Trump adds longtime attorney to legal team advising him during probes

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President Donald Trump and his wife First Lady Melania Trump arrive at the Apostolic Palace for an audience with Pope Francis on May 24, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s longtime attorney is joining a still-forming legal team that will guide the president through intensifying investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election and his associates’ possible involvement.

New York-based attorney Mark Kasowitz has a history of working on Trump’s most nettlesome legal issues and is viewed as a trusted adviser, according to two people familiar with the decision. The team is expected to be filled out with lawyers with deeper experience in Washington investigations, as well as crisis communication experts, said the people, who demanded anonymity because they’re not authorized to disclose personnel moves publicly.

The appointment last week of a special counsel to lead the federal probe ensures that the Russia investigation will consume increasing amounts of attention from the president and his aides. While the White House counsel represents the president in his official capacity, it is not unusual for the president to hire private attorneys in matters that could lead to personal liability.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has a broad mandate, allowing him to investigate both Russian influence and whether Trump sought to impede the investigation by firing FBI Director James Comey earlier this month.

Trump has dismissed the Russia inquiries as a “witch hunt” and declared his campaign did not collude with Moscow to sway the 2016 campaign.

Neither Kasowitz nor the White House responded to requests for comment.

Trump’s legal team faces considerable challenges — not the least of which will be trying to rein in a difficult client. Legal experts note that Trump’s penchant for brash public statements, misstatements and frequent tweeting may come back to haunt him. In particular, his public descriptions of his conversations with Comey may have jeopardized any later attempt to keep such discussions confidential by claiming executive privilege.

Trump’s public statements have contributed to questions about the effectiveness of White House counsel Don McGahn.

The former campaign lawyer is at the center of criticism of the White House’s handling of the hiring and firing of Mike Flynn. Shortly after Trump took office, acting Attorney General Sally Yates alerted McGahn that the then-national security adviser was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians because he appeared to have lied to the vice president. Flynn wasn’t fired for another two weeks.

McGahn’s defenders say he is giving good advice, but the president isn’t necessarily always taking it.

That’s why a key goal for the outside counsel will be to convince the president to act in his own interests, said Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel for President Bill Clinton. Clinton also turned to outside advisers during the Whitewater investigation led by Kenneth Starr, which expanded over the years and ultimately led to his impeachment.

Another objective is to keep the investigation from consuming the president’s policy agenda.

“They must find a way to take this entire basket of matters concerning the investigation and assemble people to deal with it from a legal and communications standpoint,” Quinn said.

As an outside counselor, Kasowitz’s strength could lie in his personal relationship with the president.

The New York attorney has been a lawyer for Trump since the early 2000s. Trump heaped praise on him and his firm in an August 2004 article in American Lawyer, calling them “phenomenal lawyers.”

At the time, Kasowitz and David Friedman, the firm’s bankruptcy head, had been advising Trump on his Atlantic City casinos. “They’re highly talented with great insight into the future,” Trump said. As president, Trump chose Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Kasowitz’s work with Trump also has included threatening and filing lawsuits after unflattering media coverage of the businessman-turned-president.

He was involved in cases against Trump’s now-defunct Trump University. The Trump Organization ultimately agreed to a $25 million settlement with customers who claimed they were misled by failed promises to teach success in real estate.

Kasowitz — who also represents ousted Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly — is the founding and managing partner of Kasowitz Benson Torres. The large legal firm also employs former Sen. Joe Lieberman, whom Trump interviewed as a potential head of the FBI.

Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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