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Trump Has Mused About Ousting White House Counsel; No Move on Tap

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 12/20/2019 Saleha Mohsin, Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian
a man wearing a suit and tie: White House Counsel Pat Cipollone listens as First Lady Melania Trump speaks at a Be Best Anniversary Celebration in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 7, 2019. © Photographer: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images White House Counsel Pat Cipollone listens as First Lady Melania Trump speaks at a Be Best Anniversary Celebration in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 7, 2019.

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump recently quizzed advisers and lawmakers about whether he should replace Pat Cipollone as White House counsel, according to two people familiar with the matter, though they cautioned a move is not imminent.

The president in the past two to three weeks has asked some senior White House staffers as well as a House member and a senator who are close allies about bringing in a new top in-house lawyer, the people said.

Trump believes Cipollone should be more aggressive and, according to one of the people, has voiced concerns about Cipollone’s effectiveness with his top aides amid the impeachment that has stained his presidency.

Yet Trump publicly praised Cipollone on Thursday and strongly suggested he’d be the lead lawyer for the president in the Senate trial.

“It looks like that. Pat Cipollone,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office in response to a question about Cipollone’s trial role. “We have a couple of others that we’re going to put in, but Pat’s been fantastic as White House counsel.”

Read more: Trump Impeachment Defense Starts to Take Shape But Gaps Remain

A number of senior advisers discouraged Trump from making major staff changes until after the impeachment battle is over, the people said. The Senate is expected to begin its trial of Trump early next year, after the House voted Wednesday to impeach the president on one charge each of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

No names have been floated as a replacement for Cipollone, another sign that Trump is not likely to act soon to bring in a new White House counsel. One senior White House official predicted Cipollone would remain in his post for a long time.

When asked Wednesday whether Cipollone would be part of Trump’s defense before the Senate, another top White House adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said: “Definitely Pat Cipollone, our White House counsel who’s been with the president on this every step of the way in giving his views and advice.”

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said Cipollone “has the unique skill set for these proceedings.”

“He is a brilliant lawyer and he understands the political situation that encompasses the issues we are dealing with,” Sekulow said. “I look forward to working with him on the next phase of our representation.”

Still, Trump’s private musings about Cipollone offer a glimpse of his thinking as he heads into an election year as an impeached incumbent. The questions also reflect a struggle within the White House over Trump’s defense strategy, putting Cipollone at odds with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Cipollone sees impeachment as his domain because he views it as a legal matter and has privately complained to colleagues that Mulvaney is trying to wrest control, people familiar with the matter said. Mulvaney believes he’s in charge because impeachment is political and expects Cipollone to report to his office, they said.

Trump’s Top Aides Clash Over Impeachment as House Probe Expands

Cipollone has also weathered criticism from some of the president’s outside conservative allies who have said he hasn’t done enough to coordinate the effort to combat impeachment, according to another person familiar with the situation. People in the Senate have at times complained they were cut out of the loop on the anti-impeachment strategy, the person said.

Leadership issues around the White House’s impeachment response appeared to flare earlier this week, when Trump sent a scathing six-page letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of the House’s historic vote.

While Cipollone and his deputy Pat Philbin were involved in drafting the letter, people familiar with the matter said they weren’t the primary authors. Instead, several White House officials from outside the counsel’s office -- including adviser Stephen Miller, legislative aide Eric Ueland and Mulvaney’s counsel, Michael Williams -- played key roles in writing the document, which laid out a legal defense against impeachment.

“Pat’s been an excellent adviser to the president and has helped the administration successfully navigate the endless stream of frivolous attacks that come toward this White House,” said Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president.

(Updates with Kushner quote, in final paragraph)

--With assistance from Justin Sink and Josh Wingrove.

To contact the reporters on this story: Saleha Mohsin in Washington at smohsin2@bloomberg.net;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net;Jordan Fabian in Washington at jfabian6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu, John Harney

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©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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