Robert Bennett: Representing the President Like Navigating the Bermuda Triangle

By Sarah Kellogg

July 17, 2017

As turmoil roils the current White House administration, the D.C. Bar is beginning a series of interviews with Bar members who have been involved in investigations of former presidents. Through the lens of their professional experiences, these attorneys offer their personal views on the widening probe into the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

Robert Bennett, Partner, Hogan Lovells Robert S. Bennett is one of the nation’s most successful and respected defense lawyers. He also happens to be a member of an exclusive club of attorneys who have represented sitting U.S. presidents in the midst of political scandal and government inquiries.

Presidential clients are particularly attractive because they have an electric mix of gravitas, celebrity, and high-stakes combat, not to mention the career-boosting publicity. But they can be perilous, too, with their reputational pitfalls and media ambushes.

“Lawyers by training are very cautious and deliberative and take time to figure things out,” says Bennett, a partner at Hogan Lovells. “But representing a president is like being in a small boat or small plane in the Bermuda Triangle. What you say can be positive in the media, but it can be harmful in the criminal case. What’s helping you in the FBI investigation can be harmful in the congressional investigation. There are all sorts of crosswinds and crosscurrents.”

In the case of President Donald J. Trump, it may be less crosswinds and more hurricane. Bennett believes Trump’s success in navigating multiple congressional investigations, a special counsel investigation, and the 24/7 media scramble will depend, in no small part, on the experience and skill of his legal counsel.

Bennett should know. His list of prominent D.C. clients is extensive, and it includes everyone from former secretaries of defense Clark Clifford (Democrat) and Caspar Weinberger (Republican) to Paul D. Wolfowitz, former president of the World Bank. Most notably, he was the personal lawyer for former President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case.

The task of representing a president is hard enough when he’s a conventional politician, but Trump’s personality and his fondness for issuing declarations via Twitter makes it tougher. Moreover, the power of the White House to beguile even the most seasoned lawyer can be seductive, making it all the more important to pivot from awestruck to action.

“I was a very experienced lawyer when I represented President Clinton, and I’ve represented a lot of high-profile people,” says Bennett. “But you never quite get used to the fact that you’re sitting in the Oval Office and your client is the president of the United States when he walks in the door. You have to train yourself to get on with your job and treat him like you would treat any other client.”

Bennett says the tendency at this point in a scandal of the sort President Trump is facing is to hunker down, wall off the administration, and silence the chatter to protect the president from incriminating himself. It’s a smart strategy, but Trump won’t follow it, Bennett says.

“It’s difficult when you have a client who insists on speaking and tweeting at all hours of the day and night,” says Bennett. “I think the advice I would give [his attorneys] is do your absolute best to convince your client to not say anything. With these pending investigations, for him to talk or tweet about the issues is totally counterproductive and makes him seem guilty or scared of something.”

Bennett says Trump’s legal team should keep the focus on the big picture—avoiding prosecution or impeachment. In doing so, it can steer clear of minor spats with reporters and avoid Trump and his staff issuing conflicting statements.

“They should use [Special Counsel] Bob Mueller’s investigation and the congressional investigation to reduce the media coverage,” says Bennett. “If his spokesman said he wouldn’t comment as long as the issues are being investigated, that would be helpful. It would cause the media to move on to other things.”

Bennett says the round-the-clock nature of today’s media makes it arduous for even the savviest communicator. He says his trick has always been to prepare as methodically as possible before wading into the public arena.

“In the case of President Clinton, in addition to more traditional legal work, he wanted me to be his spokesperson on a number of issues,” says Bennett. “Dealing with the media is really very difficult and you’re not afforded the time to think things through. You have to have a plan about the questions thrown at you. You want to give the right and honest answers.”

Bennett says there is a perception that many lawyers in Washington were not interested in serving on Trump’s legal team. He says it is rare to see attorneys dodge a presidential client.

“Many of the people who have associated themselves with the president have diminished their reputations,” he says. “I think, without knowing for sure, that a number of attorneys would not want to do this, myself included. If you go to lawyers with good reputations, they don’t want to diminish those reputations.”

Bennett says the president’s decision to hire lawyers he knew personally might have seemed like a good idea and put him at ease, but most of them are not experts in D.C. and few have histories of working under intense congressional investigations.

“There are very good lawyers who come to Washington and don’t do very well,” he says. “They may understand the words, but they don’t understand the music of this city.”

Also in This Series...

For attorney W. Neil Eggleston, the investigation into President Trump’s campaign and his staff is a reminder that highly public inquiries can be frantic and exhausting, no matter the president. Eggleston reflects on his experiences as deputy chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ probe into the Iran-Contra scandal, and compares it to the current political atmosphere.