Stories

3 looming Trump traps

This is a closeup photo of Donald Trump
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here are the looming legal dangers for the Trump White House, foreseen by former White House lawyers interviewed by Evan Ryan and me.

The bottom line: Obama's White House Counsel Bob Bauer, who has thought considerably about these pitfalls and opportunities, told Axios: "An impeachment process is a legal process, and to defend against the inevitable political attacks, it must be carefully structured and well-presented to the public."

  • "It has to be disciplined in identifying and explaining the relevant standards for an impeachable offense, and it has to pay close attention to a fair and rigorous process.
  • "The House impeachment of President Clinton completely failed that test. ...
  • "In any impeachment proceedings directed against Donald Trump, the House majority would be well-served by proceeding step by step with care, attention to detail and transparency."

1. Compartmentalization: One reason Bill Clinton survived eight years of investigations was, according to his former staff, his almost supernatural ability to compartmentalize. He put the investigations in a psychic and literal box: A separate team handled them, from a communications war room to his lawyers. Clinton avoided publicly discussing the scandals.

  • "The key to Clinton’s survival during impeachment," a former Clinton official told us, "was 'compartmentalization': working with Congress on substantive issues like health care and education, even as the same Congress was trying to impeach the president."
  • "The president rarely talked about impeachment,” the former official added. “He showed himself to be busy at work delivering for the American people."

Compare that to Trump. The president relishes discussing the Mueller probe, not only with his staff but on Twitter and in public interviews.

  • Staff tell us he can't help himself. White House officials have told us they try to stay out of Trump's vicinity on a bad Mueller news day, because any conversations with him may make their legal bills balloon.
  • "He has no boundaries," a former senior White House official told Axios. Trump will try to discuss the Mueller "WITCH HUNT" with whoever is around him.

2. Legal talent: Whoever ends up replacing McGahn as White House counsel "needs to put together what is in effect the best litigation and investigation law firm in this city," Bill Clinton's White House Counsel Jack Quinn told us.

  • "And needs to do it overnight. They're going to have to get the best and the brightest and the most experienced and the most skillful, and assemble an absolutely first-rate team of lawyers to conduct defense on multiple fronts."
  • The current White House Counsel's Office — hampered for months by a terrible relationship between Don McGahn and Trump — is nowhere near the fine-tuned machine Quinn describes.

3. Competent and focused investigators: Incompetent, distracted and overzealous Republican congressional investigators helped both the Clinton and Obama administrations survive years of aggressive oversight.

  • If they win the House, Democrats could make the same mistakes and screw up their investigations by overreaching.
  • But there's a decent chance they won't. Former White House lawyers concurred that if Democrats install the highly experienced Nancy Pelosi as Speaker and keep Elijah Cummings and his seasoned staff in charge of oversight, they could marshal their investigatory power far more effectively than Republicans did under Obama and Clinton.
More stories loading.