Last week The Washington Post dropped one of the biggest bombshells of the Russia scandal to date when it published a story with five different sources saying that that special counsel Robert Mueller was looking into President Donald Trump's actions related to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. The sources were anonymous so the White House could have easily made no comment and let its outside surrogates construct some "alternative facts," if only to buy some time.
Then the president, up in the middle of the night — probably obsessively watching "the shows" on his TiVo — took to Twitter to admit that he was under investigation and he seemed to blame it on the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. By confirming that he was under investigation, Trump moved the story along substantially for no good reason. But that's him. He is congenitally unable to keep his cool.
It had been widely reported that Trump has been unable to hire any top law firms to represent him because they believe he is likely to shoot off his mouth against their advice. According to Yahoo News, one lawyer said the concerns were as follows: "The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen." So after Comey's last public testimony, Trump unleashed his longtime private lawyer Marc Kasowitz to rebut the charges and it wasn't a smooth performance.
The president apparently decided he needed someone with a little bit more experience in Washington. Since all the A-list defense attorneys were "unavailable" to come to the president's defense, he had to turn to the right-wing fever swamps and a man named Jay Sekulow, a familiar presence for viewers of Fox News.
It's a bit unexpected for Sekulow to work for a president with a reputation as a crude libertine who clearly lacks any sincere commitment to religion and "traditional values." Sekulow is best known for his work at the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian conservatives' answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, which the Rev. Pat Robertson founded in 1990.
The American Center for Law and Justice has become known in recent years for its work against gay marriage but it has been fighting at the front of every culture-war battle of the past 27 years. Sekulow has argued some of its most important school prayer and abortion-clinic protest cases before the Supreme Court. He even represented the notorious anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue in a famous case that determined that the RICO Act (which is used to prosecute organized crime figures) could not be used against anti-abortion protesters.
Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice have been heavily involved in the Christian right's odious project to criminalize homosexuality in Africa. Mother Jones reported on this in 2012:
Sekulow and his son Jordan opened affiliated offices of the ACLJ in Africa to lobby politicians to “take the Christian’s views into consideration as they draft legislation and policies,” according to ACLJ’s website. ACLJ’s Zimbabwe office has pushed an agenda that backs outlawing same-sex marriage and making sure that homosexuality “remain[s] a criminal activity.”
The agenda of the American Center for Law and Justice includes ensuring that abortion is banned as well.
Why would Donald Trump hire a right-wing First Amendment lawyer rather than a defense attorney? Well, it's obviously because Sekulow is a "legal analyst" for Fox News, which Trump watches obsessively. He likely saw Sekulow "defend" him on TV one night and decided he'd be a good "defense" lawyer.
So far, that's not going too well. Sekulow made the rounds on all the Sunday talk shows (a feat known as the "full Ginsburg" after Monica Lewinsky's attorney, William Ginsburg, who hit all the shows in one famous blitz at the height of the scandal involving her.) He insisted to anyone who would listen that despite the president's tweeting that he was under investigation, he was really responding only to the news report and isn't under investigation at all.
It didn't make much sense, but Sekulow sounded highly confident in his assertion until he came to his home network, Fox News, to appear on Chris Wallace's show. That's when things fell apart. Wallace asked why, if the president isn't under investigation, he would go after Rosenstein, describing the situation as a "witch hunt." Sekulow lost his poise and began explaining that Trump had taken the advice of the attorney general and his deputy and "now the Department of Justice is investigating him."
Wallace called him on it, and they had a spirited back and forth during which Wallace insisted that Sekulow had said what we'd just heard him say:
Chris Wallace: Well, but you don’t know that he isn’t under investigation now, do you?
Jay Sekulow: Well, no one’s notified us that he is. So I — I can’t read people’s minds, but I can tell you this: We have not been notified that there’s an investigation to the president of the United States. So that — nothing has changed in that regard since James Comey’s testimony.
Wallace: Well, you don’t know that he’s not under investigation again, sir. I mean you might —
Sekulow: You know, I can’t read the mind — you’re right, Chris, I can’t read the minds of the special prosecutor.
Wallace ended the segment with “You don’t know. Oh boy, this is weird. You just told us that you didn’t know.”
You can see the whole exchange as captured below:
It's not all that surprising that Trump would end up with a lawyer like Sekulow. But why is Sekulow doing this for Trump? He's a religious-right guy and while he undoubtedly voted for Trump, as did millions of other conservative Christians, the president seems an odd cause for him to take up. But they may have more in common than seems obvious at first blush.
According to Right Wing Watch, which has been tracking Sekulow for years, they have a similar approach to making money:
Several years ago, Tony Mauro wrote an article for The Legal Times entitled “The Secrets of Jay Sekulow” which examined how “through the ACLJ and a string of interconnected nonprofit and for-profit entities, [Sekulow] has built a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle — complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.”
Sekulow runs two multimillion-dollar nonprofits, the Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism and the American Center for Law and Justice. His wife, brother, sister-in-law and two sons dominate the boards of both organizations, collecting millions of dollars through complicated legal structures.
It's a highly lucrative nepotistic empire, not unlike the Trump Organization and the current White House. These two men sell different products, but they are cut from the same cloth.