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In Russia scandal, Trump's legal team isn't a fine-tuned machine

The head of Trump's legal defense team shared his candid thoughts about the investigation -- just outside the New York Times' D.C. bureau.
Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.

In recent weeks, Donald Trump's outside legal team, created to protect the president's interests as the Trump-Russia scandal moves forward, hasn't exactly been impressive. A series of bizarre incidents, including instances in which the president's lawyers got into odd email arguments with total strangers, have made some members of Trump's legal team look quite foolish.

But this New York Times report makes them look even worse. The piece is about arguments among the president's attorneys about "how much to cooperate" with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and the challenge of balancing investigatory demands and the "prerogatives of the office of the presidency."

The debate in Mr. Trump's West Wing has pitted Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, against Ty Cobb, a lawyer brought in to manage the response to the investigation. Mr. Cobb has argued for turning over as many of the emails and documents requested by the special counsel as possible in hopes of quickly ending the investigation -- or at least its focus on Mr. Trump.Mr. McGahn supports cooperation, but has expressed worry about setting a precedent that would weaken the White House long after Mr. Trump's tenure is over. He is described as particularly concerned about whether the president will invoke executive or attorney-client privilege to limit how forthcoming Mr. McGahn could be if he himself is interviewed by the special counsel as requested.The friction escalated in recent days after Mr. Cobb was overheard by a reporter for The New York Times discussing the dispute during a lunchtime conversation at a popular Washington steakhouse. Mr. Cobb was heard talking about a White House lawyer he deemed "a McGahn spy" and saying Mr. McGahn had "a couple documents locked in a safe" that he seemed to suggest he wanted access to. He also mentioned a colleague whom he blamed for "some of these earlier leaks," and who he said "tried to push Jared out," meaning Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been a previous source of dispute for the legal team.

Some geographic context is probably in order. The head of the president's defense team went to BLT Steak, about two blocks north of the White House, sat outside, and had a loud and candid conversation about the investigation into the Russia scandal. BLT Steak is located at 1625 I Street.

The New York Times' D.C. bureau is located at 1627 I Street. In other words, Trump's top outside counsel effectively went to the New York Times' front door and started sharing his thoughts on sensitive information related to the president's legal defense in the most serious political scandal since Watergate.

That was ... unwise.

In fact, after the New York Times contacted the White House for comment, and explained what Cobb was overheard saying, McGahn "privately erupted" at Trump's outside counsel, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly "sharply reprimanded Mr. Cobb for his indiscretion."

A fine-tuned machine this isn't.

Among the follow-up questions raised by the article: what documents does McGahn have "locked in a safe"? Why is McGahn, a potential witness who'll soon be interviewed as part of the special counsel's probe, part of the deliberations about how much to cooperate with the probe?

And why, as the Times' article added, are some White House officials privately fearful "that colleagues may be wearing a wire to surreptitiously record conversations for Mr. Mueller"?