TRUMP’S DANGEROUS NORMALIZATION EFFORT AND THE ROLE OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION

Norman Eisen and Richard W. Painter were, respectively, chief White House ethics lawyers for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. For months before the election, they wrote and spoke frequently about the dangers associated with Donald Trump’s disdain for the established norm of releasing presidential candidates’ tax returns. They warned about unprecedented business conflicts of interest that Trump would face as president. Since the election, they’ve urged divestiture, liquidation, and a blind trust as the only effective ways to resolve those conflicts.

The editorial boards of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal agree with Eisen and Painter. But on December 10, Edwin D. Williamson at Sullivan & Cromwell penned an op-ed for the Journal that tries to let Trump off the conflicts hook.

“If I were advising Trump,” Williamson writes, “I would strongly urge him to pledge that as president he will make no decision for the primary purpose of benefiting any family financial interest, and any decision involving an entity that has a Trump business relationship will be transparent so questions of favoritism can be scrutinized.”

That’s Williamson’s proposed remedy: a pledge of fidelity, coupled with a promise of transparency from a serial liar who still refuses to release his tax returns. Would he accept that undertaking from opposing counsel to settle a case that Williamson’s client was sure to win? Seasoned litigant Trump sure wouldn’t.

But here’s Williamson’s most dangerous line: “I do not see how he can effectively promise more, and I do not believe more is needed.” He then spins frivolous false equivalence arguments that give all attorneys a bad name.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Williamson’s first hypothetical scenario is the sale of Trump’s interests through an initial public offering. Because the president can appoint a majority of the SEC commissioners, Williamson believes that Trump would be trading one conflict (his business interests) for another (his influence over the SEC as it supervised Trump’ IPO).

Williamson’s second liquidation scenario is a leveraged buyout. Because it would require lending by Trump-regulated banks, that would create a new conflict, too, he writes.

Such sophistry is suffocating. Neither option creates a conflict of interest approaching the magnitude of those that will accompany Trump’s continued ownership of his businesses after Inauguration Day. In fact, Williamson final argument proves it.

Self-Refuting

“[T]he biggest problem of divestiture is that the value of Trump businesses is significantly dependent on, and inextricably tied to, the Trump name,” Williamson writes.

Precisely. The prospect of enriching Trump and his family personally is what entices others — foreign and domestic — to patronize Trump businesses in an effort to curry the President’s favor. It’s already happening at Trump’s new Washington, D.C. hotel.

In a joint letter to The New York Times, Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe and Mark Green, New York City’s first public advocate, explain:

“The Constitution’s Emoluments Clause is unambiguous. It forbids an American president from accepting anything of value from a foreign entity, without congressional consent, because that would open the door to bribery or extortion.”

Tribe and Green continue, “The only way for President-elect Donald Trump to cure this problem would be an arms-length sale by a public trustee, not piecemeal judgments after Jan. 20 about the thousands of possible winks and nods between foreign leaders and the new administration.”

Professional Responsibility in the Age of Trump

Lawyers understand the relationship between preserving vital democratic norms and protecting democracy. Zealous advocacy is one thing. But attorneys err when they offer feeble justifications that aid and abet Trump’s insidious effort to normalize behavior that is not only abnormal, but also wrong. The bad news is that the effort is having an impact. Consider the number of commentators who now start from the false premise, “Well, he can’t sell his businesses….”

Why not?

As Tribe and Green observe, “Mr. Trump chose to put himself in this situation and cannot now act aggrieved, nor is there a too-big-to-sell exemption in the Constitution; if anything, the larger the potential for conflict, the more urgent a sell-off.”

“There’s no precedent,” proclaim Trump’s conflict of interest apologists.

Actually, plenty of analogous precedent resides in the conflict of interest rules applicable to all practicing attorneys. No lawyer can serve two conflicting masters simultaneously, regardless of good faith efforts to be fair and honest to both. And the appearance of conflict is equally debilitating.

Williamson dismisses such appearances as “impossible to avoid” because “almost any decision Mr. Trump makes as president will have an effect — good or bad — on his business interests.” But that argument demonstrates again why Trump must sell those interests, as Eisen, Painter, Tribe, Green, and other attorneys across the political spectrum urge.

Donald Trump isn’t a lawyer, but he will have fiduciary duties to the most important client in the world: the United States of America. At a minimum, all attorneys should hold him to the standard that the country deserves.

Don’t Give Up

Columnist Charles M. Blow offers this creed that’s worth remembering every day:

“To have a president for whom we don’t know the extent of his financial entanglements with other countries — in part because he has refused to release his tax returns — is not normal.

“To have a president with massive, inherent conflicts of interest between continued ownership of his company and the running of our country is not normal.

“Presidents may be exempt from conflict of interest provisions in the law, but exemption from legal jeopardy is not an exemption from fact or defilement of the primacy of a president’s fiduciary duty to empire above enterprise…

“[H]istory will judge kindly those who continued to shout, from the rooftops, through their own weariness and against the corrosive drift of conformity: This is not normal!”

Lawyers should be leading the charge to those rooftops, not blocking the path.

“BRIDGEGATE” TAKES A STRANGE TURN

Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual report on the state the federal judiciary reminds lawyers of their obligations to “avoid antagonistic tactics, wasteful procedural maneuvering, and teetering brinksmanship.” I wonder what he thinks of the “tactics, maneuvering, and brinksmanship” surrounding the latest chapter of “Bridgegate.”

Four Days in September

In 2013, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey refused to endorse Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. In apparent retribution, Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly sent an email to David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote on August 13.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

On Friday, September 7, Wildstein followed-up: “I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes.”

Everyone knows how Fort Lee went on Monday, September 10. The Port Authority closed two of three local access lanes on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. Four days of gridlock near the town continued until September 13, when the Authority’s executive director (a Governor Andrew Cuomo appointee) ordered the lanes reopened.

Getting Ahead of One Story

Several months later, the Kelly-Wildstein emails surfaced. Immediately, Republican presidential hopeful Christie did the fashionable thing: nip a growing scandal in the bud by hiring a respected outside lawyer to conduct an internal investigation. He chose Randy Mastro, former chief of staff to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to the firm’s website, Mastro is a partner and member of the management and executive committees at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, current winner of The American Lawyer’s biennial “Litigation Department of the Year” contest.

Christie promised that Mastro would “bring an outside, third-party perspective to the situation” with a “thorough” and “efficient” internal investigation. Gibson Dunn certainly had the firepower to accomplish that mission. Its Bridgegate team included five former federal prosecutors with “experience in internal investigations and criminal cases.” The state of New Jersey picked up Gibson Dunn’s tab. For the first three weeks of work, it charged $1.1 million.

Just two months after the investigation began, Mastro released Gibson Dunn’s final report and provided final witness summaries to the U.S. attorney and the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations. The report exonerated Christie.

The New York Times described the ensuing press conference: “The former federal prosecutor who led the internal inquiry, Randy M. Mastro, frequently sounded like a defense lawyer making his case to a jury. He referred to Ms. Kelly as a liar, cast doubt on the credibility of the mayor of Hoboken, who accused the Christie administration of political intimidation, and slipped into lawyerly exhortations to the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ sitting before him.”

While Creating Another Story

On May 1, 2015, Wildstein agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government’s prosecution of Kelly and Port Authority deputy executive director William Baroni, Jr., both of whom were indicted. On May 27, lawyers for Kelly and Baroni sought court permission to issue subpoenas to Gibson Dunn for any notes, transcripts, and records that the firm had in connection with its investigation and report. Over Gibson Dunn’s objection, the court granted the motion.

After the subpoenas went out, Gibson Dunn objected again. It also responded that no such notes or recordings existed — none — and moved to quash the subpoenas as moot.

Defendants’ exasperated lawyers complained, “Gibson Dunn claims that it billed New Jersey taxpayers nearly $10 million but not a single lawyer took a single note during 75 interviews in the most high-profile political case in recent years.” (The court noted that the actual amount billed seemed to be about $8 million.)

The Court Was Not Amused

On December 16, 2015, Judge Susan Wigenton — a George W. Bush appointee — sympathized with the defendants’ frustration. She also explained what troubled her about Gibson Dunn’s position.

“Attorneys are trained to scrupulously document information when conducting internal investigations, including taking and preserving contemporaneous notes of witness interviews,” the court wrote in a ten-page opinion. “In the past, Gibson Dunn has done exactly that.”

But not for Bridgegate. Judge Wigenton chided the firm for “intentionally changing its approach in this investigation.” In particular, the affidavit of Gibson Dunn partner Alexander Southwell confirmed, “[W[itness interviews were summarized electronically by one attorney and then edited electronically into a single electronic file.”

The judge described the significance of that technique: “The practical effect of this unorthodox approach was to assure that contemporaneous notes of the witness interviews and draft summaries would not be preserved. Rather, they would be overwritten during the creation of the revised and edited final summary.”

Noting that the firm didn’t delete or shred documents, the judge observed that “the process of overwriting their witness notes and drafts of the summaries had the same effect.”

“This was a clever tactic,” Judge Wigenton continued, “but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy. The taxpayers of the State of New Jersey paid Gibson Dunn millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship.”

Gibson Dunn argued that defendants’ underlying motion was a “fishing expedition” and “a waste of time and judicial resources.” Defendants were “targeting a law firm’s work product, already knowing that most of what they seek does not exist…”

Nevertheless, what the court characterized as gamesmanship worked. The firm had no documents to produce, so the court granted Gibson Dunn’s motion to quash.

One More Thing…

The latest twist in the Bridgegate tale involves Debra Wong Yang, whom President George W. Bush appointed as U.S. attorney for the central district of California in 2002. In November 2006, Yang left the bench to become a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The firm’s website notes that she works out of the Los Angeles office and has served as a member of the firm’s executive and management committees.

In a glowing introduction of Governor Christie as the keynote speaker at an event on June 9, 2011, Yang described him as her “very good friend” whom she had “known for ten years” — going all the way back to their time together as federal prosecutors. She said Christie was “the real deal” and “doing a remarkable job as governor.”

When Christie took the stage, he described how their families once vacationed together at the game ranch of a fellow U.S. attorney in Texas. “We are good and dear friends,” Christie said of Yang.

Fast-forward to Bridgegate

Here’s a summary of interesting events that followed:

—  According to the The New York Times’ review of Gibson Dunn billing records, two days after Christie hired the firm to investigate Bridgegate in January 2014, “Debra Wong Yang, a Gibson Dunn partner in California and a personal friend of of Mr. Christie’s, spent time in ‘meeting with client’ – Mr. Christie and his top lawyer in the governor’s office.”

— Gibson Dunn’s army of former federal prosecutors — including Yang — departed from the usual documentation process so that when the firm completed the investigation, no notes, transcripts or recordings of interviews existed beyond the final summaries provided to federal and state investigators.

— After Gibson Dunn’s report exonerated Christie, the firm continued working at taxpayer expense. According to the Times, it billed the state of New Jersey a total of $8 million from January 2014 through August 2015 “for the continuing defense of the governor.”

— Wholly apart from the dispute over what turned out to be Gibson Dunn’s non-existent internal documents relating to its investigation, on November 11, 2015 attorneys for Kelly and Baroni filed additional motions. They asked the court to direct the government to take a closer look at the adequacy of Gibson Dunn’s earlier document productions to the federal grand jury. Claiming that prosecutors should have challenged the firm’s disorganized and inadequate discovery responses, Baroni’s motion levels this accusation: “The government has given Gibson Dunn free reign to withhold and redact documents as that firm sees fit, as well as to produce documents in an abominable format.”

— Finally, according to the Timesin December 2015 Debra Wong Yang “co-hosted a $2,700-per-person fund-raiser in Los Angeles for Christie’s Republican presidential campaign.”

In an exclusive interview hours after Mastro released Gibson Dunn’s March 2014 report, the governor told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “Sometimes people do inexplicably stupid things.”

Then again, sometimes things may not be as stupid as they first seem.

A PLUTOCRAT’S PITTANCE

Recently on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” the usually thoughtful George Will practically jumped from his seat at the prospect that the interest rate on student loans might continue at 3.4 percent (based on a federal subsidy that President George W. Bush signed in 2007), rather than move up to 6.8 percent. He was — for him — apoplectic at the idea of creating what he was sure would become yet another “entitlement.”

Will opposes such relief because the average college student graduates with around $30,000 in loans and, over a lifetime of earning superiority over non-college graduates, he says, “that’s a pittance.” One man’s pittance is another man’s fortune, I guess. Then again, Will has a much different opinion about a slightly greater amount — $36,900 — when it’s the additional tax he’d pay on a million dollars of annual income if the Bush tax cuts expire.

But rather than search for consistency that can’t be found, put Will’s comment next to Mitt Romney’s related suggestion that young people should do everything they can to attend college, even “borrow from your parents.” If only all college-bound students had parents who could float them six-figure loans for however long it might take to repay them.

About those big salary differences

That leads to the point that Will sidestepped: repayment could take a while. Will’s “pittance” argument relies on studies showing that a college degree produces better lifetime earnings for those who obtain them. Historically, that’s been true. But it ignores what’s been happening to the newest college graduates. The NY Times recently reported  how unemployed graduates have been flocking to unpaid internships. Sadly, two years ago it ran a similar piece. Meanwhile, the Times also reports, they and their families are buried in debt.

Ultimately, many who get degrees will fare better than their non-degree counterparts. But at the moment there are more unemployed and underemployed recent college graduates than ever. Studies show that their delayed entry into the labor market will likely translate into huge lifetime earnings losses. As baby boomers defer retirement because the Great Recession wiped out their savings, the plight of young people worsens.

How about lawyers?

Among the most burdened in the youngest generation of debt holders are new attorneys. Their average law school debt exceeds $100,000 — and it’s climbing. So is their reported unemployment rate, especially now that law schools have to start disclosing the truth about their graduates. If you’re wondering why all of those students went to law school when there are legal jobs for, at most, half of them, deceptive deans have been a big contributor.

On their promotional websites, law schools routinely reported more than 90 percent of their graduates as employed. But they didn’t mention that the number included those with part-time jobs, non-lawyer positions (like working at Starbucks), or temporary employment by the law school itself for just long enough to count in their U.S. News ranking.

A compromise

Tavis Smiley responded to Will’s position with this: Wall Street bankers got zero-interest rate loans from the government; why can’t students get a break on theirs? That’s not a bad question. However, not all students need relief from their student loans. Families like the ones Mitt Romney had in mind sure don’t, but many others do. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled one — a 34-year old unemployed attorney with more than $200,000 in educational loans, mostly from law school:  “It’s a noose around my neck that I see no way out of.”

Here’s a compromise: get rid of the noose by returning to pre-1976 bankruptcy rules. In those days, any baby boomer who wanted out of even federal student loan debt could get it. Filing for bankruptcy was an extreme step and few did it. In fact, there was never empirical support for changing the rule. There was even less reason for the added protection against discharge that private lenders received in 2005 — a change that no legislator is currently willing to admit sponsoring.

Those who cry “moral hazard” should prove it — not simply list a theoretical parade of horribles that never happened under the old rule. If the bankruptcy option was good enough for baby boomers, it should be good enough for their kids.