- Hogan Lovells
Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to Bill Clinton, says the current White House special counsel on Russia should correct recent missteps. Davis says current and former members of President Donald Trump’s orbit have called him for legal advice. He says the White House strategy needs to change to deal with the “elephant in the room.”
Former President Bill Clinton’s special counsel, Lanny Davis, has some advice for current White House special counsel Ty Cobb: “Never do any emailing late in the evening.”
Cobb, who was hired in July to oversee the legal and media response to the Russia investigation, found himself in hot water last weekend when he emailed a reporter asking if she was “on drugs” following a question about former FBI Director James Comey’s firing.
Two days later, he justified his White House work to an amateur Russia sleuth by writing in a late-night email that “more adults in the room” in President Donald Trump’s White House would ultimately benefit the country.
Cobb has yet to issue a statement about the unusual email exchanges, apart from a brief “mea culpa” to Mother Jones’ David Corn on Wednesday.
“I was catfished,” Cobb said.
In an interview on Thursday, Davis said he was “sympathetic to the difficult position” in which Cobb now finds himself. But he said Cobb hasn’t been following the basic rules of crisis management that Davis helped develop – and that Davis said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon called him months ago to learn more about.
“I never in a million years expected my cellphone to ring and hear, ‘Hey Lanny, this is Steve Bannon,'” Davis recalled. “It’s something that can only happen in Washington.”
Bannon and senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway had concluded that they needed “a Lanny Davis” to manage the response to the Russia crisis enveloping the White House, Davis said.
“I told him, ‘Steve, I disagree with every single thing you stand for.’ And he said vice versa,” Davis explained. “But when we were not being partisan, I told him that the White House needs a lawyer who can win favor with the media by telling them the facts – even if they are not particularly helpful to your client. [Bannon] said: ‘You are so right.'”
Bannon and Conway did not respond to requests for comment.
Davis emphasized that Cobb was “highly respected” – but “doing what he’s dong now is not what I did.”
“He should be on the White House lawn speaking for the president. He should be on the Sunday shows. He should be on the phone speaking off the record with you,” Davis said.
“Building credibility with working reporters is his job. And the White House needs a public spokesman for the president who gets along with the press corps,” he added.
John Dean, who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel from July 1970 until April 1973, told Business Insider in an email that it appeared to him as though Cobb “was added to the staff to keep the Russia investigation out of the White House counsel’s office, which is probably greatly appreciated by all in that office.”
Cobb started out on the right foot. He gave brief but pointed statements to news outlets breaking Russia-related stories, and avoided the kind of trouble Trump’s personal attorney in the Russia case, Marc Kasowitz, had gotten into when he threatened a stranger by email.
Cobb’s discipline appeared to waver last Saturday, however, when he took direct issue with an article published in Business Insider arguing that White House counsel Don McGahn could be a valuable witness for FBI special counsel Robert Mueller as he examines whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey.
Trump wrote a letter in early May outlining his reasons for wanting Comey gone that The New York Times reported included the FBI director’s refusal to confirm publicly that he was not personally under FBI investigation. McGahn blocked Trump from sending the letter, according to several media outlets, because he thought it would be legally problematic.
In an uncharacteristically long statement, Cobb disputed the characterization of the letter as incriminating – and therefore blocked by McGahn – and called reporting to that effect “exaggerated and/or fictionalized.”
Cobb called the letter “wholly exonerating” and disclosed details that included seemingly contradictory statements about who began analyzing Comey’s fitness to lead the bureau and when.
“Somewhere buried in that long email was his original message,” Davis said. “Which is that Comey was deserving of being fired because of the way he conducted himself in dealing with Clinton.” (Cobb criticized Comey’s “erratic” and “inexplicable behavior” and said toward the end of the statement that he “appeared to predetermine the outcome” of the Clinton probe.)
“But Trump didn’t fire Comey because of how he handled the Clinton investigation,” Davis said. “He told NBC’s Lester Holt the real reason eventually, but he waited too long to be truthful.”
Davis’ advice to Cobb was simple: “Deal with the elephant in the room.”
“Say, ‘Yes, we made a mistake. We should’ve immediately told the truth about why we fired Comey.’ And that’s it.”