Seated far to the left of the defendant, former President Donald Trump, in a Manhattan, New York, criminal courtroom Tuesday was a lawyer who has never tried a case in court, whose phone was seized by federal agents executing a warrant last year, and who once hosted syndicated news segments bombastically defending the Trump White House.
Seated to Trump’s far right was Todd Blanche, a newly hired criminal defense lawyer who also represented the lawyer at the far left end of the table, Boris Epshteyn. In between them was Joe Tacopina, a combative presence on cable television who recently represented Trump’s future daughter-in-law, Kimberly Guilfoyle, before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol.
The tableau, rounded out by another lawyer, Susan Necheles, from Trump’s arrangement on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records, revealed more about the client than about the case at hand. It was emblematic of his relentless search for the perfect lawyer — and of his frequent replacement of his lawyers when they failed to live up to his ideal for how the perfect lawyer should operate.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
Trump has long been obsessed with lawyers: obsessed with finding what he thinks are good lawyers and obsessed with ensuring that his lawyers defend him zealously in the court of public opinion.
His lawyers’ own foibles are seldom disqualifying, so long as they defend him in the manner he desires.
That often means measuring up to the example of Roy Cohn, Trump’s first fixer-lawyer, who represented him in the 1970s and early 1980s. Cohn, whose background included being indicted himself and who was eventually disbarred, earned a reputation for practicing with threats, scorched-earth attacks and media manipulation.
Trump’s continual efforts to identify and recruit the newest Roy Cohn have always been unusual and impulsive, according to interviews with a half-dozen people who have represented Trump or been involved in his legal travails over the past seven years.
He has occasionally hired lawyers after only the briefest phone calls, knowing little to nothing about their background but having been impressed by a quick introduction or by seeing them praise him on Fox News.
It took only an introduction over the phone by Epshteyn on a conference call for Trump to hire Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor, to handle discussions with the government over its efforts to recover classified materials in Trump’s possession. (Corcoran has since become the focus of government efforts to pierce attorney-client privilege and learn about his discussions with Trump in connection with a grand-jury subpoena for classified material at Mar-a-Lago as the government amasses evidence of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors believe Trump may have misled Corcoran during those discussions.)
Trump hired Jim Trusty, a former federal prosecutor, to work on the classified documents case after seeing him discuss one of Trump’s legal entanglements as a commentator on television.
“That’s one of the first questions: ‘Can you go on TV?’ He picks his lawyers literally off of TV,” said one lawyer who used to represent Trump, who insisted on anonymity to avoid publicly breaking confidence with a former client. “It’s more important that you go on TV for him and how you look on TV than what you actually say in the courtroom.”
The same lawyer cited Trump’s lawsuits against journalist Bob Woodward and the Pulitzer Prize Board as actions that any experienced lawyer would have known would get him or her “laughed out of court.”
“He wants people who will go out and say things that lawyers can’t say, things you just can’t say in a courtroom,” the former Trump lawyer said. “Lawyers who push back don’t make it.”
The Woodward and Pulitzer lawsuits were advocated still by Epshteyn, according to two of the former president’s advisers, because Epshteyn is “the good news guy” who relays to Trump only what he thinks will please him. (Others say Epshteyn has delivered bad news as well, when it’s been necessary.)
Epshteyn declined to comment.
“President Trump has assembled a legal team that is battle-tested and proven on all levels,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump. “With the law, facts and truth on President Trump’s side across the board, the witch hunts and hoaxes being thrown against him and his supporters have no chance. President Trump will not be deterred and will always keep fighting for America and Americans.”
Trump employs some veteran lawyers with extensive experience, who are candid with him even though they know he may ignore their advice or, worse, attack them for giving it, according to some who have worked in Trump’s orbit. And he hasn’t pushed them all to go on television. But longtime Trump observers see a correlation between others on his current team and the self-described “elite strike force” that championed Trump’s false claims of a stolen election after his defeat by Joe Biden.
Epshteyn was part of the group that pushed to keep Trump in power and has since stayed involved as a communications and in-house counsel. Still, several of Trump’s advisers were surprised to see Epshteyn seated at the defense table when photos were published from inside the Manhattan courtroom Tuesday: While Blanche, Tacopina and Necheles were all named in the court transcript as attorneys of record in the criminal case, Epshteyn was not.
Until he announced his presidential campaign in November, Trump had paid at least $10 million to his lawyers over the prior two years using money donated to his political action committee. The fact that he was not personally on the hook for the money seemed to make Trump even more impulsive in his hiring of lawyers, according to a person familiar with his legal decisions.
Trump is not an easy client: He often tells lawyers that he is smarter than them and more experienced in legal combat. He was given to instruct them not only what to say on television but also what to say in court.
In an interview in 2021, Trump named Cohn and Jay Goldberg, who represented him in his divorce from his first wife, Ivana, as the two best lawyers he had ever had.
“I’m not finding people like this; Jay Goldberg, you know, he was a great Harvard student, but he was great on his feet,” Trump said, before making it clear how much he saw the job of his lawyers as representing him in the public eye: “I know they’ ve got to exist, they’re around, but you don’t see it. A lot of people choke. They choke, you know, when you press, when you call, when you press. In all fairness, the press calls, and they can’t handle it.”
While Trump has privately criticized Tacopina for his appearances on television, some of the former president’s advisers have been unhappy with them; Tacopina was recently joined in talking about the Manhattan criminal case by Trusty, though Trusty represents Trump in the classified documents case.
Another lawyer who has worked with Trump — his former attorney general, William Barr — shook his head at the sight of the defense table Tuesday.
Barr, who sat for an interview with the House select committee investigating Trump’s efforts to stay in office, explained that lawyers working for Trump tend to come to one conclusion.
“Lawyers inevitably are sorry for taking on assignments with him,” Barr said on Fox News. “They spend a lot of time before grand juries or depositions themselves.”
c. 2023 The New York Times Company