Not His First Cover-Up: Trump Legal Team Lawyer Jay Sekulow

Jay Sekulow argues on President Trump's behalf during opening of Senate impeachment trial, Jan. 21, 2020.

(Note: This post draws heavily from previous Right Wing Watch reporting on Sekulow; it has been updated.)

As President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial gets underway in the U.S. Senate, his ever-growing legal team is being led by the team of Jay Sekulow, a religious-right attorney who shares Trump’s dubious relationship to the truth as well as the president’s penchant for self-enrichment, together with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who is part of an influential group of Washington, D.C. attorneys on the Catholic right.

Sekulow was first hired by Trump in 2017 to lead the administration’s defense of the president in the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of the Trump campaign’s relationship to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. In that role, Sekulow is said to have orchestrated what amount to cover-ups.

In 2018, Sekulow was forced to admit that he had misled the public regarding a statement issued under the name of Donald Trump Jr. regarding the purpose of ​a​ 2016 Trump Tower meeting that ​Trump Jr. and other campaign officials had with Russian operatives​ in hope of obtaining “dirt” on his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton. Sekulow ​claimed that the president had nothing to do with writing the statement, only to walk that back when contradicted by the president himself.  “Over time, facts develop​,” ​Sekulow said in his own defense. Last spring, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, told members of Congress that Sekulow had told him to lie ​to Congress about​ the fact that the Trump Organization continued to engage in negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow​even as Trump campaign figures met with Russian operatives. Sekulow denied ​”editing” Cohen’s congressional testimony, as Cohen, who is now in prison for lying to Congress, described it.

More recently, revelations from the House Intelligence Committee and Lev Parnas, who is implicated in the Trump administration’s alleged scheme to find smear material in Ukraine about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, have placed Sekulow in the middle of team Trump’s machinations in Ukraine. It turns out that Sekulow told former Trump attorney John Dowd that the president was OK with Dowd representing Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman, undercutting Trump’s claims not to know Parnas. Sekulow was also named in a text by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, as the person who could secure a visa for the corrupt Ukrainian former prosecutor, Viktor Shokin.

As Right Wing Watch has documented, Sekulow has a long track record of promoting false right-wing claims and campaigns, including right-wing conspiracy theories about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich and the claim that faithful Muslims cannot truthfully swear loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.​

​Former White House aide Steve Bannon reportedly suggested during the Mueller investigation that Trump hire Sekulow, who has been a zealous defender of the president on Fox News, ​in Christian media, and ​on his own radio show. Sekulow, for example, defended Trump ​in 2017 when the president reportedly gave ​highly sensitive secret intelligence ​to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov​ during a meeting in the Oval Office. A recent New York Times profile of Sekulow quoted an attorney involved in ​attorney Kenn​eth Starr’s ​investigation into former President Bill Clinton ​saying that Sekulow’s primary qualification for leading the legal team may be that “he’s got more experience in defending this president than anybody.”

A lucrative family business

Representing Trump in the Mueller investigation has been lucrative for Sekulow. The Daily Beast reported in 2018 that Trump’s legal team was paying the ACLJ to work out of its Washington office. But none of that is as financially rewarding as Sekulow’s career leading a nonprofit advocacy organization that is part of the religious right.

In 1990, Pat Robertson, the erstwhile Republican presidential candidate and Christian Broadcasting Network founder, placed Sekulow at the helm of a new, Robertson-founded entity, the American Center for Law and Justice. The organization’s stated aim was to act as a counterweight to the American Civil Liberties Union, and the group went as far as to craft the name to have an abbreviation just one letter different than that of the longtime civil rights legal organization.

Over the years, multiple reporters have investigated the ways that the ACLJ and an affiliated nonprofit, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, have enriched the bank accounts and lifestyles of Sekulow and members of his family.

Sekulow’s lucrative family “nonprofit” business was first investigated by Legal Times’ Tony Mauro back in 2005. Mauro reported that while Sekulow had become a familiar face on television for his work on behalf of the ACLJ and his advocacy for George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, there was another side to Sekulow:

It is the Jay Sekulow who, through the ACLJ and a string of interconnected nonprofit and for-profit entities, has built 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.

The Legal Times noted that at the time, CASE’s board of directors consisted of Sekulow, his wife Pam, and his son Jordan, with his well-paid brother serving as chief financial officer.

Six years later, in 2011, the Tennessean’s Bob Smietana took another look. In an article titled “Christian crusaders cash in,” the paper reported that since 1988, CASE and the ACLJ had “paid out more than $33 million to members of Sekulow’s family and businesses they own or co-own.”

In 2017, the Guardian reported that CASE had steered more than $60 million to “Sekulow, his family and their businesses” since 2000.  In addition to paying millions to “Sekulow, his wife, sons, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew and their firms,” the Guardian reported CASE “has also been used to provide a series of unusual loans and property deals to the Sekulow family.” Among the deals the story examined were forgiven loans for a vacation home for Sekulow’s wife Pam and the purchase of a townhouse in Washington D.C. at which Sekulow’s son Jordan and his wife were registered to vote.

The Washington Post also examined Sekulow’s finances in 2017, documenting that his family had been “paid millions from charities they control.”

A religious-right culture warrior

As part of his public defense of Trump even before joining the president’s legal team, Sekulow said that Trump was right to suggest that women could face criminal punishment for having an abortion once Roe v. Wade is overturned. In 2017, Rewire reviewed Sekulow’s long record of attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.

The cases the ACLJ takes up seek to implement the religious right’s opposition to abortion rights and legal protections for LGBTQ people in the U.S. and other countries. Sekulow has said that the state has a “compelling interest to ban the act of homosexuality​,” and the ACLJ argued on behalf of state laws criminalizing gay sex that were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003. In 2011, Sekulow claimed that the Obama administration’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court meant that Americans were “now living in a monarchy.”

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, wrote recently about Sekulow’s​ long affiliation with Charisma’s Stephen Strang, who uses his Pentecostal-oriented media outlet and book publishing arm to aggressively promote the claim that Trump has been anointed by God to lead the U.S.​

But perhaps even greater an attraction for Trump than Sekulow’s links to the Christian nationalist crowd that comprises an important part of Trump’s base is Sekulow’s prowess as a prevaricator in front of cameras and microphones. As we noted when Sekulow joined Trump’s legal team, “Early in the Obama administration, Sekulow manufactured an alarmist right-wing campaign against a stimulus bill for supposedly including language to institutionalize anti-religious discrimination on college campuses.” The “discriminatory” provision “discovered” and hyped by ACLJ turned out to be boilerplate language that had been included in legislation for decades and upheld by the Supreme Court. This is just one of many false right-wing campaigns and claims Sekulow has promoted. Here are a few more:

  • Back in 2009, the ACLJ was among the right-wing groups that grossly mischaracterized a Department of Homeland Security report on the dangers of right-wing extremism in order to portray the Obama-era DHS as smearing conservatives, anti-abortion activists, and veterans.
  • In 2010, the ACLJ, which postures as a champion of religious liberty, helped lead the fight against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—an Islamic community center that had planned to move into a building in downtown Manhattan a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers. Trump was among the public figures railing against the project.
  • The following year, Sekulow and Pat Robertson warned that Sharia law was threatening the U.S. Constitution,  and offered to help state legislators write and defend anti-Sharia laws. In a publication called “Shari’a Law: Radical Islam’s Threat to the U.S. Constitution,” the ACLJ asserted, “Because Islam grew out of the belief in complete world domination, every Muslim is obligated to labor in his own way toward achieving that goal, no matter where he lives or what sovereign claims his allegiance.” The pamphlet argued that Muslims cannot be loyal Americans, asserting that “devout Muslims cannot truthfully swear the oath to become citizens of the United States of America.”
  • In 2012, Sekulow pushed a bogus allegation that the Obama administration was trying to suppress the votes of servicemembers, after the allegation had already been debunked.
  • In 2014, Sekulow pushed another charge against Obama, alleging that “the President wants to hand over control of the Internet to a multinational group, including corrupt dictatorships in China, Russian, and Iran.”
  • In 2017, Sekulow joined Sean Hannity in promoting the conspiracy that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was not killed in a bungled robbery but was murdered because, according to the baseless conspiracy theory, he was the source of the DNC emails leaked to WikiLeaks.

Sekulow’s global agenda

Sekulow and the ACLJ have been intensely opposed to laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people in the U.S. and abroad. The ACLJ argued on behalf of state laws criminalizing gay sex that were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003. Sekulow has said that the state has a “compelling interest to ban the act of homosexuality.”  Sekulow, who doesn’t seem to object to Trump’s aggressive use of executive power, complained during the Obama years that the administration’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court meant that Americans were “now living in a monarchy.”

For Sekulow, the criminalization of gay people is a global effort. As we noted in 2017:

The ACLJ and its international affiliates engage in anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice culture wars in the U.S., Africa, Europe and Russia. In Africa, it worked to shape constitutional language in Zimbabwe, where it has fought to maintain criminalization of homosexuality, and Kenya, where it lobbied to eliminate an exemption to an abortion ban to save a woman’s life. Both the European Center for Law and Justice and the Slavic Center for Law and Justice supported Russia’s notorious anti-gay “propaganda” law, which has been used against journalists and gay rights activists.

The Slavic Center for Law and Justice responded to the 2012 protest by​the political art collective, Pussy Riot, by calling for a Russian law toughening penalties for religious blasphemy. The European Center for Law and Justice, in contrast, has energetically opposed blasphemy laws in Islamist countries. But Sekulow has bemoaned the fact that blasphemy is no longer criminalized in the United States.

Sekulow has also been a longtime opponent of the Johnson Amendment, the legal provision that prohibits overt electoral politicking by churches and other tax-exempt nonprofits. Part of the deal candidate Trump offered religious-right leaders in return for their political support was a pledge to make them more politically powerful by repealing the Johnson Amendment.

Sekulow’s idea of “truth” is a lot like Trump’s

In 2018, Sekulow helped Trump push what ThinkProgress called “an insane lie” suggesting that Trump had not really said what he said in an interview a year earlier with NBC’s Lester Holt. In that interview, the president essentially said that he had fired former FBI Director James Comey because of Comey’s role in conducting the investigation into Trump’s relationship to Russian figures who may be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

That came just a month after Sekulow was forced to admit that he hadn’t told the truth about the meeting Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials had with Russian operatives in Trump Tower in 2016. (He had said the subject ​of the June 2016 meeting was about U.S. policy about adoption of Russian orphans​, not getting dirt on Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.)

In 2017, Slate’s William Saletan noted that Sekulow had not only been defending the president in a round of TV appearances, but that he had also accused Trump’s opponents of crimes. “If you doubt Trump is trying to bury the truth,” Saletan wrote, “just watch his lawyer.” Still good advice.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Jay Sekulow as the leader of the Trump legal team. It has been corrected to note that Sekulow co-leads the team with Trump attorney Pat Cipollone.