Trump lawyers leak White House intrigue as reporter overhears lunchtime 'spy' exchange

You can’t throw a fork in Washington DC without hitting a lawyer at lunchtime. Every power-luncher in DC knows this, including – unfortunately for Ty Cobb and John Dowd, two senior members of US President Donald Trump’s legal team – reporters for The New York Times.

That’s why the Washington DC legal industry reaction to Sunday’s eavesdropped scoop about the president’s legal team ranged from tsk-tsking to disbelief.

Former Hogan Lovells partner Cobb (pictured above) and ex-Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld partner Dowd – both of who joined the US President’s legal team during the summer – went to BLT Steak and had a conversation about their work for Trump as he faces down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. Reporter Ken Vogel overheard snippets of Cobb’s remarks, which led to these front-page details in The New York Times:

“The White House counsel’s office is being very conservative with this stuff,” Cobb told Dowd. “Our view is we’re not hiding anything.” Referring to [White House counsel Donald] McGahn, he added: “He’s got a couple documents locked in a safe.” Cobb expressed concern about another White House lawyer he did not name. “I’ve got some reservations about one of them,” Cobb said. “I think he’s like a McGahn spy.”

While Cobb advocated turning over documents to Mueller, he seemed sensitive to the argument that they should not necessarily be provided to congressional committees investigating the Russia matter. “If we give it to Mueller, there is no reason for it to ever get to the Hill,” he said.

Cobb also discussed the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting – and the White House’s response to it – saying that “there was no perception that there was an exchange”.

The episode begs the question: what are the consequences for the lawyers in a situation like this?

To begin with, “It’s a tremendous embarrassment for them”, said Barry Cohen, a Crowell & Moring senior counsel who specialises in and teaches professional responsibility law. “Of course it’s compounded because these two lawyers are well known. It could have been any people in Washington who know what John Dowd and Ty Cobb look like.”

“One of the things I tell students [at Georgetown University Law Center]: Places like lifts and trains are not places you discuss client work,” Cohen said. He said he knows of lawyers who prefer to talk in code – substitute ‘Company A’ for the name of your client – while in public, or won’t talk in public about client matters at all.

Dowd and Cobb’s indiscretion “is not something you can shrug off and say it happens all the time”, Cohen added.

Legal ethics solo practitioner George Clark said most lawyers in Washington know how to keep client confidentialities quiet. “You can walk into a bathroom in a law firm, and there’ll be two lawyers talking about a case. They’ll look under the stalls to see if anyone’s in there,” Clark said.

Outside law offices, lawyers in Washington are often even more aware of their surroundings. Clark recalled the legendary restaurant Duke Zeibert’s, where the city’s most powerful once held court. “It might take you awhile to get to your table because you’re shaking hands,” Clark said.

Even so, lapses of judgement hamper even the most powerful, and scoops have long been gleaned in the gilded capital’s restaurant scene.

When John Boehner was still speaker of the House, reporters and others sought out the restaurants where he was known to hold court over a glass of wine, like the Mexican restaurant Guapo’s in Shirlington, Virginia, and BLT Steak.

Even harder-to-recognise lawyers are not immune from ‘spotted’ citations in the district’s insider newsletters. Just last month, for instance, Politico Playbook noted how Hogan Lovells partner Robert Bennett was seen at lunch in the Jefferson Hotel with Norton Rose Fulbright’s Abbe Lowell, who represents Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the Russia investigation.

The Acela train between Washington’s Union Station and New York City is another epicenter of indiscretion. In 2009, a Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman partner on a phonecall inadvertently leaked to Above the Law the names of 20 lawyers the firm would lay off. The next month, a Kelley Drye & Warren partner revealed the firm’s compensation offerings during an overheard conversation.

Most restaurants in town, at least, offer chatty lawyers a place to shield their conversations. Steakhouse private rooms are so common that when the Caucus Room restaurant opened in 2000, the owners outfitted it with half a dozen private dining rooms, or “enough redundant capability to ensure that the backroom dealing would survive a nuclear first strike”, The New Republic magazine once noted.

Dowd and Cobb’s afternoon out “serves as a lesson to people in Washington, that discretion is the better part of valour”, said Ivan Adler, a Washington recruiter who places members of Congress and lobbyists at firm.

“There’s a difference between being seen in public and being heard in public,” he added.