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White House lawyers expected to take lead in impeachment

WASHINGTON, DC – As House Democrats prepare for public impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump and his legal team are working to organize a defense that will rely heavily on White House attorneys and congressional Republicans to stave off the threat to his presidency.

Democrats consider the hearings to be their best chance to put Trump's behavior on public display before a politically fraught impeachment vote. Trump's allies, for their part, see the hearings as an opportunity to take the fight to the president's opponents. The political lens through which both sides are viewing the public hearings is informing the president's legal strategy, according to Trump's supporters.

The White House counsel's office is currently expected to take the lead in mounting the president's defense, according to a person familiar with the legal strategy who spoke on condition of anonymity to relay internal discussions. The arrangement will put government attorneys, rather than the president's personal lawyers, on the front lines of Trump's attempt to fend off Democratic efforts to remove him from office.

The White House did not comment on the arrangement.

The White House attorneys will be bolstered by the roster of GOP lawmakers who have already been serving as the president's de facto defense counsel in closed-door hearings. Transcripts of depositions released this week show Republican lawmakers taking steps to try to undermine the credibility of witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. Other legislators have sought to publicly unmask the whistleblower whose summer complaint served as the catalyst for the impeachment probe.

A White House official said the president was supportive of efforts to move vocal defenders like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio to the House Intelligence Committee, which will hold the first public hearings, believing him to be an effective questioner and defender of the president. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal strategy.

Further involvement by the lawyers is expected once hearings move to the Judiciary Committee. The House voted last week to approve rules for the impeachment inquiry that invite the president and his attorneys to attend all hearings by that committee. Additionally, the president's counsel is to be granted access to the committee's evidence and the ability to question witnesses. The White House official dismissed the idea that the president would attend.

The decision to put the counsel's office out in front in responding to the impeachment inquiry was made because the congressional probe centers on actions that Trump took as president, according to the person familiar with legal strategy. That's in contrast to the impeachment inquiry into President Bill Clinton, which involved allegations that he lied about his relationship with a White House intern and sought to obstruct an investigation into the affair.

It gives Trump the image of being represented by the White House counsel, rather than private attorneys whose prominence in the proceedings, they believe, might diminish his stature. It also keeps the legal team that still includes embattled former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani away from the spotlight.

In the first year of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the administration added a special in-house lawyer, Ty Cobb, to respond to prosecutors' requests for documents and interviews with White House staff. Cobb was later replaced by another attorney, Emmet Flood. The president also relied on a team of personal attorneys, including Giuliani, to handle negotiations with Mueller's team on matters such as terms for an interview.

"The rationale is correct as far as it goes, but I also think that there's good reason to not have the White House counsel's office take the lead on this," said Timothy Flanigan, a former deputy counsel to President George W. Bush.

He added: "The White House counsel's office has a lot to do. It's not clear to me that it's always a good idea for the White House counsel to get involved in a project of this magnitude."

Still, there can be benefits in having the counsel's office intimately involved in an investigation like this, simply by virtue of familiarity with the events.

"They've obviously spent a lot of time with whatever documents there are and whatever information there is," Flanigan said.

Trump's supporters, meanwhile, can be expected to try to minimize the threat of the impeachment inquiry by casting the Mueller probe as one that was more perilous in nature. They aim to paint impeachment as a done deal given the Democratic majority in the House, and argue that any outcome short of removal of the president through conviction in the Senate is a victory for Trump.