Two of President Donald Trump’s lawyers were overheard discussing disputes about document production over lunch at a D.C. steakhouse, and made reference to several documents White House counsel Don McGahn has secured in a safe.
Ty Cobb, the veteran Washington lawyer Trump tapped to lead his administration’s response to the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and John Dowd, another Trump lawyer, discussed a conflict between Trump’s legal team and the White House counsel’s office. The pair discussed how forthcoming the administration should be in furnishing materials requested by special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who returned to government service with a broad mandate to investigate Russian meddling.
Ken Vogel of The New York Times was seated just one table over. Cobb and Dowd were talking “casually and loudly,” according to Vogel’s account of the conversation.
“The White House counsel’s office is being very conservative with this stuff,” Cobb said of cooperation with Mueller, according to the Times on Sunday. “Our view is we’re not hiding anything.”
“He’s got a couple documents locked in a safe,” Cobb added, in reference to McGahn.
Despite his willingness to cooperate fully with Mueller, Cobb was sympathetic to concerns that robust disclosure of documents would equip Trump critics in Congress with sensitive information that could be leveraged against the president.
“If we give it to Mueller, there is no reason for it to ever get to the Hill,” he said.
The exchange later prompted a sharp rebuke from McGahn and White House chief of staff John Kelly, unnamed sources told the Times.
In a subsequent statement to the Times, Cobb praised McGahn’s skill and professionalism.
“He’s done a superior job of building and managing a White House counsel’s office that deals with a wide variety of issues effectively every day,” he said. “He works hard and is highly regarded, and his lawyering skills are excellent.”
A dispute of this nature is not necessarily surprising, given the differing roles McGahn and Cobb play in the West Wing. As White House counsel, McGahn is not so much the president’s lawyer as he is the presidency’s lawyer, defining the scope of executive power and preserving the prerogatives of the president for future administrations. In this sense he is more of an institutional figure who preserves the powers and privileges of the office for Trump’s successors. Cobb, on the other hand, is Trump’s personal counsel. His task is to make a zealous defense of the president and ensure he is ultimately vindicated.
Therefore, recalcitrance about furnishing vast troves of material for Mueller is typical of the historic role of the White House counsel, while agitating for cooperation is characteristic of a white collar defense lawyer like Cobb.
The incident could raise ethical questions for Cobb. Loudly discussing a sensitive matter pertaining to his client — and revealing the existence of documents secured in a safe — could be seen as unprofessional recklessness warranting reprimand.
If, on the other hand, Cobb recognized Vogel and deliberatively affected a louder tone, a sort of “accidental leak,” then the ethical issues are far more serious.
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