requests, coordinated dealings with prosecutors and worked closely with Mr Trump’s personal lawyers.
He had repeatedly urged cooperation with the investigation in hopes of bringing it to a quick end, and viewed his role as largely finished now that interviews with dozens of current and former White House official have been completed.
Yet Mr Flood, who was embroiled in the bitterly partisan Clinton impeachment fight 20 years ago, may well advocate a more confrontational approach.
His law firm, Williams & Connolly, is one of Washington’s most prominent, with a reputation for aggressive advocacy for its clients and a history of tangling with the government — but also representing senior White House officials, including presidents.
Mr Flood, a former law clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has defended former vice president Dick Cheney in a lawsuit brought by former CIA official Valerie Plame and represented George W Bush in executive-privilege disputes with Congress — suggesting he is well-versed in the powers of the presidency and may invoke those authorities as the Mueller investigation moves forward.
Mr Flood was always the top choice of White House counsel Don McGahn for the job Mr Cobb was given last summer, according to a person familiar with the hiring decision who described Flood as a “fighter”.
Mr Cobb and Mr McGahn had different views on how cooperative the White House should be with the special counsel investigation.
Mr Cobb’s retirement, though not a surprise, was nonetheless the latest evolution for a legal team marked by turnover.
âThis isnât some game. You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States.â John Dowd, March 2018. With North Korea, China, the Middle East and so much more, there is not much time to be thinking about this, especially since there was no Russian âCollusion.â— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2018
Mr Trump’s lead personal lawyer, John Dowd, left in March. Another lawyer who Mr Trump tried to bring on ultimately passed because of conflicts, and the president two weeks ago added former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a pair of former prosecutors, Martin and Jane Raskin, to work alongside mainstay lawyer Jay Sekulow.
Critical decisions lie ahead. The president’s legal team has not committed him to an interview with Mr Mueller, who has dozens of questions on a broad array of topics he would like to ask.
Mr Trump initially said he was eager for an interview, but he has not said so recently. His view of Mr Mueller soured further after raids last month that targeted one of his personal lawyers, Michael Cohen, in a separate investigation.
Those interview negotiations are hugely consequential, especially after Mr Dowd confirmed to The Associated Press this week that Mr Mueller’s team in March raised the prospect of issuing a grand jury subpoena for Mr Trump, an extraordinary idea that would seek to force a sitting president to testify under oath.
It was not immediately clear in what context the possibility of a subpoena was raised or how serious Mr Mueller’s prosecutors were about such a move.
Mr Mueller is probing not only Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates but possible obstruction of justice by Mr Trump after he took office.
If Mr Mueller’s team decides to subpoena Mr Trump as part of the investigation, the president could still fight it in court or refuse to answer questions by invoking his Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination.
Mr Trump lashed out against the investigation in familiar fashion on Wednesday, saying on Twitter: “There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap).”
There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap). What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more. Witch Hunt!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2018
Also on Wednesday, Mr Trump echoed the concerns of a small group of House conservatives who have been criticising the Justice Department for not turning over certain investigation documents.
“What are they afraid of?” Mr Trump tweeted. “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”
A Rigged System - They donât want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal âjustice?â At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2018
It was unclear what Trump meant by “get involved”.
Several Republican House committee chairmen have recently negotiated deals with the Justice Department to turn over documents related to Russia investigations into Trump and also a 2016 investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The Justice Department says that “dozens of members and staff from both parties” have viewed thousands of classified documents and House staff members have temporary office space in the department to review additional materials.
But some politicians who sit on those committees remain unsatisfied, particularly members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Some of them have asked for an unredacted version of a Justice Department document that sets out the scope for Mueller’s probe, a request that the department immediately denied because it pertains to an ongoing investigation.