White House’s lead Russia lawyer Ty Cobb to step down
By Jennifer Haberkorn
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Cobb’s departure, saying the prominent white-collar attorney who left private practice last year for a job in Trump’s inner circle had been discussing his retirement for several weeks with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Story Continued Below
Cobb told the New York Times in a phone interview he is staying on the job to help with the transition of his replacement Emmet Flood, an attorney who helped President Bill Clinton manage his impeachment defense and also served as a White House counsel under President George W. Bush. The White House did not officially announce Flood’s hiring, though he did meet with the president last year to discuss job options.
Cobb has been an outspoken advocate on Trump’s legal team for cooperation with Mueller’s probe and a steadying voice since his arrival last summer in urging the president against tweeting about the Russia investigation.
He also helped coordinate the White House’s document production effort and lined up more than two dozen interviews between Mueller and current and former Trump White House aides.
But his departure had also been expected as the president takes a more confrontational approach with the Mueller investigators who since last May have been examining everything from whether Trump or his allies colluded with Russians to win the 2016 presidential election to whether the president obstructed justice in an attempt to shutter the probe. Former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired, also previously said that the president asked him to let go of an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump’s current team of personal lawyers, led by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, restarted talks last month with Mueller over a potential sit-down interview, though the president and his attorneys have signaled they will resist the special counsel’s overtures and may even force a subpoena fight that could take months as it winds its way through the courts.
Cobb, who hasn’t been a direct player in the negotiations with Mueller on the Trump interview, has withstood months of criticism from conservatives and longtime Trump allies who had been urging the president to fire the top White House lawyer and launch more direct attacks on the special counsel.
Trump had resisted those pleas until March, when he fired off the first in a series of tweets to mention the special counsel by name and also question whether the probe should have ever been launched. Those missives prompted widespread speculation Trump was on the verge of setting in motion Mueller’s firing – which Cobb eventually walked back in an official White House statement saying no such plan was in the works.
Cobb had managed upon joining Trump’s legal team last July to temper the president’s furor against Mueller, tamping down the expectation Trump would get rid of the special counsel. Alongside Kelly, Cobb also was able to limit the president’s Twitter attacks against Mueller.
“I have a very respectful and professional relationship with Bob Mueller. I think very highly of him,” Cobb said in a July 2017 interview just before his first day on the job.
But Cobb was too optimistic about the Russia probe. He initially told reporters he anticipated Mueller would be done interviewing Trump administration staffers around the end of November 2017, when he said he thought the special counsel would issue a formal statement clearing the president of any wrongdoing.
Trump, who maintained constant contact with Cobb and a rotating cast of personal attorneys including Jay Sekulow, John Dowd and more recently, Giuliani, had welcomed Cobb’s timetable and shared it with friends, including during his Thanksgiving 2017 visit, according to people who spoke with him there.
When the probe did not end on Cobb’s schedule, he repeatedly adjusted his timetable, but Trump’s associates questioned his advice to the president. Breitbart repeatedly attacked Cobb, and the conservative website’s former leader, Steve Bannon, also made both public and private pleadings urging the president to fire the White House lawyer.
Cobb’s push for cooperation came at the same time Mueller was making moves on former Trump associates.
In late October, he indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates on a dozen charges, including money laundering and tax evasion. He also struck a plea deal with George Papadopoulos, after the former campaign aide was caught lying to the FBI, and a separate plea deal Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who was also accused of lying to the FBI over his contacts with Russian officials. While Manafort continues to plead not guilty, Gates in February shifted strategies and pleaded guilty.
Cobb’s job description in the White House was to work on Russia matters, giving the president’s press staff the freedom to punt to him on all questions about the investigations. That marked a shift from Trump’s initial legal approach, which had centered around White House counsel Don McGahn and longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz.
Working out of a windowless West Wing office down the hall from the Situation Room and White House mess hall, Cobb reviewed a vast database of internal documents related to the Russia probe that were turned over to Muller. He had a staff of five by the fall of 2017, including Steven Groves, who left his post last August as chief of staff to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
Story Continued Below
Cobb brought to the Trump team experience from both sides of multiple previous Washington special counsel probes. He was a top investigator examining corruption allegations against Ronald Reagan’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Samuel Pierce and represented a lawyer swept up in the Iran-Contra investigations. During the Clinton administration, he represented clients involved in Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater probe.
Some Trump allies urged the president to rely on his lawyer’s expertise. “Take a deep breath, follow Ty Cobb’s lead, trust the process,” former Trump legal spokesman Mark Corallo told POLITICO in early December.
“Ty Cobb has an outstanding reputation, with the exception of talking too freely in restaurants,” added Solomon Wisenberg, a former deputy on Starr’s independent counsel investigation. He was referring to an incident in which Cobb and Dowd, sitting within earshot of a New York Times reporter at a nearby table at a Washington restaurant, discussed how much cooperation the president should give Mueller.
Others wanted a new approach. Before his falling out with the president, Bannon had urged the president in private to take a more aggressive stance against Mueller by targeting the special counsel’s budget or overhauling his legal team.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, told POLITICO last winter that Cobb had given the president unrealistic expectations about the timing and shape of the investigation. He predicted Trump would fire Cobb once that recognition set in.
“I don’t imagine Cobb is long for 2018 in the White House,” Nunberg said.