Lifeboat Lawyering: The Unstable Course of Legal Advice in the Trump Administration

From the abstract for Peter Margulies, Lifeboat Lawyering and the Ship of State: The Unstable Course of Legal Advice in the Trump Administration, Fordham Law Review, Forthcoming:

To cope with their mercurial client, senior Trump administration lawyers have resorted to what this Article calls “lifeboat lawyering.” This model can promote compliance with longstanding norms such as prosecutorial independence. However, lifeboat lawyering also carries special risks.

Lifeboat lawyering entails slow-walking presidential decisions and performing triage between especially damaging decisions and those that are less harmful. In some cases, such as ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn’s heading off a massive disclosure of data related to the inner workings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, lifeboat lawyering can be useful. But lifeboat lawyers’ triage is neither transparent nor accountable. The public has no way to judge whether the rash decisions that lifeboat lawyering prevents outweigh the many other unsound decisions in which administration lawyers acquiesce.

Moreover, lifeboat lawyers such as McGahn may overestimate their value in office and underestimate the salutary effects of a resignation that highlights the administration’s flaws. Admittedly, these risks are present in virtually every administration, and much lawyering in the Trump administration is far more conventional. However, this administration has featured more agonizing dilemmas than its predecessors.

The Article illustrates the promise and perils of lifeboat lawyering with an analysis of Don McGahn’s role in releasing a congressional report on the 2016 application of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to investigate former Trump consultant Carter Page’s Russia ties. Release of this FISA material was unprecedented. Moreover, the McGahn letter was insufficiently precise about the congressional report’s distortions of DOJ’s FISA request. Yet McGahn’s approach also contained language that could have alerted attentive readers to the problems with the congressional report. That double effect reflects both lifeboat lawyering’s value and its dangers.

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