From the start, Sekulow had his own mishaps. Just a few weeks into his tenure, Sekulow seemed to inadvertently admit in a Fox New interview that Trump was indeed under investigation. He also drew criticism for denying that the president had helped draft a misleading statement from his son, Donald Trump Jr., about the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian attorney promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Yet he stayed, becoming a kind of constant on the president’s rotating cast of lawyers, the one that others turned to when they were unsure how to navigate Trump’s impulses. Sekulow began to enjoy regular access to the president: meetings in the White House residence and lunches with Trump in the dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. At times during the Mueller probe, it appeared that Sekulow had almost round-the-clock access to the president. His colleagues took notice.
“I’ve watched Jay and followed his lead in handling the president,” said Dowd, who worked as a Trump lawyer from June 2017 to March 2018.
Ultimately, Sekulow is credited, alongside Dowd, with convincing the president to resist meeting with Mueller’s investigators for an interview, even though their client at times agitated to defend himself in person. The duo told the president he might commit perjury and should stick to written answers.
“The president listens to him and Jay speaks the truth to power and the president appreciates it, even when he disagrees with him,” Dowd said. “That’s what I observed.”
Sekulow argues that he wasn’t leading the strategy; he was just providing support. The attorney likens it to his role playing drums in a Christian dad-rock band—mostly religious-themed classic rock covers like the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” and some more overtly Christian originals. “I kept the momentum. I kept the beat,” he told POLITICO. “I think that was helpful.”
As Trump’s legal team prepared for the president’s Senate impeachment trial, it seemed like Sekulow might, for once, be left on the sidelines. The House had decided to advance only articles of impeachment describing Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Because Trump’s Ukraine actions were taken in his capacity as president, it was assumed that Sekulow, as a personal attorney, would defer to the official White House lawyers to mount Trump’s impeachment defense in the Senate.
Then Sekulow found his way in.
All it took were a few glancing references to Mueller’s work in the House Democrats’ impeachment articles and a more detailed accounting in their opening filings to the Senate ahead of the formal trial.
Sekulow saw the mentions as a way in for him to mount a Senate defense that focused less on combating the Ukraine allegations and more on decrying rabid investigations that he said had improperly plagued the president since Day One. Sekulow had unique insights on that full scope, as he was the only Trump legal team member who had represented the president since the Russia probe burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2017.
Sekulow’s role was cemented after Democrats’ opening arguments. Trump lawyers thought their opponents hadn’t presented a coherent message, and the president’s personal attorney sensed he among his colleagues was best positioned when their turn came up to walk the senators through an outline of what they’d hear and who they’d be hearing from.
“I was a logical person,” Sekulow said in an interview on the final day of the Senate trial.
And he had a flair for the dramatic, a way of attracting attention on behalf of a boss who appreciates a bit of theater. During one of his turns at the dais, Sekulow waved a copy of the hefty Mueller report in the air as he complained that the special counsel probe had wasted $32 million to uncover no evidence of collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
“Your adrenaline is pretty high. Once you are in the flow of it you kind of, you go,” Sekulow recounted later.
During the two-week trial, Sekulow ended up having several opportunities to address the impeachment articles from the Senate floor. There, he defended the Trump presidency through the widest possible lens, often delivering riffs that were clearly aimed not at the 100 senators in front of him, but at the president and his legions of supporters.
His arguments ranged from a critique of government spying, and the original premise behind the FBI’s Russia probe, to the long-term consequences of Congress trying to remove a president over what his lawyers maintained were simple policy differences over how to deal with corruption in Ukraine.
“That is more indicative of his ability to try to create the landscape that this was considered in, that it was a political event,” said Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who helms the Senate Intelligence Committee that has extensively investigated Russian meddling and government surveillance. “You wouldn’t expect the White House counsel to do that, and Sekulow had the ability to do that.”
Sekulow also became the defense team’s emcee. He introduced his colleagues one by one as they took turns parsing the House-passed impeachment articles and the constitutional arguments Democrats made for the president’s removal. During the trial’s two-day question and answer session last week, Sekulow served as the self-described “defensive coordinator,” deciding who should go to the nearby lectern to address the senators.
Most of the time, he just nodded across the defense table to Philbin, who ended up answering 66 questions in all, according to a C-SPAN tabulation. But Sekulow took 17 questions himself — the second most on his side, and more than anyone among the House Democratic managers besides California Rep. Adam Schiff.
Democrats tried in vain to note several glaring inconsistencies in Sekulow’s rationale. One moment in particular that stood out was when Sekulow told senators that Democrats should go to the courts to try and secure witnesses. The argument seemed to willfully neglect the fact that Democrats had already sued to get testimony from a top former Trump aide, and that Trump’s own Justice Department lawyers were arguing that the issue didn’t belong in the courts.
Not everyone appreciated his act. “He fits Trump’s M.O., which is to be aggressive, take no prisoners,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and former state attorney general. “It’s a style that works in some cases for some clients in some settings.”