As President Donald Trump’s legal team privately debates its strategy for dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller, the president’s most visible lawyer has publicly gone on the attack.
In recent weeks, Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow has turned the live weekday talk-radio show he hosts into a regular forum for trashing the legitimacy of the federal probes into Trump’s Russia connections.
Fourteen of the past 19 episodes of “Jay Sekulow Live” have involved freewheeling conversations about the Trump-Russia saga and what he calls the “deep state” bureaucrats out to get the president. Sekulow also piles on during his regular appearances on Fox News.
“You cannot make this stuff up!” Sekulow said in December, following a report alleging anti-Trump bias at the Justice Department. “I think the significance of this cannot be understated,” he said last month about a House Republican memo claiming fatal flaws in the FBI’s Russia probe. the mid-January news that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was resigning, he declared: “I cannot underscore how big this is!”
Sekulow’s colorful punditry is a far cry from the cautiously dry language of Trump’s other top lawyers, Ty Cobb and John Dowd. (So is his personal style: Sekulow is the front man and plays drums and guitar in a touring Christian rock band, while Dowd and Cobb both shun the media’s attention.) Which leaves observers wondering whether Sekulow has shed his past image as a serious attorney with Supreme Court credentials to become a public relations warrior fighting for Trump’s presidency in the political arena.
“Whenever you’re representing the president, obviously the line between politics and the law is a blurry one,” said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. “There’s both a tactical line and an ethical one. He seems to be walking it.”
Some Republicans argue that Sekulow, who lacks the elite white-shoe law firm credentials of Cobb and Dowd, is performing an invaluable role. “If they didn’t have a lawyer championing them regularly on TV, they’d be committing public relations malpractice,” said former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “You don’t sit back and take it.”
That may not be a legal strategy, but it’s a political one — which could be just as important in a Russia scandal that could end up before Congress with an impeachment vote. Sekulow’s increasingly combative tone could also portend a larger Trump team strategy of digging in for an all-out fight against Mueller and Democrats in Congress.
Sekulow, 61, may be no Rush Limbaugh, but the “Jay Sekulow Live!” radio show is carried by some 1,000 stations around the country, as well as Sirius XM, and can be heard in major markets like New York and Los Angeles. Sekulow said he counts more than 1.5 million listeners. Many of them, according to Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the trade publication Talkers magazine, are Christians who form a core part of Trump’s political base.
That gives Sekulow — who runs a nonprofit called the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) — a value to Trump’s Russia team that may not be clear from his résumé, which shows minimal experience in criminal law. Sekulow’s background includes arguing a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, including fights over religious freedom, the First Amendment and abortion.
Trump’s other lawyers insist that Sekulow plays an important role in their legal deliberations, which have recently included the question of whether Trump should submit to an in-person interview with Mueller.
“He’s a full partner in the president’s defense,” said Cobb.
Sekulow does bring to the Trump team a strong grasp of constitutional issues — including presidential powers, executive privilege and whether Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice for firing an FBI director.
He also contributes the work of four attorneys with ACLJ ties: Emory law school senior lecturer Mark Goldfeder; Stuart Roth, Sekulow’s longtime legal partner and a Mercer University law school classmate; former federal prosecutor and Georgia state attorney Andrew Ekonomou; and ACLJ senior counsel Benjamin Sisney.
Despite the firepower, Trump’s legal team has struggled to stay on the same page. Dowd, a combative Washington white-collar lawyer, has advocated for a more aggressive response to Mueller’s investigation, and for rebuffing the special counsel’s request for an interview with Trump. Cobb has supported accommodation with Mueller.
Sekulow declined to offer his opinion about a Trump interview with Mueller, but he called reports of a divide within his legal team overblown. He noted that Dowd and himself represent Trump as an individual, while Cobb works for the White House and represents the executive office of the president as an institution.
“I just think there’s not as much distance as people are writing,” he said. “It’s normal when you have multicounsel representation. … There are always different ebbs and flows. That’s not unusual.”
Sekulow’s rhetoric is usually not so cautious.
He’s been calling since December for a second special prosecutor to explore alleged anti-Trump bias at the Justice Department, where he has said “deep state” bureaucrats are out to get the president.
Sekulow has drawn comparison to the Washington attorney Lanny Davis, who was a fixture on television when he served as a volunteer surrogate defending his longtime friend President Bill Clinton during Clinton’s late-1990s impeachment.
But Davis was critical of Sekulow for what he called false public assertions, including his denial that Trump had helped to draft a misleading statement from his son, Donald Trump Jr., about the younger Trump’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian attorney promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“I like Jay personally, and respect his intellect and honesty,” Davis told POLITICO. “But he is making a big mistake as a credible pundit and even more as an attorney if he is ignoring facts and using innuendo and rhetoric as a surrogate for facts. I worry that he is damaging his reputation by not sticking strictly to proven and documented facts — and speaking the truth.”
Sekulow pushed back against critics who say he’s just shilling for the president. “I know what does and doesn’t cross the line, and what you can and cannot do,” he explained of the challenges in discussing an active criminal case about which he has inside knowledge.
Sometimes he inadvertently crosses the line, attracting unwelcome public attention. After Sekulow seemed to inadvertently admit in a June Fox News interview that Trump was under investigation, the clip went viral, and late-night talk show hosts pounced.
“Sek-u-loooooow!” Stephen Colbert bellowed. “You had one job. You had one job. Say, ‘He’s not under investigation.’ But you had to go shoot your mouth off. You’re the President Trump of trying to keep President Trump president.”
But Sekulow remains undaunted, and has grown only more defiant as the Russia probe has expanded and reached deeper into Trump’s world.
He carried the torch throughout January and into February about the classified House Republican memo that purported to show alleged misconduct by senior U.S. officials investigating Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox program after the memo’s release, he agreed with the host that the document that Democrats widely panned as a dud “raises serious questions” about whether Mueller’s probe should even exist.
Last Friday, Sekulow went on offense against a Senate Intelligence Committee that has so far maintained a bipartisan veneer to its Russia work. He singled out Sen. Mark Warner after Fox News reported about leaked text messages that detailed the Virginia Democrat’s attempts last year to contact Christopher Steele, the author of a controversial private intelligence dossier alleging Kremlin influence over Trump.
After Sens. Marco Rubio and Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman, defended Warner, noting they’d long known about his efforts, Sekulow accused the Republicans of “covering for him.”
"This is an institutional issue going on right now in the United States Senate," Sekulow added. "If I had a client going up … I’d have real serious questions about whether I wanted my client to do that."
Earlier this month, Sekulow likened the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page to the infamous tactics of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The FBI was also his target last June when he called for a criminal investigation into fired FBI Director James Comey, dubbing him the “leaker in chief” for giving notes to the press that he’d taken about his meetings with Trump. On that same radio broadcast, Sekulow announced to his listeners that he’d agreed to join Trump’s legal team.
“This is an attack on the presidency,” he said of the Russia probe. “That’s what this is.”