Giuliani Is Not Special: Presidents' Personal Lawyers Are Usually Bad News

While it is true that Rudy Giuliani is a particularly malignant tumor on the lymph node of the American presidency, Democrats and the corporate media networks have recently treated him like some new form of alien cancer for which the macrophages of our democracy are wholly unprepared to mount a defense. That is not quite accurate. The problem is not that Giuliani is some novel parasite. And thankfully, our democracy does have the chemotherapy treatment of impeachment to deal with him, although it would be better if there were some less invasive way of removing him and his ilk. No, the problem with Giuliani is actually a problem with the president himself.

Presidents and Vice Presidents have routinely surrounded themselves with ambitious personal lawyers for most of American history. In fact, it seems to be a tradition for newly minted executives to elevate their personal lawyers into positions they are not qualified for. Whenever power transfers from one administration to the next, a vast shuffling and scraping sound can be heard throughout the honeycombed office blocks of government as the names on business cards and frosted office windows are removed and reprinted with those of the new executive's personal legal entourage. The installation of lawyers into positions of power is prudent and completely normal from the perspective of political history and strategy. 

What makes Giuliani unique is not who he is professionally but what he was told do by his boss, the president, and even the ‘what he was told to do’ part is not really indicative of anything about Giuliani himself other than that the president thought he would do it. Let’s unpack this a bit more. First, Giuliani’s marching orders are an indictment of the president, not himself; what Giuliani did wrong was that he followed those orders. But the fact that Giuliani followed those orders is completely normal and right in line with the slimy history of presidential personal lawyers. That Giuliani was chosen for the job is nothing more than an accident of history and not a reflection of anything special about Giuliani himself. He is a loyalty stooge and nothing more.

Looking back, Giuliani's place in the cringe-worthy tradition of presidential personal lawyers who rose to the heights of power only to crash down into infamy is anything but exceptional. When he falls, and it’s incredible that he hasn’t fallen already, no one will say that it was unusual for the president’s personal lawyer to go down in infamy. If anything, people will say that it was unusual for Giuliani to go down and come out with nothing to show for it but perhaps some jail time. After all, Giuliani seems to be one of the few presidential personal lawyers who has (so far) failed to capitalize on his position in some way. When we look back at the sordid history of the position, it is clear that these lawyers tend to come having at least taken a shot at glory. They certainly didn’t squander the glory they already had won, as Giuliani, AKA America’s Mayor, has already done. He got that nickname after 9/11. But that legacy is no more. How Giuliani could redeem himself and recapture both the glory he lost and enrich himself after his follies is hard to see. He is bad at being a shady personal lawyer for the president, and that is what makes him unique.

To see just how bad Giuliani is at being a bad guy, it might help to do a quick retrospective of some of the presidential personal lawyers that have entered onto the stage of the great American political drama. Spoiler: they almost always play the villain. 

First, let’s look at Bill Clinton. His personal lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, made a name for himself defending president Clinton against impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But that was not the only scandal Bennett was brought in for legal council. In fact, Bennett spent his entire career defending high profile scandal-ridden political operatives. Bennett represented Judith Miller in the Valerie Plame Affair CIA leak grand jury investigation. He represented Caspar Weinberger, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. He also represented Clark Clifford in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal, and Paul Wolfowitz in the World Bank Scandal. He served as special counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee's 1989–1991 investigation of the Keating Five. In 2008, Bennett was hired by John McCain (whom he had come into contact with when McCain had been one of the Keating Five) to defend allegations by The New York Times of an improper relationship with a Washington lobbyist. For a scandal lawyer, that is an impressive resume. 

Next, let’s look at George W. Bush’s personal lawyer, Harriet Miers. Miers’ legal career before she met Bush was not controversial. But after helping Bush win his bid to become Governor of Texas in 1994, Bush appointed Mier to the state’s lottery commission, where she fired the executive director, a man named Lawrence Lettwin, who was looking into suspected illegal political campaign contributions by the company that held the contract to run the lottery. Lettwin alleged that Miers had told him to shut down his investigation prior to being fired. Miers stepped down from the commission to join Bush’s presidential legal council in 2000 and actually seems to have done a fairly good job of staying out of trouble for the first few years. But in 2005, Bush decided to nominate her for the Supreme Court despite the fact that she had no experience as a judge. That ultimately blew up in the administration's face, and Miers took the brunt of the fallout. Still, though she had taken her shot at the power of the supreme court and missed, she managed to survive with her legal career intact, and in 2007, she returned to the law firm she had worked for before meeting Bush. 

VP Dick Cheney's personal lawyer deserves an honorable mention at this point. David Addington had a long and illustrious career in politics before he became VP Cheney’s personal lawyer, including having possibly been the author of a controversial minority report during the Iran Contra Affair that “defended President Reagan by claiming it was 'unconstitutional for Congress to pass laws intruding' on the 'commander in chief,” though Addington denied involvement in the writing of the report to congress. As the VP’s lawyer, he worked diligently to protect the Office of the Vice President from investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and private organizations. But it was his role in expanding presidential powers for Bush and his likely role in developing the administration’s policies regarding torture that earned him infamy. US Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked as former Secretary of State Colin Powel’s Chief of Staff, stated in an interview: "the man who, to me, brings all of this together more than Cheney himself, because he has one foot in the legal camp—and I must admit it's a fairly brilliant foot—and he has one foot in the operator camp, that's David Addington." Furthermore, Colin Powell is alleged to have remarked in private, regarding who was responsible for the NSA wiretapping of US citizens without a warrant: "It's Addington, he doesn't care about the Constitution." 

Obama's personal lawyer, Robert Bauer, was not nearly as malevolent as Addington. Like Mier and Bennett, Bauer had a strong legal practice at the famed firm Perkins Coi outside of his work with the President. Soon after Obama came to power, he used Bauer as essentially the head lawyer of the Democratic party to consolidate power within the party. Bauer used his influence to lay the groundwork within the DNC for Obama’s reelection bid in 2012, and now currently hold a position as Professor of the Practice and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at NYU School of Law. Of all the presidential personal lawyers, Bauer is perhaps the most innocuous. 

Finally, we come to Trump’s lawyers. Compared to the others, they are clearly not “the best people,” as Trump likes to boast. The first one, Michael Cohen, failed to get anything other than shame out of the gig. After serving as Trump’s “fixer” for decades, paying off women and engaging in who knows what other illicit dealings, Cohen finally ended up in jail for lying to Congress on Trump’s behalf. Now, Giuliani is in the hot seat. With that legacy of the job in place, it's no surprise that Giuliani is turning out to be just like his compadres: a power-hungry legal stooge for the most powerful man in the world. He has already far surpassed the others in sleaziness by soliciting help from a foreign power to win an election on Trump’s behalf. Addington may have been a warmonger and torturer, but at least he had some class like the others. Giuliani, meanwhile, is acting like a low-level New York crime boss, and his inability to string coherent thoughts together on live TV should make everyone concerned for his mental health. The only thing that makes Giuliani different from the other personal lawyers, besides his lack of class, is the fact that he was willing to violate federal election law in order to undermine our democracy. And even that violation is not so unusual when Addington is put into the mix.

"When this is over, I will be the hero!" Giuliani declared recently. Sorry, Rudy, but you definitely won’t be. The president’s personal lawyers never are, and you are not even that good at being a villain. It is time for America, and especially the Democrats who just can’t stand him, to realize that Giuliani is just a particularly virulent strain of a broader problem: the long-festering ailment of the executive branch known as the personal lawyer. It may not be possible to get rid of them all or get rid of any of them, but there should be some better way to keep these lawyers in check when power calls on them. Addington was particularly fond of the Unitary Executive Theory, which holds that the President has complete control over every aspect of the Executive branch. Bush, with Addington’s and Mier’s help, successfully put that theory into practice and vastly expanded the powers of the President. The time has come to reign those powers back in and redistribute them, starting with the lawyers.

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