• Washington Post

Unprecedented Assignment: Defending Donald Trump in Criminal Court

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Donald Trump is flanked by attorney John Lauro, left, and D. John Sauer, center right, at the Waldorf Astoria after attending a hearing of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 9.

In the past six weeks alone, Donald Trump’s lawyers argued in the Supreme Court over whether the Constitution bars him from running for president, lost an appeals court battle on presidential immunity and defended their client in a civil defamation trial in which Trump took the stand – all while reviewing evidence and submitting highly technical court motions involving classified documents.

On Monday, Trump’s lawyers appeared at a closed hearing in Florida with the former president, filed a motion in the Supreme Court and attended a hearing in Georgia. And on Thursday, they will have a hearing in Georgia and a pre-trial conference in New York, where a judge could finalize the start date for the first criminal trial of a former president in U.S. history.

Trump, who is also the leading 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has a court schedule with no parallel in political or legal history – fighting felony charges that include allegedly obstructing a U.S. election and improperly retaining national security information. He is simultaneously facing four criminal indictments and multiple civil cases, a crush of court challenges that led to his political action committees’ spending more than $55 million last year on legal fees, campaign finance filings show.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and the special counsel overseeing Trump’s federal cases have pushed an aggressive timetable, calling for speedy trials on behalf of the American people. Trump’s attorneys counter that the conflicting legal demands and the complexity of each case require more time to build his defense. A major part of their legal strategy has been pushing to delay the schedule, arguing that the trials must happen after the election for Trump to have his fair day in court.

To fight each indictment, Trump has built the functional equivalent of a boutique law firm, led by Todd Blanche, Chris Kise, Steve Sadow and John Lauro. While there is no public record of how much Trump himself has paid any of his lawyers, Trump’s PACs have paid the legal practices run by those four attorneys nearly $5 million so far, according to disclosures released on Jan. 31.

Legal experts and people familiar with his defense attorneys say Trump has compiled a solid and veteran team, with expertise in civil, criminal, state, federal and appellate issues they can lean on – provided they do not get fed up with their client and quit or get fired, as have many of Trump’s past defenders.

Blanche is defending Trump in three cases; Kise is working on one criminal and one civil case. Both left large law firms to represent the first former U.S. president ever charged with a crime. They and the other lead lawyers – all of whom declined interviews for this article – have become public figures, subject to doxing, threatening mail and harassing phone calls that come from being associated with Trump, people familiar with the situation said.

A cadre of less-experienced lawyers, who attached themselves to Trump’s politics and elevated his conspiracy theories during and after his term in office, have largely been shooed off center stage, according to people involved in the criminal cases, although some are still on the payroll and close to Trump. One – Alina Habba – was lead counsel in Trump’s recent defamation damages lawsuit after well-known New York defense attorney Joe Tacopina stopped representing the former president. Trump was ordered to pay $83.3 million to writer E. Jean Carroll in that case, a verdict he plans to appeal.

As a client, Trump is both fickle and demanding, talking to his defense attorneys multiple times per week, according to people familiar with the conversations, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them. The lawyers are also in frequent contact with one another and Trump’s campaign staff.

Trump’s attorneys must decide when to incorporate their client’s more provocative legal commentary into court arguments, and they have had to review drafts of his social media posts to make sure they don’t violate gag orders or undermine legal strategy, these people said. Other times, Trump posts on social media without telling anyone, leaving his advisers and lawyers to read his missives at the same time as the public.

The lawyers are also dealing with an uncertain trial schedule – Trump’s federal election obstruction case in Washington has been pushed back from March 4 as the former president argues he should be immune from prosecution in that case, and his Florida trial could be delayed as well.

“Nobody knows which case is going to go first, and balancing the political and legal optics of every decision made is difficult,” said David Schoen, a lawyer who has represented Trump in the past. “Hopefully they have President Trump’s interests in mind, but how do you balance all four of them – different interests, different judges?”

Schoen, who remains in contact with Trump, said the former president seems happy with his lawyers, although Schoen believes they should have more experience with high-profile cases. “I don’t think he has the best legal team he could have,” Schoen said. “All that matters is the client has the legal team around him that he thinks is the best team he could have.”

Building the team

Trump first sought help from Blanche in February 2023, after New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg appeared close to charging Trump for allegedly falsifying documents in connection with a 2016 hush money payment. It would be the first of four Trump indictments handed up in a span of six months.

Blanche – then a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, New York City’s oldest law firm – caught Trump’s attention when he helped Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, avoid state charges of mortgage fraud after Manafort was convicted at trial on similar federal counts. He had also represented Trump aide Boris Epshteyn when Epshteyn was questioned in a Justice Department investigation involving the former president.

Trump asked Blanche to find a lawyer to help him fight any New York indictment. Blanche contacted former colleagues from the prestigious Manhattan prosecutor’s office, a person familiar with the situation said. But their law firms said no, a nod to the fact that the nation’s most prominent white-collar practices have no interest in taking on such a controversial and combative client.

“All in all, it makes great sense not to represent Trump,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. “If you represent Trump, it could be a killer. The fear is that it could lead to an exodus or trouble within the firm itself.”

So Blanche, a graduate of American University and Brooklyn Law School, left Cadwalader, Wickersham and took the job himself. He has multiple lawyers working for his new firm, Blanche Law, all dispatched to the various Trump cases. Susan Necheles – a respected New York defense lawyer with her own firm – is also playing a lead role in the Manhattan criminal case, and according to the filings was paid $465,000 by Trump’s PACs between April and June of last year.

In the courtroom when Trump pleaded not guilty in Manhattan last April, Blanche told the judge that Trump’s social media attacks on Bragg, the prosecutor, were an expression of his frustration with the indictment. “It is true that President Trump has responded, and responded forcefully,” he said. “It is true that as part of that response, he’s absolutely frustrated, upset and believes that there is a grave injustice happening with him being in this courtroom today.”

Even as that arraignment proceeded, federal prosecutors investigating Trump’s potential mishandling of classified documents appeared to be nearing a charging decision.

John Rowley and James Trusty – both prominent in conservative legal circles – had been handling the Florida case, frequently lambasting the Justice Department on television on behalf of their client. Trump had also hired Tallahassee-based Kise, a former Florida solicitor general, agreeing to a $3 million retainer up front.

But Kise was sidelined over disagreements with Trump about how to respond to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home and private club, and subsequent requests for information, people familiar with the case have said. Kise was mostly relegated to a civil business-fraud case in New York, which has gone to trial and is awaiting a verdict.

By June, Trump had been indicted in South Florida on charges including obstruction and the willful retention of national defense information. Soon Rowley and Trusty quit, in part due to frustration that Epshteyn, a lawyer with little trial experience who is not on the criminal defense teams, continued to advise the president, people familiar with the matter said.

Before a court appearance to enter his second not-guilty plea, Trump tapped Blanche to simultaneously lead the Florida and New York criminal cases. Kise, who has degrees from the University of Miami and the Florida State University School of Law, joined Blanche and the former president for that court appearance, after Trump scrambled unsuccessfully to find someone else.

More indictments, more lawyers

A federal grand jury in D.C. soon charged the former president with four crimes related to his alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Again, Trump came to court to plead not guilty. This time he was represented by Blanche and John Lauro, a respected Florida defense attorney known for representing a Wall Street businessman accused of working with the Mafia and taking on the high-profile gambling trial of an NBA referee.

Lauro, whose undergraduate and law degrees come from Georgetown University, previously represented Trump attorneys Habba and Christina Bobb in connection with the Florida documents case. Working alongside him in Washington is Emil Bove, a former prosecutor colleague of Blanche’s from the Southern District of New York, who left his job at a firm in New Jersey to join Blanche’s new office.

As some cases branched off into the appeals courts, Trump has added more lawyers to the ranks. John Sauer, the former Missouri solicitor general, argued in the D.C. circuit that Trump should be immune from prosecution over his efforts to block the 2020 election results, since he was president at the time. John F. Mitchell, the conservative lawyer behind the Texas abortion law that allows private citizens to personally sue abortion providers, is representing Trump in his Supreme Court battle to overturn a Colorado decision that he should be barred from the ballot because he participated in insurrection.

In Georgia, Sadow became Trump’s lead defense attorney on Aug. 24 – 10 days after Trump and 18 others were charged in Fulton County with orchestrating a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. It was the same day Trump fired his previous Georgia lawyer, Drew Findling, and also the day Sadow, a graduate of Marietta College who got his law degree at Emory University, met the former president for the second time, greeting him at the Atlanta airport a year after their first encounter in West Palm Beach. He joined Trump’s motorcade to the Fulton County jail, where Trump surrendered for fingerprinting and a mug shot.

Sadow is an Atlanta-based criminal defense lawyer known for his cowboy boot collection and for successfully representing alleged drug dealers, gang members and white-collar defendants – some charged, like Trump, with racketeering conspiracies. He was recommended to Trump’s aides by Georgia Republicans. Sadow has told multiple associates that he required a seven-figure upfront payment to work with Trump, who does not always pay his legal bills. According to the campaign filings, he received $1.5 million from Trump’s PACs between August and November of last year.

In conversations with other defense lawyers, Sadow has brushed off questions about Trump as a difficult client, explaining that he is a solo practitioner without partners or long rosters of other defendants to placate, people familiar with those conversations said. He has emerged as an unofficial captain of the defense team in Georgia, often speaking on behalf of multiple defendants and coordinating strategy behind the scenes.

A hands-on client

Trump reads court filings in all his cases before they are submitted, and sometimes asks to add political rhetoric – flourishes that he seems to believe will help him with voters but that could also frustrate judges.

In a January brief to the Supreme Court, Trump’s lawyers warned of “bedlam” if the justices don’t reverse Colorado’s decision to disqualify him from the ballot over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. That’s the same word Trump used when addressing reporters a few weeks earlier.

And in court, judges have accused some of the attorneys of sounding like Trump on the stump. When Lauro said at a D.C. hearing that Trump had a right to “speak truth to oppression” and that a gag order prohibiting him from disparaging certain people involved in the case amounted to President Biden censoring his lead political opponent, District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan responded curtly.

“I understand that you have a message you want to get out. I do not need to hear any campaign rhetoric in my court,” the judge told Lauro. “Politics stops at this courtroom door.”

The lawyers can also get combative with judges, showing their boss the strong performance he is known to admire. Kise, for example, was a vigorous advocate for Trump at the civil business-fraud trial involving the Trump Organization, sometimes shouting in court. At one point, after Trump ranted from his courtroom seat that the case was politically motivated, Judge Arthur F. Engoron told Kise to “please control your client.” Kise did not make any visible effort to do so.

Trump has often wanted to guide the legal strategy in both his criminal and civil cases, those involved in the conversations said, and attended trials and hearings even when his lawyers said it was not necessary. At times, he has frustrated his legal team by seeking advice on the cases from other attorneys – including some whose conversations with him after he left the White House have become part of the classified-documents investigation.

“He’s not a very trusting person,” one top adviser said.

Kise has complained at times to other Trump advisers about the warring fiefdoms in Trump’s circle, but has privately also said that unlike some clients, Trump actually wants to hear his opinions – and will listen to them.

Sadow has a reputation for telling his clients, “You hired me. Do you want me to do it, or do you want to do it?” said Craig Gillen, who has worked with Sadow on other racketeering cases. Sadow has told associates that he would not tolerate attacks of the judge in the case by his client, and Trump so far has honored that.

Trump likes to have his lawyers around him, although one adviser said he’s complained that some are overpaid. The lawyers have been told they can’t charge more than $750 an hour after some lawyers sent in bills that Trump’s political advisers deemed exorbitant, this person said. Blanche and the Florida legal team often meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago the day before court appearances in the classified documents case, then stay overnight, people familiar with the situation said. But the former president does not like to hear tough news about any of the cases against him, and will often change his story when he does.

“He has his own set of facts,” said a person who has worked for Trump in the past on legal matters, and like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “That’s the biggest issue of representing him. It’s impossible to get him to agree to a unified set of facts. As soon as there is an issue with one of the facts, the facts just change retroactively.”

Some of Trump’s lawyers have expressed frustration that Epshteyn is so close to Trump because he often paints a rosy picture of the legal situation, giving the former president an unrealistic impression of what lies ahead in court, according to people familiar with the discussions.

“We have good news!” Trump will proclaim when he sees Epshteyn’s number on his phone.

But members of the legal team also sometimes see Epshteyn as a necessary middleman between Trump and his lawyers. He listens to Trump’s rants and speculations, giving the other attorneys more time to focus on their work.

At the civil defamation damages trial brought by E. Jean Carroll last month, Epshteyn sat in the well behind Trump for much of the trial – even though he is not on the legal team for that case.

When the other lawyers stood at the judge’s bench for sidebar discussions, Epshteyn moved up to the defense table, whispering with the former president.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Boris Epshteyn follows Trump as they board Trump’s private airplane in Miami in June.