May 30, 2024

Seated far to the left of the defendant, former President Donald J. Trump, in Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday was a lawyer who has never tried a case in court, whose phone was seized by federal agents executing a warrant last year, and who once hosted syndicated news segments bombastically defending the Trump White House.

Seated to Mr. Trump’s far right was Todd Blanche, a newly hired criminal defense lawyer who also represents the lawyer at the far-left end of the table, Boris Epshteyn. In between them was Joe Tacopina, a combative presence on cable television who recently represented Mr. Trump’s future daughter-in-law, Kimberly Guilfoyle, before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The tableau, rounded out by another lawyer, Susan R. Necheles, from Mr. Trump’s arraignment on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records, revealed more about the client than about the case at hand. It was emblematic of his relentless search for the perfect lawyer — and of his frequent replacement of his lawyers when they fail to live up to his ideal for how the perfect lawyer should operate.

Mr. Trump has long been obsessed with lawyers: obsessed with finding what he thinks are good lawyers, and obsessed with ensuring that his lawyers defend him zealously in the court of public opinion.

His lawyers’ own foibles are seldom disqualifying, so long as they defend him in the manner he desires.

That often means measuring up to the example of Roy M. Cohn, Mr. Trump’s first fixer-lawyer, who represented him in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mr. Cohn, whose background included being indicted himself and who was eventually disbarred, earned a reputation for practicing with threats, scorched-earth attacks and media manipulation.

Mr. Trump’s continual efforts to identify and recruit the newest Roy Cohn have always been unusual and impulsive, according to interviews with a half-dozen people who have represented or been involved in Mr. Trump’s legal travails over the past seven years.

He has occasionally hired lawyers after only the briefest phone call, knowing little to nothing about their background but having been impressed by a quick introduction or by seeing them praise him on Fox News.

It took only an introduction over the phone by Mr. Epshteyn on a conference call for Mr. Trump to hire Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor, to handle discussions with the government over its efforts to recover classified materials in Mr. Trump’s possession. (Mr. Corcoran has since become the focus of government efforts to pierce attorney-client privilege and learn about his discussions with Mr. Trump in connection with a grand-jury subpoena for classified material at Mar-a-Lago, as the government amasses evidence of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors believe Mr. Trump may have misled Mr. Corcoran during those discussions.)

Mr. Trump hired Jim Trusty, a former federal prosecutor, to work on the classified-documents case after seeing him discuss one of Mr. Trump’s legal entanglements as a commentator on television.

“That’s one of the first questions: ‘Can you go on TV?’ He picks his lawyers literally off of TV,” said one lawyer who used to represent Mr. Trump, who insisted on anonymity to avoid publicly breaking confidence with a former client. “It’s more important that you go on TV for him, and how you look on TV, than what you actually say in the courtroom.”

The same lawyer cited Mr. Trump’s lawsuits against the journalist Bob Woodward and the Pulitzer Prize Board as actions that any experienced lawyer would have known would get him or her “laughed out of court.”

“He wants people who will go out and say things that lawyers can’t say, things you just can’t say in a courtroom,” the former Trump lawyer said. “Lawyers who push back don’t make it.”

The Woodward and Pulitzer lawsuits were advocated nonetheless by Mr. Epshteyn, according to two of the former president’s advisers, because Mr. Epshteyn is “the good news guy,” who relays to Mr. Trump only what he thinks will please him (others say Mr. Epshteyn has delivered bad news as well, when it’s been necessary).

Mr. Epshteyn declined to comment.

“President Trump has assembled a legal team that is battle-tested and proven on all levels,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump. “With the law, facts and truth on President Trump’s side across the board, the witch hunts and hoaxes being thrown against him and his supporters have no chance. President Trump will not be deterred and will always keep fighting for America and Americans.”

Mr. Trump employs some veteran lawyers with extensive experience, who are candid with him even though they know he may disregard their advice or, worse, attack them for giving it, according to some who have worked in Mr. Trump’s orbit. And he hasn’t pushed them all to go on television. But longtime Trump observers see a correlation between others on his current team and the self-described “elite strike force” that championed Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election after his defeat by Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Epshteyn was part of the group that pushed to keep Mr. Trump in power and has since stayed involved as a communications and in-house counsel. Still, several of Mr. Trump’s advisers were surprised to see Mr. Epshteyn seated at the defense table when photos were published from inside the Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday: While Mr. Blanche, Mr. Tacopina and Ms. Necheles were all named in the court transcript as attorneys of record in the criminal case, Mr. Epshteyn was not.

Until he announced his presidential campaign in November, Mr. Trump had paid at least $10 million to his lawyers over the prior two years using money donated to his political action committee. The fact that he was not personally on the hook for the money seemed to make Mr. Trump even more impulsive in his hiring of lawyers, according to a person familiar with his legal decisions.

Mr. Trump is not an easy client: He often tells lawyers that he is smarter than them and more experienced in legal combat. He is given to instructing them not only what to say on television but also what to say in court.

In an interview in 2021, Mr. Trump named Mr. Cohn and Jay Goldberg, who represented him in his divorce from his first wife, Ivana, as the two best lawyers he had ever had.

“I’m not finding people like this, Jay Goldberg, you know, he was a great Harvard student. But he was great on his feet,” Mr. Trump said, before making clear how much he saw the job of his lawyers as representing him in the public eye: “I know they’ve got to exist, they’re around, but you don’t see it, A lot of people choke. They choke, you know, when the press, when you call, when the press calls, in all fairness, the press calls, and they can’t handle it.”

While Mr. Trump has privately praised Mr. Tacopina for his appearances on television, some of the former president’s advisers have been unhappy with them; Mr. Tacopina was recently joined in talking about the Manhattan criminal case by Mr. Trusty, though Mr. Trusty represents Mr. Trump in the classified-documents case.

Another lawyer who has worked with Mr. Trump — his former attorney general, William P. Barr — shook his head at the sight of the defense table on Tuesday.

Mr. Barr, who sat for an interview with the House select committee investigating Mr. Trump’s efforts to stay in office, explained that lawyers working for Mr. Trump tend to come to one conclusion.

“Lawyers inevitably are sorry for taking on assignments with him,” Mr. Barr said on Fox News. “They spend a lot of time before grand juries or depositions themselves.”

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