When Jay Sekulow found himself backed into a corner during a heated interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday, he pulled out his inner Trump.
Wallace and Sekulow, a big time conservative lawyer who is quickly becoming the face of Trump’s legal team, went back and forth on the issue. Sekulow, while trying to explain why Trump wasn’t personally under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, found himself saying that Trump was under investigation. Twice.
“You’ve now said that he is being investigated,” Wallace said.
“No, Chris,” Sekulow replied. “Let me be crystal clear so you completely understand: We have not received nor are we aware of any investigation of the president of the United States.”
“Sir, you’ve just said two times that he’s being investigated,” Wallace said.
As the president has done on many occasions, Sekulow then doubled- and tripled-down on his point even while his rhetoric from just moments before contradicted it. Trump was not under investigation, he reiterated time and time again.
And he became more forceful in each answer.
“I just gave you the legal theory, Chris, of how the Constitution works,” Sekulow said.
“If in fact it was correct that the president was being investigated, he would be investigated for taking an action that an agency told him to take,” he continued, referring to Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director, which reportedly sparked the investigation into Trump. “So that is protected under the Constitution.”
By the time the testy exchange reached the question of whether Trump would fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or Mueller, Sekulow had turned his ire onto Wallace himself.
“Here’s what you’re trying to do, Chris,” Sekulow said.
“Now you’re reading minds again,” Wallace replied.
“No, Chris, I deal with fact and law,” Sekulow said. “You’re asking me to read people’s minds.”
It was the most notable moment from Sekulow’s wild tour across four of the five Sunday shows on his second week of appearing on such programs to defend his newest client, the president of the United States.
Without much fanfare or even notification, Sekulow had appeared on TV as a member of the legal team defending Trump from the increasingly pointed investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials in the 2016 presidential election and, more recently, whether Trump himself committed obstruction of justice in his firing of Comey.
The recent addition to Trump’s legal team, which also includes his private attorney Marc Kasowitz and former US Attorney John Dowd, an expert in white-collar criminal law, happens to be the only member who has experience litigating before the Supreme Court. His record in those cases is eight wins and four losses.
But although that experience comes with an impressive record of victories, Sekulow has no experience in anything similar to the kind of battle that Trump is now facing.
Those who know Sekulow, however, aren’t surprised that he’s taking on Trump’s battle. And even though he has no experience in white-collar crime, some say he is the perfect choice to be the face of the president’s legal team.
Still, Sekulow is a controversial figure in his own right.
Through a spokesperson, Sekulow, in addition to anyone from the American Center for Law and Justice legal organization he heads, declined to comment for this story.
Who is he?
Jay Alan Sekulow, 61, was born in Brooklyn, New York.
A seminal moment for Sekulow happened in college, when the Jewish New Yorker underwent a spiritual awakening and found Jesus. It would become the starter for his involvement with the non-profit organization Jews for Jesus, which led him to his first battle in front of the Supreme Court. And, later, to his partnership with televangelist Pat Robertson and his crusade for causes important to the religious right.
But before he found himself arguing constitutional law before the nation’s highest court, Sekulow was an Atlanta-based tax attorney who ran his own law firm almost as soon as he left college.
Jeffrey Cohen, an Atlanta tax attorney, worked at Sekulow’s firm in the early 1980s. It wasn’t a fruitful partnership, as Cohen sued Sekulow after he failed to pay Cohen a promised year-end $20,000 bonus after an eight-month stint at the firm. Cohen won the suit, and he told Business Insider the jury gave him everything he wanted “plus attorney’s fees.” In 1991, he described the experience at Sekulow’s firm as “an eight-month nightmare.”
Cohen said he’s only spoken to Sekulow one time over the past three decades — a 10-second “cordial” exchange in the Atlanta airport. Although he sued Sekulow, Cohen said the two “never had a bad relationship” during his stint at the firm.
“We weren’t what I would call friends, we weren’t butting heads either,” he said.
Cohen described the young Sekulow as “fantastically successful.”
“One thing I’ll never forget about him was that given that he was younger than me,” Cohen said. “And I was young.”
He continued: “His law firm was very new, he hadn’t been practicing law a long time at all. Yet he was mind-numbingly successful at bringing in new clients, a number of clients. … He was very charming and an excellent business generator.”
The Atlanta tax attorney admitted to seeing some of the clips of Sekulow on TV defending Trump, expressing little surprise.
“This is a man who’s had his own television show, radio show, been in the public eye and he is very comfortable, evidently, in front of the camera, behind a microphone,” he said. “And I am not surprised at all that he is that smooth and eloquent as he was back then. He was a prodigy in terms of being impressive and charming and never at a loss for words. I compliment him highly from that standpoint.”
Things came to a quick crash for Sekulow from his early days in Atlanta. In 1986, after he and his associates were sued for fraud and securities violations related to a development project, Sekulow declared bankruptcy. Later that year, he signed on as general counsel for Jews for Jesus.
The following year, he won a 9-0 decision for the group at the Supreme Court, arguing in defense of Jews for Jesus’ right to hand pamphlets out at the Los Angeles International Airport. It was the first of 12 cases he’d argue before the Supreme Court over the next 21 years, almost all of which were similar in nature to the Jews for Jesus case.
In 1992, he joined forces with Robertson and became chief legal counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which was dubbed a conservative alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. That organization has since expanded throughout the world to promote Christian and religious-right causes.
Sekulow has previously come under fire for reportedly using the ACLJ, where he is chief executive officer, and another legal nonprofit, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), to build “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,” according to a 2005 story in Legal Times.
In 2011, a Tennessean investigation reported that the two non-profits paid out “$33 million to members of Sekulow’s family and businesses they own or co-own” over a span of 13 years.
Both organizations have raked in millions of dollars.
The ACLJ, Bloomberg reported, pulled in more than $19 million in grants and contributions in 2015, the most recent year an IRS filing is available. Sekulow’s family members occupy many of the organization’s most important positions, including chief financial officer, chief executive officer, and director of major donors. Although Bloomberg found that the filing showed Sekulow received no salary from the ACLJ in 2015, the nonprofit transferred more than $5 million to a Washington law firm that Sekulow is a 50% owner of.
CASE, the other non-profit, raised more than $52 million in 2015, according to its filing. Bloomberg reported that four of Sekulow’s family members, including his wife and brother, serve on the CASE board of directors, and the organization transferred roughly $16 million to the ACLJ in addition to payments of about $1.2 million to Sekulow-owned businesses.
Michael McLachlan, a Colorado attorney who served as the state’s solicitor general in 1999, when he won a Supreme Court decision for the state over Sekulow in Hill v. Colorado, pointed to Sekulow’s money-making abilities as a cause for question during an interview with Business Insider.
“He’s kind of like what I would consider a legal Billy Sunday or Elmer Gantry,” McLachlan said, referencing the early 20th Century evangelist and his fictional 1920s evangelical peer who both made a great deal of money from their preaching. “He’s in the camp raiding the money.”
“These little old ladies mailing in their welfare checks to the 700 Club and to [Sekulow] … Hey, I mean I think that somebody needs to get a little handle on what he’s making millions and millions of dollars a year on television,” he said. “And, he’s a good lawyer, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not faulting him as being a good lawyer.”
McLachlan, who served a brief stint as a Democratic representative in the Colorado House of Representatives earlier this decade, said there’s “no doubt that” Sekulow is “experienced in Supreme Court arguments,” but added that “he’s successful in my opinion more than he should be.”
“As far as the merits of what he does, he’s an extremely effective voice for the religious right,” he said. “And at the same time, he’s making millions and millions of dollars a year, really, fundraising through television. And it’s very unique. I would love to see his tax returns.”
Sekulow, who had influential roles as a Supreme Court adviser to President George W. Bush and as an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, has mostly transitioned from Supreme Court litigator to television pundit in recent years. Sekulow is a frequent guest on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s program, and on a number of Christian broadcasting programs. He also hosts “Jay Sekulow Live!” along with his son, Jordan. The show is syndicated on satellite radio.
“Jay is a incredible lawyer, a gifted communicator,” Hannity told Business Insider in an email. “His track record with Supreme Court cases speaks for itself. He knows and understands the law, the Constitution and is a passionate articulate advocate for those he represents.”
“I think people are missing the strategic intent behind it”
David French, a longtime friend and former colleague of Sekulow’s at the ACLJ, told Business Insider that it makes perfect sense for Trump to bring on the attorney to his legal team.
Even though most onlookers are questioning why a lawyer with Sekulow’s background in fighting for legal causes of the religious right would fit into the picture in this instance, French, now a writer at The National Review, said it actually makes perfect sense, adding that onlookers are “missing” something big in their analysis.
“I’m hearing all these people say ‘oh, well, Jay is not a white-collar criminal defense lawyer,’” French said. “They totally misunderstand the nature of this proceeding. I don’t think the real issue is ‘will Donald Trump face a jury in the Southern District of New York or in DC.’ The really important issue is ‘is this a scandal that can threaten a presidency up to the potential of impeachment?’ That’s the real guts of this. And that’s a political question that is heavily influenced by legal arguments.”
“Jay’s a very, very good lawyer,” he continued. “But what he’s been spending years doing is making political arguments from a legal perspective. And he’s a master at it. So no, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Trump would hire Jay or retain Jay for that purpose. And I think people are missing the strategic intent behind it and the strategic sense of it.”
French, who co-authored a 2014 book with Sekulow about the Islamic State terror group, called Sekulow a “very effective” and “very forceful public communicator.”
“Unfortunately, Trump has been ill-served by some of his spokesmen,” he said. “Now, Trump compounds a heck of a lot of his problems with his irresponsible and reckless tweeting and his own lack of discipline. I mean, arguably he’s right now sleeping in a bed that he has made through his own statements and his own actions. But, you know, if there’s one thing that he needs, it’s forceful and effective public advocates who can go into the court of public opinion and make a strong legal argument and put it in a way that people can and will understand.”
To French, it’s becoming clear that Sekulow is becoming the public face of Trump’s legal team.
“If you just judge Jay’s performance vs. some of the other legal spokespeople for Trump, I think Jay’s in his element,” French said.
McLachlan also said he too was not surprised to see Trump tap Sekulow to join the legal team.
“In fact, it’s in my opinion it really is par for the course as far as [Sekulow’s] career path,” he said. “And you know, President Trump’s close to Pat Robertson, he’s close to Liberty University, he’s close to the religious right.”
It’s clear too to McLachlan that Sekulow is going to be the face of Trump’s high-profile team. McLachlan thinks the president wanted it this way because Sekulow “has a huge following” and “is articulate.”
McLachlan pointed to Sekulow’s interview with Wallace.
“As you saw in the interview he did on television, the president tweeted ‘I am under investigation.’ Those are a series of unequivocal words,” McLachlan said. “And [then] Jay Sekulow got into his mealy mouth an explanation that made it sound as if he’s not really sure.”