WASHINGTON — Several White House advisers and personal associates of President Trump have urged him to hire an experienced outside lawyer to help him deal with issues arising from a surging controversy over whether his campaign had ties to Russia, according to several people briefed on the conversations.
The recommendations came even before a special counsel was named Wednesday to lead the investigation into any collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian officials.
Trump’s aides and allies were said to be especially concerned by the revelation that James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump, has contemporaneous, detailed memos reconstructing conversations with the president.
While the office of the president is represented by the White House counsel, presidents in the past have employed outside lawyers when their private actions were called into question.
Trump has signaled he is likely to hire a new lawyer, but has not yet made a decision, according to three people who have spoken with him. Aides to Trump did not immediately comment on his discussions.
Trump is said to recognize that he needs help beyond the White House counsel. But he is deeply cautious in selecting people he trusts, and he adds new people to his orbit slowly.
Other presidents have hired personal lawyers suited to an investigation by a special counsel or special prosecutor in the past. For instance, Bill and Hillary Clinton hired David E. Kendall during the summer of 1993 as they were grappling with a Justice Department effort to subpoena business records related to their Whitewater real estate holdings.
Trump has a personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and a tax lawyer who worked on his business issues before he went into the White House, Sheri Dillon. Daniel Petrocelli, an alumnus of the O.J. Simpson civil trial, was the lawyer to whom Trump turned when he was dealing with a class-action fraud case against the defunct Trump University.
In conversations with allies inside and outside the White House, Trump, who rarely assumes blame for the crises he creates, has criticized his staff as serving him poorly. He has spared no one, including the White House counsel, according to two people who have had direct discussions with him.
Yet Trump’s senior aides recognize that they may have to be restrained in making significant changes after his coming foreign trip, as they had hoped the president would do. Two senior administration officials bluntly predicted that firing anyone would be difficult now.
Many staff members describe an atmosphere of diminished morale in the White House, but they also insist that the news media frenzy surrounding daily disclosures about Trump is far out of proportion with reality.
Some have voiced hope that the appointment of a special counsel might even be a positive thing for the White House, because it could bring a resolution to a controversy that has hampered the president and stalled his agenda virtually since the day he took office. Trump and his top advisers have dismissed the accusations about Russian collusion as sour grapes from Democrats and an intelligence community that the president repeatedly criticized during the transition.
But some are grimly aware that they will likely have to hire lawyers of their own as the special counsel probe takes shape — a circumstance that can drain the finances of presidential associates. And special counsel investigations can begin with one issue and refocus on another, as was the case with the Whitewater investigation that ended up with Bill Clinton’s impeachment after disclosures of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
One change that is likely to take place is a decrease in the number of on-camera White House press briefings, which sometimes have a circuslike atmosphere even as they have become must-watch television. Trump once enjoyed the spectacle, but aides see the briefings as having diminishing returns, especially with a newly-named special counsel weighing statements and potentially examining contradictions.
Under one option currently being discussed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, would take over much of the remaining on-camera portion of briefings, while Sean Spicer, the embattled press secretary, would remain on the team but would have a more focused messaging role. There are also efforts to focus on administration policy actions that are not simply responding to the latest controversy of the day.