As The Impeachment Inquiry Goes On The Legal Fees Continue To Rise
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A familiar rhythm has developed for these autumn days here in Washington. A former or current government official shows up on Capitol Hill. Camera shutters click. Reporters shout questions, and the person disappears into the SCIF. That's the secure room in the basement of the Capitol. Their testimony expands our understanding of the accusations against President Trump in the impeachment inquiry, but it comes at a price.
Each of the people testifying before House committees has had to hire a lawyer, and Washington lawyers do not come cheap. A white-collar attorney experienced in congressional investigations can run you somewhere around $1,000 to $1,500 an hour. Nancy Cook has been writing about this for Politico. She joins me now. Hey there.
NANCY COOK: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Why does somebody have to hire an attorney? If you're cooperating with the committee, if you say you're telling the truth, why do you need a lawyer with you?
COOK: Well, you want a lawyer basically to protect yourself. You know, the White House has a whole team of lawyers. And you can certainly go to them, and they'll tell you what to say. But their loyalty and their interest really lies with the president and the institution of the presidency, not with someone's own career or political survival. And so what we're seeing is that people from agencies, from the State Department, top diplomats - they're going out and they're hiring their own lawyers to make sure that they're protected in this impeachment process.
KELLY: And among that pool of people, there are some high-profile names, people of means, like Gordon Sondland, who maybe can afford to pay his legal fees. There are also less high-profile staffers trying to do this on a government salary, right?
COOK: Absolutely. And, you know, it really depends agency to agency. Some people are covering legal bills through legal liability insurance. Some people have worked out deals with lawyers where they can pay over a period of time. But it becomes very tricky for White House officials because you're not supposed to accept free legal work. It's considered a gift. And so it becomes a bit trickier how they will hire attorneys.
KELLY: Just how wide is the web of people who could be getting called eventually to testify and need a lawyer?
COOK: You know, you have to remember that just like any workplace, there are White House aides who are cc'd on emails or schedules or who may have seen Rudy Giuliani or different members of this Ukraine shadow foreign policy come into the White House for meetings. And I think that there's a fear among these, like, mid-level aides that they will be at legal peril.
And you have to remember during the Mueller investigation, there were so many of these mid-level people. Jared Kushner's assistant Avi Berkowitz was called to testify. And I think that people in the White House now are looking at that and wondering once the impeachment inquiry moves along, will they be at risk?
KELLY: The White House had a fund to help people during the Mueller investigation - a fund to help them pay their legal fees. Is there any talk of setting up something similar for this impeachment inquiry?
COOK: I think that it's something that people in the White House and people outside of the White House are considering, but it's really not something that they have coalesced behind yet.
You know, the president is still insisting that he did nothing wrong by this. And I think that White House officials are even skittish to talk about the idea of hiring lawyers just for fear that, you know, you don't want to act like you're going to hire a lawyer and then make it seem like you feel like the president's guilty or you did something wrong.
But some people outside the White House - they feel like there needs to be that fund so that it gives people the protection so they feel like they can go out there and defend the president.
KELLY: You mentioned something called legal liability insurance. What is that? How's it work?
COOK: Well, it's interesting. It's not something that came about just during the Trump administration. It's something that I spoke to people even in the Obama administration, they had it, too. And it's something that - basically, it's insurance that, presumably, top-level government people would buy heading into a big government job, like in the White House. And just in case they got into any trouble, it helps cover those legal bills.
KELLY: And meanwhile, is this boom times for the big white-collar D.C. firms?
COOK: Well, it definitely is. You know, it's so interesting because there's sort of this mad rush right now to hire lawyers. It's interesting because, you know, once you hire an attorney and that person is representing - you know, I'm making it up off the top of my head - you know, a person from State, then they can't necessarily represent someone from the White House because it would be a conflict of interest. So it's a tiny pool of lawyers and potentially a lot of witnesses. And I think that there is a rush to secure, you know, the best person that you can to help you navigate this.
KELLY: That's Nancy Cook, reporter with Politico. Thanks so much.
COOK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.