Trumpworld’s Star Lawyers Exit as Storm Clouds Gather

·9-min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/Reuters

Civil and criminal investigations in New York and Georgia. Defamation suits from two women. A civil suit over misuse of inauguration funds. A number of complaints related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And a new lawsuit related to the disclosure of the former president’s taxes.

Donald Trump is facing even more legal challenges than normal—which is saying something for a man so litigious and familiar with legal duress. But even though he is someone who tends to keep the same people around him for longer than he should, a number of the ex-president’s longtime, high-profile lawyers have recently parted ways with Trumpworld.

When Trump sued The New York Times and his niece Mary earlier this week, the attorney who filed the lawsuit was a relatively unknown lawyer. Alina Habba, based in the same town as the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, comes with a résumé far less ostentatious than the legal CVs that the twice-impeached former president has come to expect. But Trump appears to be leaning on Habba now to take on his niece and the Times reporters who disclosed some of Trump’s previous tax filings.

At the same time, Habba’s ascension in Trump’s legal hierarchy comes alongside the conspicuous fall of another: the Gawker-killing celebrity lawyer Charles Harder, whom the ex-president and members of his family have relied upon for years to go after journalists, authors, and major book publishers Trump felt had crossed the line.

In previous years, a case against New York Times reporters and a family member who Trump alleged was the source for the journalists would have easily fallen to Harder, a lawyer the 45th U.S. president once lauded as a hard-charging attack dog of the rich and the powerful.

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But according to two people with knowledge of the matter, Trump said he wanted to fire Harder earlier this year, having grown frustrated with what he viewed as his famous lawyer’s insufficient number of recent “wins,” and the good amount of money Trump had sent Harder’s way.

Not long after Trump began privately demanding Harder’s exile this summer, court documents began noting his replacement as the former president’s counsel of record.

When reached for comment by The Daily Beast, Harder noted a number of his legal victories on behalf of Trump to quibble with the reporting that the ex-president wanted him dismissed. “I’m not allowed to discuss attorney-client matters, so I cannot respond except to ask who is saying this because they are probably making it up,” he wrote.

In an email to The Daily Beast, Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich denied that Trump expressed frustration with Harder: “This is absolutely false and the circumstances you’ve described are detached from reality. Your sources are either ill-informed, dishonest, or don’t exist.”

The Gawker-slaying attorney, however, isn’t the only big-name or expensive lawyer who has parted ways with Trump, his family, or his business empire this year.

For months, Trump has been bleeding or discarding top legal talent, according to court records and various interviews. And this comes at a time when the ex-president and his inner sanctum are drowning in criminal investigations, and lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit.

The reasons for some of the individual departures from the MAGA legal orbit remain unclear. Trump, who often detests paying his bills and legal fees, has a track record of essentially turning his back on former lawyers (including Rudy Giuliani), having tempestuous falling-outs with one-time confidants and attorneys (such as Michael Cohen), and aggressively turning on multiple U.S. attorneys general who he himself had nominated.

During Trump’s time in the White House, his administration and his legal teams were known for a high turnover rate. In his first year out of power, the pattern appears to be holding.

Earlier this month, Trump alerted New York state’s highest court that his longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz was no longer acting as his attorney in a high-profile legal dispute between the former president and Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant who is suing Trump for defamation after he denied her claims that he made unwanted sexual advances against her, including groping and kissing her without her consent in 2007.

For years, Kasowitz has had his hands in numerous legal cases on Trump’s behalf, representing him in divorces, casino disputes with billionaire Carl Icahn, and campaign- and Russia-related matters. Earlier this year, Reuters noted that the Trump campaign had paid his firm $1.6 million between November 2020 and February 2021 alone.

Kasowitz did not respond to requests for comment, and several people close to Trump couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say why Kasowitz was no longer repping Trump in that case, except to say he was “out” or “gone,” for now at least. (In fact, the earliest hint of the 36-year-old Habba’s new role as the former president’s latest legal champion came when the New Jersey attorney signed on to represent Trump in the lawsuit filed by Zervos, replacing Kasowitz.)

It was only less than two months before Kasowitz’s exit that Trump had filed a motion in a D.C., court noting that he was no longer retaining Harder.

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Harder had become a go-to for the Trumps in several cases against news organizations after he forced the Daily Mail to pay Melania Trump a $2.9 million settlement over a since-retracted story about her work in the 1990s. CNN reported that Harder’s firm was at one point during the 2020 campaign responsible for the majority of the Trump campaign’s legal costs, filing a series of lawsuits against news organizations including The New York Times.

And last month, according to court records, Trump swapped out Harder for a new lawyer, John Sweeney, to represent him in a lawsuit filed against him by the parents of several toddlers featured in a pro-Trump meme made by MAGA social-media figure Logan “Carpe Donktum” Cook. (That case was dismissed in July but Trump has continued to appeal for attorneys fees, court documents show.)

Among the other longtime Trump legal defenders who are splitting—or at least taking a break—from the former leader of the free world is Jay Sekulow, the front man for the conservative American Center for Law & Justice. As of late February, Sekulow was still on the ex-president’s team.

For years, and throughout the turnover and the legal team purges, Sekulow remained a reliable constant among Trump’s legal advisers and protectors. Now, in the first year of Trump’s post-presidency, Sekulow is currently laying dormant, finally qualifying as a former Trump attorney.

“My responsibilities on the constitutional issues, as they pertain to former President Trump, have been concluded,” Sekulow told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.

The recent Trumpworld legal shakeup isn’t confined to the patriarch of the family. Eric Trump’s legal team also appears to have gone through a recent major shakeup, with Marc Mukasey quietly withdrawing as a representative last week.

Mukasey, who has been called “the lawyer at the center of the Trump universe,” had been tapped by the Trump Organization for various legal matters, such as representing Eric when he was deposed last October by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James. But while Mukasey—an in-demand white-collar criminal defense attorney with a federal pedigree—was once hands-on with the Trump Organization, he, like many attorneys, appears to have stepped back from that work in recent months.

The withdrawal, which Mukasey submitted Sept. 14 without explanation, is notable for a number of reasons. For one, it removes the powerful defense attorney amid signs that the high-stakes New York investigations are intensifying. On Monday, a lawyer for former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who in June was indicted alongside the company by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, told a New York City judge they have “strong reason to believe there could be more indictments coming.”

But court records with the state of New York show that, unlike the Vance case, the NYAG civil Trump docket had been quiet since January.

On Sept. 3, the parties in the case filed an agreement, which is no longer publicly accessible—10 days later they asked to have it sealed. The day after the judge granted the request, Mukasey withdrew.

“PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that I, Marc L. Mukasey, of Mukasey Frenchman LLP hereby withdraw my appearance as counsel of record for Respondent Eric Trump. Respondent Eric Trump will continue to be represented by Alan Futerfas,” Mukasey wrote, referencing the high-powered mob attorney who has tag-teamed Trump Organization cases alongside Mukasey.

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While the withdrawal is the first record of distance between the Trumps and their trusted go-to attorney, Mukasey has long been private about that work. He hasn’t made any public statements in months, even in the wake of the June indictment, when co-counsel Futerfas spoke on behalf of the company.

Mukasey declined to comment on the record for this article. Futerfas did not respond to a message seeking comment, either.

Eric Trump, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, and a spokesperson for the Trump Organization also did not reply to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. But with several reputable lawyers steering clear of former President Trump in recent months, the move by Mukasey—a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and close associate of Trump ally Giuliani—certainly stands out.

The former president has himself tapped Mukasey in the past as his go-to counsel for consequential court fights. From 2018 to 2019, Mukasey repped the Trump Foundation in another case brought by James for misuse of donor funds. The nonprofit was eventually ordered to shut down and pay $2 million to charity groups. And currently, Mukasey, along with Futerfas, who is a Democratic donor, nominally represents the Trump Organization as it awaits an order in a dispute with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen over legal fees.

That docket, however, has been dormant since early June, as the parties in the case await the judge’s decision to dismiss the case or send it to trial.

Tristan Snell, who successfully prosecuted the Trump University scandal as a former assistant New York attorney general, told The Daily Beast that attorneys exercise a duty to their clients and “withdrawing as defense counsel in an ongoing investigation isn’t normal.”

While Eric Trump still retains Futerfas, Mukasey’s departure will almost doubtlessly impact his case. And if Mukasey’s recent silence indicates he’s pared back his role in Trumpland more broadly, that effect could multiply.

In a Fox News meltdown four days after Mukasey bailed, Eric Trump complained that “Democrats” have “weaponized” the government against his family, and said the Trump Organization has been getting “subpoena after subpoena after subpoena.”

With additional reporting by Andrew Kirell.

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