Right before he went on CBS to defend the president and attack his critics, I overheard Trump’s lawyer talking on the phone in a TV green room.
At about 7:30 a.m. Friday morning, I arrived at Liveshots DC, a small television studio on Capitol Hill used by a number of different news programs. I had come to record an appearance on “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman to talk about the Trump-Ukraine scandal.
After sitting down in one of two small adjoining rooms that served as the “green room” for guests, I looked up and noticed that there was one person waiting to appear on television in the next room. It was Jay Sekulow, who served as one of Donald Trump’s lawyers during the Trump-Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, and continues to serve as one of Trump’s personal lawyers. I also noticed that there were two men standing just outside the green room, who appeared to be security guards there to protect Sekulow. (They were wearing lapel pins and dressed in dark suits, but I don’t know whether they were private security or government employees.)
Sekulow was standing on the other side of the open door connecting his room to mine. Not long after I noticed him, he got on his cellphone. I don’t know who he was talking to, but he got right to the point in his phone conversation.
“I’m going on CBS at 8,” he said. “I’m going to see the president at 10. We’ve got to get on top of this thing. I think we can, but we have got to get on top of this.”
A moment or two later, Sekulow added: “He’s going all around town, stirring things up. It’s not helpful.”
Sekulow then moved out of the green room, perhaps because he noticed that he was not alone. It’s also possible that he finally recognized me, because I interviewed him years ago for my first book, “Wrath of Angels,” about the history of the anti-abortion movement. Sekulow was a lawyer for Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion protest group.
It’s not hard to figure out what Sekulow was talking about on the phone Friday morning.
Trump and his advisers have lost control of the scandal stemming from his efforts to get a foreign government to help him destroy his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Disclosures about how Trump withheld aid to Ukraine while he pressured the president of Ukraine to pursue a phony investigation of Biden have prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce that the House will begin an impeachment inquiry. Just after he had escaped special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016, Trump is now facing a new investigation into his efforts to seek foreign help to win the 2020 election.
The Ukraine story has moved fast, and that seemed to be what Sekulow was talking about when he said that “we’ve got to get on top of this thing.”
Sekulow’s comments also show that he is trying to get up to speed on the Ukraine scandal so he can help bail out Trump once again, after representing him during the Mueller investigation. Trump may have asked Sekulow to get involved because Rudy Giuliani, another Trump lawyer, is himself caught up in the middle of the Ukraine scandal, and may not be in a good position to serve as Trump’s lawyer in the upcoming congressional inquiry.
In fact, over the last few months, Giuliani has taken the lead on Trump’s behalf in trying to enlist the cooperation of Ukrainian officials in what amounts to the fabrication of evidence to try to destroy Biden.
A whistleblower complaint that helped trigger the scandal names Giuliani, and in a summary of a July 25 phone call between Trump and new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump told Zelensky that he wants him to work with Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to help him get Biden.
On Friday, Giuliani was caught up in yet another embarrassing situation, when the Washington Post reported that he had been planning to make a paid appearance at a Moscow-backed conference in Armenia next week, where Russian President Vladimir Putin would also be in attendance. After the Post report, Giuliani abruptly canceled his appearance.
So, while I don’t know for certain, I think it is possible that Guiliani was the “he” Sekulow was talking on that phone call Friday when Sekulow said, “He’s going all around town, stirring things up. It’s not helpful.”
“Mr. Sekulow does not discuss with the media any conversations he has regarding the President,” said Gene Kapp, a spokesperson for Sekulow, when asked for a comment for this article.
Just after I overheard his phone conversation Friday morning, Sekulow appeared on “CBS This Morning” and gave a highly contentious interview. He repeatedly rebuffed questions about the details of the Ukraine scandal by stressing that he is the “president’s counsel” and not the “White House counsel.” He turned difficult questions around, demanding to know whether there was any proof that Trump had violated a “rule, regulation, or law.” Sekulow engaged in so much shouting and cross-talk with the CBS interviewer, Tony Dokoupil, that by the end Sekulow had offered almost nothing of substance.
Here’s a clip of him on the CBS show:
Having overheard his earlier phone conversation, I understood what Sekulow was doing in this interview. He knew that in two hours — at 10 a.m. — he would be meeting with Trump, and so he had to show him how much of a partisan fighter he could be on the Ukraine scandal.
I didn’t record what I heard Sekulow saying on the phone on Friday morning. And, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even report on an overheard conversation, even one in a public space, as in this case. But given the intensity of public attention to the impeachment investigation, this situation, involving a lawyer for the president, was clearly worth reporting.
It’s not the first time that one of Trump’s lawyers has had an indiscreet conversation about Trump and his legal problems in a public place. In 2017, a New York Times reporter having lunch in a Washington restaurant overheard two of Trump’s lawyers, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, sitting at a nearby table, discussing the Russia case and tensions within Trump’s legal team over how to handle it. The Times reported on the conversation, raining public derision down on Trump’s legal team.
Trump’s lawyers do not appear to have learned from that experience.