Playbook, my old haunt, reported last week an interesting sighting of Boris Epshteyn, Donald Trump’s legal quarterback, meeting with Hogan Lovells partner Aaron Cutler over breakfast at Bourbon Steak on Pennsylvania Avenue. The two are old friends, of course, and Washington is a small town where lawyers routinely do each other favors. However, according to people familiar with the conversation, this breakfast meeting involved Cutler proposing to Epshteyn that his white shoe firm could help the Trump legal team with the fallout stemming from the Mar-a-Lago document headache. In particular, Cutler said that Hogan Lovells could help manage Judge Raymond Dearie, Trumpworld’s handpicked, and instantly regrettable, special master in the case.
Trump’s embattled legal team, after all, seemingly extrapolated that Dearie’s role in the Carter Page FISA case indicated that he was some sort of F.B.I. scold, who might view the former president’s case with sympathy. As it turned out, however, that was a gut-made, diligence-light miscalculation. In fact, Dearie has been downright hostile to Trump’s team in court, telling them, among other things, “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” It was a bad bet, one of Trump’s advisors told me.
Over breakfast, Cutler told Epshteyn that his firm’s lawyers in New York could help; among other things, they had experience with Dearie, and could help manage the situation. This kicked off Hogan Lovells’s proposal to help the Trump legal team with their document issue via various lawyers, and even lobbyists. Ultimately, however, the arrangement never got off the ground. Instead, some lawyers at the firm were not keen to get involved in Trump’s legal woes and, these being particularly politically savvy lawyers, various conflicts of interest somehow began to emerge. Just this week, the team at Hogan Lovells made it known to Trumpworld that they could not take the case.
And they likely aren’t the only shop around town turning down his business—after all, Hogan is a respectable firm but it isn’t Williams & Connolly or, say, Jones Day. “No firm would take him, that’s what we learned in 2017,” George Conway told me, recalling when Trump called him for advice after Rod Rosenstein appointed Bob Mueller as special counsel. “They asked me about a bunch of different lawyers and nobody was willing to do it. Sullivan & Cromwell said, No way. That’s why he ended up with John Dowd, who was a solo practitioner and he was the only person they could find. Trump was notorious in New York for not paying his bills and he wasn’t going to follow legal advice. And he shops around for what he wants to hear.”
It wasn’t all bad news for Trump’s legal advisers, however. The team received some positive news Thursday when Judge Aileen Cannon ruled that Trump will not have to back up his public claims with a sworn statement that the F.B.I. planted documents in Mar-a-Lago. (This came after Dearie asked that Trump’s team confirm under oath exactly what was seized during the search.)
But the Cutler meeting isn’t the only sign that Trumpworld is taking this case very seriously. TV surrogates, like OAN News reporter-turned-Trump lawyer Christina Bobb, have been pulled from the airwaves, presumably to prevent them from making inadvisable comments, I’ve been told. This may explain why she hasn’t appeared on Laura Ingraham in weeks.
Alas, some things in Trumpworld never change, as Conway notes, such as the need to placate the man in charge. Christopher Kise, with his $3 million retainer, will remain on the team but will not be the lead on the archives case. His misdeed? Offering some advice that Trump didn’t like, I’m told.