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Trump legal team shuffle signals more combative strategy on Russia probe

President Trump on Wednesday tapped Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington attorney who represented former President Bill Clinton, to join his legal team. Flood replaces Ty Cobb as the lead White House lawyer in the special counsel investigation. Judy Woodruff talks with Robert Costa of The Washington Post about the disagreements inside the president’s legal team.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump today tapped a veteran Washington lawyer to join his legal team.

    Emmet Flood, who represented President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings, will replace Ty Cobb as the lead White House lawyer in the special counsel investigation.

    Here to walk us through the latest developments is Robert Costa, reporter of The Washington Post — anchor of Washington Post and reporter for — of "Washington Week" and reporter for The Washington Post.

    Bob Costa, I will get it right eventually.

  • Robert Costa:

    I'm wearing many hats.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, you are.

    So, why is this happening? Why is Ty Cobb leaving?

  • Robert Costa:

    It comes down to President Trump. This is a major shift, Judy, in the president's legal strategy.

    He wants to be more combative. Talking to White House advisers tonight, he wants to have a team around him that counters Robert Mueller and the special counsel investigation that moves away from Ty Cobb and his strategy of cooperation.

    Now, with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, in there, Emmet Flood, a veteran lawyer known for taking a tough line on impeachment proceedings in federal investigations, that just shows you where the president wants to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, there's been a fair amount of shuffling. I think I have lost count of how many attorneys have come and gone on the president's various legal teams.

    Does this reflect a change or a different moment in this investigation? Because, up until now, it seemed the president was content to follow this cooperation strategy, but something changed.

  • Robert Costa:

    Something did change.

    My colleagues and I reported yesterday that, in early March, Mueller threatened a subpoena to President Trump if he decided to decline a voluntary interview. And ever since then, you have had the raid of Michael Cohen, the president's longtime pressure lawyer, and that has really pushed the president away from cooperating with Robert Mueller.

    And now he has a big decision to make. Will he sit for that interview or not? And today I talked to Giuliani at length. And he said, if the president sit — and that's a big if — it would only be for two or three hours max, and it would be about a narrow set of questions.

    You see a lot of questions being negotiated through the press and privately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're right, Robert. There's been a lot of reporting about to what extent the Mueller team has telegraphed to the president's lawyers or told them what he wants from them, what questions he will ask or not.

    Do we now have a good sense of what Mueller wants to know from the president?

  • Robert Costa:

    We do.

    Mueller's team has informed the president's team that they'd like to know about key decisions he has made as president, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. And what they really want to learn from the president and why it's so important, the federal investigators say, for the president to sit down before them is, they want to know his intent.

    Did he have corrupt intent when it came to certain decisions, like Comey, to get rid of Comey because of bad management in his eyes as president of the FBI, or was in corrupt intent to rupture the investigations into Russian interference?

    That's what the special counsel is trying to figure out, and they feel they need the president to speak directly to them about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So among — so it sounds as, if the White House, especially for the president, the antennae are up and on alert, worried about what this could lead to.

  • Robert Costa:

    They very much are on alert, red flags going up.

    Giuliani, Emmet Flood — Emmet Flood, most Washington lawyers will tell you, is not the kind of lawyer who would encourage a president to sit down for an interview. Ty Cobb was that kind of lawyer.

    And these kind of disagreements have consumed the president's inner circle for months now. That's what led to the resignation of John Dowd, then the president's lead attorney on Russia, in late March.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Robert, just quickly, again, what is it about Flood that you think was appealing to the president?

  • Robert Costa:

    Flood is close to White House counsel Don McGahn. Flood is wary of cooperating too much with federal investigators, of opening up the White House to scrutiny.

    You have McGahn seeing Flood as someone who understands that it's perhaps the White House's prerogative to exert executive privilege, protect itself in these investigations, at least more than it has been in the eyes of some insiders.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, separately, Robert Costa, you are reporting just in the last few minutes on what is going on with regard to the president getting more and more concerned about the failure of the Justice Department, or specifically Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to cooperate, to turn over documents that certain Republican members of Congress want from him.

    Fill us in quickly on that.

  • Robert Costa:

    It's a complicated story. Very briefly, there's a paper fight between Congress and the Department of Justice over documents related to the Russia investigation and a few other investigations.

    But the cloud over all of it, Judy, is that they're trying to go after Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who also oversees the Mueller probe. So, as they fight over documents, it risks putting that Russia probe with Bob Mueller at risk, if Rod Rosenstein is removed as the manager.

    There's a lot of political chess going on here, a lot of legal chess, and you have got to read up on all of it, but that's what's happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Rosenstein spoke before a group yesterday. We saw clips of it on television. It was reported that he essentially is saying I'm going to do what I think the Justice Department should be doing, let this investigation go forward.

    He didn't sound as if he is prepared to turn those documents over.

  • Robert Costa:

    He's not.

    The Department of Justice said today — this is a big story — that they're not going to give Congress the document that shows the scope of the Mueller investigation, something that's come up in the Paul Manafort trial, that they're not going to give it over.

    And that has alarmed Trump-allied Republicans on Capitol Hill, like Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican House member who speaks regularly to President Trump. And they're warning of impeachment proceedings against Rosenstein if he doesn't comply.

    So we're at this tense moment between the DOJ and House GOP.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is the thinking, Bob Costa, if Rosenstein were removed?

  • Robert Costa:

    It's a long way from there, Judy.

    Speaker Ryan, a Republican, could stop that kind of thing from happening on the House floor. Meadows still may try to do it through different House rules. But it would be an unprecedented moment to have a federal official who wasn't being accused of bribery, the usual kind of impeachment proceedings for a judge or someone like that, for a document fight to lead to impeachment.

    It would be, to say the least, historic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Costa of both "Washington Week" and The Washington Post, so much to follow. Thank you very much.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

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