Eight months after he packed up his White House office and vacated the premises, President Barack Obama’s top lawyer is finally opening up.
In a speech at Columbia University’s law school last week, Neil Eggleston told students that “I’m not sure where the lawyers are” in the vetting process for some of President Trump’s controversial executive orders, from the travel ban that now covers visitors from six majority-Muslim countries to efforts to withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities.
The Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments on the travel ban in October, and the sanctuary city policy is being challenged in multiple federal courts.
Eggleston, who served as White House counsel to Obama, also used his Sept. 12 remarks to urge his successor to do more to police contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice. Discussions of policy and national security are appropriate, he said, but reports that Trump and other officials had asked the FBI about criminal investigations would not have happened during Obama’s tenure, Eggleston said.
“We wanted to make sure there was no interference with anything that happened in the criminal process,” Eggleston said. “The criminal process is essentially too important for people to think it’s influenced by political considerations.”
Now back in private law practice at the Kirkland & Ellis firm in Washington, D.C., Eggleston said he missed the “crazy hours” during roughly three years in the White House post, but, to laughter from students, he asserted that he did not miss dealing with Congress. “It remains as dysfunctional now as it was then,” he said. “It really can’t pass anything.”
And in response to a student’s question, he offered a tart assessment of the legal team Trump has built, some of whom he has known and worked alongside for 30 years.
Earlier this year, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz allegedly told a critic to “watch your back” via a profanity-laced email. A spokesman later said Kasowitz regretted sending the message — after what he said was a long day at the office.
Next, Trump lawyer John Dowd drew criticism for forwarding an email that praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and claimed the protest group Black Lives Matter had been infiltrated by extremists.
And finally, the attorney who recently joined the White House to help handle the ongoing DOJ special counsel investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election has tangled with email correspondents.
Ty Cobb asked a reporter “Are you on drugs?” in a 1:35 a.m. email. Soon after, he exchanged sharp words with a critic, telling him, “Enjoy talking to the Secret Service.”
In his talk at Columbia, Eggleston said, “What’s with these White House officials and getting drunk in the middle of the night?”
He said Cobb is a “very good friend” who got “into a big rant with a citizen. I hardly had time to call Cabinet secretaries back. … I mean, I had things to do.”
Earlier this week, a New York Times reporter overheard Dowd and Cobb talking loudly about legal strategy for the Russia investigation and exchanging gossip about others in the White House as they dined outdoors at a Washington, D.C., steakhouse.
Eggleston, who delivered his speech before the incident at BLT Steak, told students of the White House legal function under Trump: “It does seem sort of like chaos. But this president seems to like chaos, so I don’t know that that’s inadvertent.”