The legal advice—or lack thereof—that Donald Trump Jr. is getting has criminal defense attorneys scratching their heads and suspecting he’s making matters worse for himself.
Over the course of the 48-hour period in which he found himself at the center of the Russia investigation, the president’s oldest son was either receiving terrible legal advice, ignoring good legal advice, or not getting any legal advice at all, according to the estimation of career attorneys. And the damage he did to himself in that window of time could dog him for months.
It all started Saturday, when The New York Times first reported that Don Jr. had met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer at Trump Tower during the campaign. Don Jr. tried, unsuccessfully, to downplay its significance. When the paper followed up that first report with another item indicating he agreed to the meeting in hopes of getting information the campaign could use against Hillary Clinton, Don. Jr. did something very, very strange: He himself confirmed all the Times’ reporting and gave them additional details about the meeting.
“After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton,” Trump told the paper. “Her statements were vague, ambiguous, and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast that Don Jr.’s comment wasn’t very smart.
“He’s stupid for saying what he said about why he took the meeting,” said Mariotti, who now does criminal defense work at Thompson Coburn.
“It’s very hard for me to believe that any lawyer would advise him to make a public statement containing factual assertions about what happened in a meeting with an agent of the Russian government,” he added. “What’s more likely is that Donald Trump Jr. spoke without consulting legal counsel.”
It was also deeply unwise for him to speak for himself, said Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal defense attorney. Lawyers usually speak for their clients in these situations to keep them from saying something that could hurt them in court. That’s why Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn are keeping mum about the Russia probe: They have good lawyers and appear to be following their advice. Not so, at least over the weekend, for Don Jr.
Mariotti said Don Jr.’s one-man legal team—composed of New York attorney Alan Futerfas, according to Reuters—is also curious. Futerfas has extensive criminal defense in New York, including on Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, but isn’t admitted to the D.C. bar, and helms a tiny three-lawyer practice.
“This is a case that could be very complex and could involve rarely charged statutes and factual situations that are unprecedented,” Mariotti said. “If Bob Mueller is going to have dozens of lawyers and investigators on his side, if I were the subject of his inquiry, I would want to have more than one person on my side.”
And that one person has his work cut out for him. On Monday afternoon, he tweeted that he would happily “work with” the Senate Intelligence Committee on its Russia probe. And it made criminal defense attorneys cringe.
“A good lawyer would have advised him to stop talking, stop tweeting, stop giving comments of any type or description until we have a firm grasp of what all the facts are,” said Greenfield. “Regardless of anything, you don’t go shooting off your mouth until you have a clear idea of what’s at stake.”
“He doesn’t have any intention of following his lawyer’s instructions,” Greenfield added. “It seems remarkably typical of what is coming out of the administration, from a legal viewpoint. It’s insanely asinine.”
Mariotti added that lawyers usually go through all their clients’ communications—emails, texts, voicemails, etc.—before making any commitments about cooperating with investigators. The process usually takes days, at the least. But Don Jr. announced his eagerness to help out the Senate committee less than three hours after Sen. Susan Collins called on him to testify.
Lawyers who spoke with The Daily Beast agreed that one person who seems to be receiving and following very good legal advice is Jared Kushner. The president’s son-in-law doesn’t tweet, rarely if ever makes public statements, and has Washington superlawyer Jamie Gorelick—who is friendly with Mueller himself—on retainer to handle the probe.
“In terms of reacting to the allegations, he appears to be either smarter to begin with or smarter in terms of listening to lawyers,” said Ken White, who does federal criminal defense work in Los Angeles and was formerly an assistant U.S. attorney. “In terms of doing things, maybe not so much—in terms of taking meetings he shouldn’t take.”
Don Jr.’s decision to finally lawyer up may mean his Twitter feed is less interesting. But it won’t undo the damage he did in the past two days.