Two of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers discussed intimate details of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election over lunch at a D.C. steakhouse — and a New York Times reporter happened to overhear it.
Though Washington has matured from an unremarkable backwater to a thriving professional and cultural center, in many ways it is still a small town. Social circles regularly cross partisan or professional lines, and the restaurants and bars concentrated near government offices often leave journalists, consultants, and well-placed officials in close proximity to one another.
Nonetheless, the origin of this story is truly bizarre — perhaps too bizarre to be believed.
The posture of the story as presented by the Times is this: Trump lawyers Ty Cobb and John Dowd were eating lunch at BLT Steak on I Street, just one block from the White House. During the meal, Cobb criticized White House counsel Don McGahn’s reluctance to furnish certain documents for special counsel Robert Mueller. He further revealed that McGahn has secured a trove of documents in a safe. And all the while, Times reporter Ken Vogel was seated immediately next to the pair who, by Vogel’s description, affected a “casual and loud” tone.
It’s entirely possible that this is precisely what happened. Though Vogel had a fairly significant profile at Politico, he is new to the Times and perhaps unknown to west wing lawyers like Cobb and Dowd. Nor is it hard to believe that two older men would adopt a loud tenor over steaks.
But it’s still odd, for these reasons:
In the first place, BLT Steak is immediately next to the Times’ Washington bureau. There’s a reasonable chance of spotting a Times reporter there on any given day. This alone should encourage two lawyers advising a high-profile client through a sensitive matter to be wary.
Second, it’s genuinely surprising that Dowd and Cobb wouldn’t recognize Vogel. Over the course of a decade at Politico, he refined a range of skills useful for tracking the confluence of money and political influence. It’s likely he was brought to the Times precisely to apply those skills against Trump and his businesses. In recent months, he has written high-profile pieces directly relevant to the Russia probe, including stories about Kremlin-aligned consultants and lawyers in the Trump orbit now under Mueller’s scrutiny, and assisted on a lengthy story concerning White House intrigue. In short, Vogel is a newsman of whom Dowd and Cobb should be aware.
Third, it’s hard — maybe impossible — to believe two lawyers of their caliber could be so indiscreet. The prospect of two attorneys openly holding forth about documents sealed in a safe by the White House counsel which could be relevant to a wide-ranging federal inquiry implicating their client, the president of the United States, in a downtown restaurant burgeoning with political professionals, lobbyists, and reporters is a new frontier in credulousness.
Lawyers bound by confidentiality are precluded from discussing such details with any party. Breaking confidentially, even unwittingly, can trigger serious professional sanctions. The duty is treated with utmost solemnity by all lawyers, such that many will not discuss even ordinary matters under the most general privilege in public settings like elevators and lobbies. It is hard to overstate the zeal with which lawyers treat this obligation. That Cobb and Dowd would fail to observe this sacred tenet of law practice could simply be an unprecedented display of rank incompetence that should seriously disturb the White House. Or it could be too outrageous a proposition to accept.
In sum, we are asked to believe that two of Washington’s finest white collar litigators decided to lunch at a restaurant next to the Times’ Washington bureau, during which time they loudly and clearly discussed a delicate matter they had an ethical obligation to conceal, in the presence of a fairly prominent reporter they didn’t recognize.
One could be forgiven their skepticism. One would be justified in thinking this was less an accidental disclosure and more a creative new manner of leaking.
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