Donald Trump’s legal team is trying to instill discipline on a West Wing not known for its discipline.
The lawyers, people familiar with the internal discussions say, are reminding White House aides and the president that the stakes are higher now that a special counsel and Congress are scrutinizing their every move, that small indiscretions could turn into bigger issues, and that they have to follow rules they don’t like.
Story Continued Below
Trump’s legal team is attempting to separate the president from Donald Trump Jr. and the son’s legal team on Russia matters, as well from Jared Kushner and his legal team, over concerns that the blurred lines could create unnecessary problems, according to these sources. They have tried to block Trump’s warring band of aides from joining meetings with his lawyers, warning that they could become witnesses or be forced to hire lawyers if they attend.
Similar to his freewheeling governing style, Trump wants many people in the room for meetings and will sometimes ask lawyers for advice about people they do not represent, two West Wing aides said. At the same time, most West Wing aides don’t have lawyers yet and have sometimes asked lawyers not representing them for guidance.
The Russia investigations have occupied a large chunk of the White House’s time in recent months, and the extent to which the president and his aides follow the recommendations of their lawyers could determine how bad the fallout is inside the West Wing.
“These are people who have never been in government,” said Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist close to the White House who worked for George W. Bush. “It’s actually kind of unnerving to be in a White House when it’s being investigated by special counsel.”
White House aides are realizing “this is not what you signed up for and that much of your day gets taken up,” Schlapp said. “These people came to work for a president they really believe in and to get their agenda done.”
The legal team managed to meet with Trump on Tuesday without the aides who are often by his side. Chief attorney Marc Kasowitz was not present in the meeting, according to one West Wing official and one person close to the legal team.
The lawyers — particularly Kasowitz — have been taken aback by the infighting in the West Wing, people familiar with their thinking say. And they have been frustrated that they often learn about big developments just before they happen, as they did on Saturday with the New York Times story on Trump Jr.’s meeting with a person he believed to be a Russian government attorney.
Trump’s lawyers had no idea the story was posting until that afternoon — and learned of the president’s role in crafting Donald Jr.’s first statement on Air Force One only after a subsequent piece was published on Tuesday posted. They have also grown irritated with his tweets, several people familiar with the dynamics said.
Neither a spokesman for Kasowitz nor Jay Sekulow, who has publicly defended Trump as his lawyer, responded to a request for comment
“I’m not sure what the issues would be from a legal sense, but their conduct is definitely problematic and raises many issues,” said Matthew Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman under the Obama administration. “If they’re all talking together and trying to get their stories straight, that’s a problem.”
That a president would clash with his chief lawyer isn’t entirely unusual. Former President Barack Obama sometimes disagreed with his top White House lawyers and their advice, particularly when it was against what he wanted to do, according to an Obama White House lawyer. He would flash anger, this person said, but he would listen to lawyers and often validate them to others on staff.
Top staffers increasingly understood that they needed to listen to lawyers, and “their advice is sinking in,” according to one senior West Wing official. “This is all new to us.”
Some in the White House are demanding “more, more, more pushback,” the senior West Wing official said, even though lawyers are arguing against it. The lawyers, this person said, always want to take a cautious route — even when Trump is receiving bad news coverage and fuming about it.
Trump is also notoriously difficult on his attorneys. Being on Trump’s legal team has been a thankless job because the president assumes his lawyers can automatically make problems go away. The frustration that Trump is now expressing toward Kasowitz is quite similar to his ongoing irritations with the White House’s top attorney, Don McGahn. For the past several months, Trump has been irritated that McGahn could not make the investigations into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia disappear — even after Trump hired his own personal legal team for the Russia questions and McGahn was no longer working on the issue. “At 35,000-feet view, all the president wants is for it to go away,” said an informal yet frequent adviser to the White House. “He wants an end to it, even if he does not know exactly how that happens.”
What has frustrated Kasowitz and the team, people familiar with the matter say, is Trump’s family always being there and giving their own advice. Kasowitz has grown frustrated with Kushner at times, and vice versa, sources said. The New York Times first reported the tension Tuesday evening.
There has also been some griping inside the White House at Abbe Lowell, a longtime Democratic lawyer, representing Kushner. In a fiercely partisan, us-against-the-world West Wing, a Democrat’s appointment was “really kind of weird,” one official said. A person close to Lowell said he was keenly aware that he also had to represent the president’s best interests and was behaving as such.
Josh Raffel, a Kushner spokesman, declined to comment.
Many of the problems come from Trump, who assures his legal team that he understands their advice but then disregards it, several White House officials and advisers said. “They say, don’t do this, don’t do that, and he then he tweets,” one White House adviser said. “And then the conversation happens again.”
Trump will acknowledge that he should listen to his lawyers — and then not listen to them, one White House official said.
Trump also sometimes fumes about the investigation for several hours a day, potentially giving others legal liability. He continues to speak with Trump Jr., a second White House official said.
One person close to the legal team said the problems aren’t going away anytime soon. Trump isn’t going to stop obsessing or talking to whoever he wants to or tweeting, this person said. While lawyers were frustrated that Trump was involved in the statement, he wasn’t not going to be, this person said.
The family will always take precedent over aides. And “everyone in there is going to blame it on everyone else,” this person said.
Nancy Cook contributed to this article