WASHINGTON — On one screen, we have lawyer Rudy Giuliani, repeatedly lambasting witnesses and prosecutors on behalf of his client, the president of the United States. In another TV studio, Lanny Davis, lawyer for Michael Cohen, publicly discusses sensitive tape recordings of President Trump that could be key evidence in a related probe.
And then there’s Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for porn actress Stormy Daniels, making the case on multiple cable channels that Trump and his various legal teams are all liars.
The investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign is producing an unprecedented spectacle: lawyers who evidently believe the best way to represent their clients is to go on multiple news networks and shoot off their mouths, playing attack dog and spin doctor all in one.
The stakes are as high as the Watergate probe of the 1970s, but it’s playing out in broadcast media like a prolonged episode of “The Jerry Springer Show,” as the lawyers engage in a pitched battle in the court of public opinion.
Perhaps the highly unusual display is a fitting forum for a president with a flair for reality TV and little regard for discretion. Trump himself is battling the investigation on Twitter. And, yes, the lawyers can be found duking it out on Twitter, as well.
“Respectable lawyers didn’t do this sort of stuff back in the day,” said Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University and chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics.
The idea of lawyers arguing in public for a client is not new. But like much of our politics now, the public battle among legal combatants is more heated than anyone can remember, featuring guttural attacks that at times seem to blur ethical boundaries.
“In an era of supercharged politics, hyperactive social media, nonstop cable coverage, and polarized messaging, the battle for hearts and minds has become supercharged,” said Frank Sesno, a former Washington bureau chief at CNN who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “Giuliani, Avenatti, Davis, and any number of hangers-on find a place in the social media and cable firmament to offer their often transparently self-serving interpretations of the evidence, the case, and the predicated result.”
Giuliani on Monday went on a news media blitz, appearing on several cable networks and at times contradicting himself before going back on television to further clarify his statements (which then drove more cable news coverage). And Wednesday turned out to be another typical day, where he spoke with reporters in New Hampshire and said Special Counsel Robert Mueller should “put up or shut up.”
It was a peculiar claim, given that Mueller is perhaps the only one in the whole spectacle who makes his comments only through legal filings, never in public, and certainly not on cable television.
“It doesn’t seem like the president’s lawyer going on TV,” Green said. “It just seems like another spokesperson who happens to have a law license.”
Avenatti has proven to be a master at attracting the spotlight, in part by offering up new supporting evidence as soon as it arrives in his hands. When he got information indicating that Cohen had received payments from major corporations such as AT&T and Novartis while he was still Trump’s personal lawyer, he released it on Twitter. He has also released e-mails and constant commentary that further his courtroom claims.
“Here is a copy of the Order Judge Otero just issued in our case against Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. “It denies their attempt to silence me and prevent me from commenting as to the truth. So much winning from these two!“
He then, as he does in many of his tweets, wrote “basta,” the Italian word for “enough.”
The lawyers also attempt to undercut each other’s credibility or question their legal acumen.
“Press saying today that Lanny Davis is getting ready to leak more of his client’s surreptitiously recorded tapes,” Giuliani wrote on Twitter on Saturday night. “All you’re doing is destroying Cohen’s credibility and his usefulness as a witness and his career as a lawyer. Get some competent legal advice.”
That has led to what in a courtroom might be described as a request for discovery.
Avenatti openly on Twitter asked Giuliani to produce evidence. He’s also called him “an absolute pig” for saying Daniels shouldn’t be believed because she makes a living through pornography.
“You better buckle up buttercup because Mr. Trump’s stupidity and disloyalty is about to catch up to him (and you),” he wrote on Twitter.
Entering the fray frequently is renowned Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. He doesn’t officially represent anyone, but he often presents himself as an ally of the president.
He recently criticized Avenatti about reports that he approached Cohen at a New York restaurant, saying that it violated legal ethics because Cohen’s lawyer wasn’t present. Avenatti counterattacked.
“Stop being a trump sycophant — it is extremely unbecoming,” Avenatti wrote in one tweet.
“You just make it up as you go along,” he wrote in another. “You need to go back and concentrate on what invites you get at Martha’s Vineyard, since that appears to be what you are really good at.”
Scholars say this is just the 21st century of age-old practices by lawyers looking to shape public perceptions about their clients — before, during, and after trials.
“Lawyers contesting to control public opinion is not new,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were a fixture on TV before the OJ trial as well as during the Clinton impeachment proceedings and the 2000 recount.”
The use of an aggressive public media strategy to coincide with courtroom proceedings dates at least back to the 1980s with the trial of automobile legend John DeLorean, who successfully defended himself against charges of trafficking cocaine.
Bruce Cutler, the lawyer for New York crime boss John Gotti, was sentenced to three months of house arrest in 1994 for violating a judge’s orders to stop talking to the press.
“He seemed a bit out of control by the standards of the day,” Green said. “Now, in retrospect, he seems kind of mild.”
A case involving allegations of Russian interference in a campaign for the presidency sets up, by its nature, a contest to influence public opinion as well as prosecutors, judges, and potentially, if articles of impeachment gain traction, Congress.
“If you have a high-profile case, you have to also manage the media,” said John Coale, a well-known Washington lawyer who helped settle the multibillion dollar case against tobacco companies. “These political cases are 80 percent PR and 20 percent legal.”
But Coale — who used to strategically leak stories to select reporters at major newspapers — says the strategies are a bit more out in the open these days.
“We’ve got cowboy lawyers again,” he said. “These guys are all flashing around. I don’t blame them because I did it. But it’s different than it was. . . . They’re pushing the envelope more.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.