When Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Donald Trump, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, speculation abounded that he was about to get Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s current attorneys, into hot water with whatever he was carting into the committee room in a suitcase. Just the week before, Cohen appeared before the House Oversight Committee where, under questioning by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Cohen claimed that one of the lies he told Congress back in 2017 was prompted by edits made to his testimony by the president’s attorneys—namely, Sekulow, who has denied Cohen’s assertion.
At issue was the timeline on negotiations on a potential deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow, which Cohen initially told Congress ended by the time of the 2016 Iowa caucuses (the first nomination contest in the GOP primary cycle). As it turns out, the negotiations continued until at least August of that year—if not until November, as Rudolph Giuliani, another of Trump’s attorneys, has suggested.
It’s no surprise that Sekulow has found a place in Trump’s inner circle. Sekulow’s questionable relationship to the truth and his record of using nonprofits to enrich his family are quite Trumpian in nature.
A product of the Religious Right, Sekulow found his gravy train when Rev. 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, in 1990. The stated aim was to act as a counterweight to the American Civil Liberties Union, even crafting the name to have an abbreviation just one letter different than that of the longtime civil rights legal organization.
Representing Trump in the Mueller investigation has been lucrative for Sekulow. And The Daily Beast reported last year 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.
A lucrative family business
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, who 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.
A right-wing media 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.
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 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 were warning that Sharia law was threatening the U.S. Constitution, and were offering 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 service-members, after the allegation had already been debunked.
- In 2014, Sekulow was pushing 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 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.”
It’s hard to imagine that Sekulow would support the administration’s purported decision to oppose the criminalization of homosexuality around the world. 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 SCLJ responded to the 2012 Pussy Riot protest by calling for a Russian law toughening penalties for religious blasphemy. The ECLJ, 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” a lot like Trump’s
Last September, 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 the Russian Federation’s 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 June 2016 meeting was about U.S. policy about adoption of Russian orphans.) Confronted with his earlier false public statements about the meeting, Sekulow said, “over time, facts develop.”
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 also had accused Trump’s opponents of crimes. “If you doubt Trump is trying to bury the truth,” Saletan wrote, “just watch his lawyer.”