Trump Impeachment Trial Turns Spotlight On White House Lawyer Cipollone

Dec 23, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 6:54 pm

President Trump has often surrounded himself with lawyers whom he sees as being good on television. But Pat Cipollone, the attorney who will play a leading role in Trump's Senate impeachment trial defense, is better known for working behind the scenes.

Even as an architect of the White House's fight against impeachment, Cipollone has performed his most prominent work from behind his desk, writing strongly worded letters rebuffing congressional subpoenas and instructing other White House aides not to cooperate.

Trump has lauded him as "the strong, silent type." But that silence is expected to end with the Senate impeachment trial. Jay Sekulow, another one of Trump's attorneys in what he said would likely be a "multifaceted" legal team, said Cipollone is ready for the spotlight.

"He's a really great lawyer, but he also understands the political side of this — and especially an impeachment proceeding," Sekulow said in an interview. "You have dual issues: the legal issues and the political issues. And it's not every lawyer that gets both. And Pat clearly does."

The son of Italian immigrants, Cipollone grew up in the Bronx. He went to Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky and worked part time at a McDonald's.

He was valedictorian of his college class at Fordham University and then went to law school in Chicago on a full scholarship.

Melanie Sloan, a friend and law school classmate, said the University of Chicago was where Cipollone became immersed in conservative legal thought.

"My friends tended to be in the Progressive Law Students Association and were on the liberal side of the spectrum, and Pat and the crowd he hung out with were on the more conservative side of the spectrum, including people who are often now shortlisted for the Supreme Court in the Trump administration," said Sloan.

Sloan, who is now senior adviser to the liberal watchdog group American Oversight, told NPR she thinks "incredibly highly" of Cipollone. "He is a very warm, friendly person who would go out of his way for anybody, and I have the highest regard for him, despite how strongly I disagree with the positions the White House is taking on impeachment."

Other former classmates have a different view. Nearly two dozen signed a letter stating that his position on impeachment "distorts the law and the Constitution."

"We are sorry to see how your letter to the congressional leadership flouts the traditions of rigor and intellectual honesty that we learned together," wrote the members of the class of 1991 at the University of Chicago Law School.

Cipollone was managing editor for the law review. He worked closely with Eugene Scalia, son of conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia. Eugene Scalia is now Trump's labor secretary.

Other friends of Cipollone went on to become prominent judges and have been touted as future candidates for the Supreme Court, including Allison Eid and Thomas Lee, who is the brother of Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. Cipollone clerked for federal Judge Danny Boggs, known for giving new hires a famously difficult trivia exam. "Pat is a very smart, very competent lawyer and a great guy," Boggs told NPR.

Boggs' 64-question test for Cipollone included questions like "How many chromosome pairs are there in a human genome?" and "Give the number and popular name of any Beethoven symphony."

"That is in and of itself a badge of distinction among lawyers," said Mike Lee. "It's well known that you can't clerk for — you can't even interview for — Judge Boggs without passing with a pretty high score."

Lee told NPR that Cipollone's wide-ranging base of knowledge has served him well in his job as White House counsel.

His Catholic faith is another big influence in Cipollone's life and career.

"One of the many things I like about Pat is this: Faith is a big deal to him," said Bill Nettles, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina in the Obama administration, who has worked with Cipollone.

"But I live in a part of the world where people routinely wear it on their sleeve. And Pat is not like that. ... He doesn't use it as a vehicle to judge other people," Nettles told NPR.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone (center) stands with acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (left) and spokesman Hogan Gidley at an event this year.
Alex Wong / Getty Images

Cipollone, 53, has 10 children. He is among a group of elite conservative Catholics who serve as close confidants to Trump — including Attorney General William Barr and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who has helped Trump pick judges, including for the Supreme Court.

Cipollone, Barr and Leo have served on the board of directors of the Catholic Information Center, an organization for powerful Washington Catholics. The center is affiliated with the conservative Opus Dei movement.

John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter and author of the book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, called the Catholic Information Center a premier place for conservative Catholic movers and shakers in D.C.

"Cipollone is part of this broader sort of spectrum of conservative Catholic thought and activism that, in some way, is dedicated to the idea of trying to translate the kind of conservative reading of the Catholic Church's social agenda," Allen said in an interview.

The White House declined to make Cipollone available for an interview.

Before joining the administration, Cipollone was a partner at two prestigious law firms with a wide range of clients.

One very high-profile case was when his firm represented the woman known as "Jackie" who was featured in a 2014 article in Rolling Stone magazine. The article, about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, was later retracted and became the subject of lawsuits. But even then, Cipollone worked behind the scenes helping supervise the lawyers at his firm leading Jackie's defense.

Cipollone also worked a stint in the public sector. Early in his career, he joined the Justice Department working for Attorney General William Barr during George H.W. Bush's administration.

Cipollone watches a White House event from the sidelines.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Like Barr, Cipollone has argued that the president wields broad executive powers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has described Cipollone's arguments as outrageous.

"That letter that came from the White House was a joke, beneath the dignity of the presidency of the United States, in defiance of our Constitution. Shame on them," Pelosi said this year.

Critics say Cipollone is twisting the law to serve the president's benefit. Kimberly Wehle was formerly an assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation led by special prosecutor Ken Starr. She said impeachment can't be unconstitutional when several provisions in the Constitution say otherwise.

"He's serving the president at the expense of the Constitution, at the expense of his true client, the American people, because he's operating to create a mega-presidency that has more power than the other two branches," she said. "And that's dangerous."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal adviser to Trump, pushed back against that criticism and said Cipollone has been a stabilizing force in Trump's White House.

"You're in a fight over executive power," said Gingrich, who has also worked with Cipollone. "And I think in that sense that the Trump administration, across the board, sees itself as an active force for transformation."

Greta Pittenger, Will Chase, Barclay Walsh and Sarah Knight contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new year, the Senate will take the next step in President Trump's impeachment - an impeachment trial complete with lawyers defending the president. One attorney who will play a leading role is White House counsel Pat Cipollone. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more about Cipollone, who, unlike some other lawyers favored by President Trump, is known for staying out of the spotlight.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: For most of his three decades as a lawyer, Pat Cipollone has worked behind the scenes. Even as an architect of the White House's fight against impeachment, he has not appeared on cable TV. He's better known for writing harsh letters to Congress and saying no to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: What that letter came from the White House is - a joke beneath the dignity of the presidency of the United States, in defiance of our Constitution. Shame on them.

ORDOÑEZ: That strategy has won him praise from President Trump, who has counted on Cipollone for giving him the legal scaffolding to stretch the powers of his office. Trump singled out his point man recently at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Where is Pat? Where's Pat? Stand up, Pat. Come on.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: He's the strong, silent type. Strong - he's very strong - silent.

ORDOÑEZ: But not for long - he'll soon be playing a leading role in President Trump's Senate trial. Another member of Trump's legal team is Jay Sekulow. He says Cipollone is more than ready for the spotlight.

JAY SEKULOW: Pat has got exceptionally good legal skills and legal judgment. But he also understands the political side of this, especially an impeachment proceeding. And it's not every lawyer that gets both, and Pat clearly does.

ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone's conservative roots run deep. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in the Bronx. He went to high school in Kentucky and worked part time at McDonald's. He was valedictorian of his college class at Fordham University. And then he went to law school at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship.

MELANIE SLOAN: It is a conservative place.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Melanie Sloan, a law school classmate. She's still friends with Cipollone, even though she now fights the White House for public records with the liberal watchdog organization American Oversight. She says it was at the University of Chicago where Cipollone was immersed in conservative legal thought.

SLOAN: My friends tended to be in the progressive law students association and were on the liberal side of the spectrum. And Pat and the crowd he hung out with were on the more conservative side of the spectrum, including people who are often now shortlisted for the Supreme Court in the Trump administration.

ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone was managing editor for the law review. He worked closely with Eugene Scalia, the son of conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia. Republican Senator Mike Lee, whose brother was also on the law review, says he admires Cipollone's caution.

MIKE LEE: He is quick to think and slow to speak about an issue until he fully comprehends it and he knows how to assess it.

ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone clerked for federal Judge Danny Boggs, known for stumping new hires with his famously difficult trivia test. For Cipollone, it was 64 questions, including - how many chromosome pairs are there in a human genome? - and name a Beethoven symphony.

LEE: That is in and of itself a badge of distinction among lawyers.

ORDOÑEZ: Senator Lee said knowing a lot about a lot of things has helped Cipollone as White House counsel.

LEE: It's come in very handy for him to have access to such a broad and deep knowledge base.

ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone is 53 and has 10 children. Faith is another big influence in his life and career. He is among a group of elite conservative Catholics who serve as close confidants to the president. They include Attorney General William Barr and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who helped Trump pick judges, including for the Supreme Court.

BILL NETTLES: One of the many things I like about Pat is this - OK? - faith is a big deal of his.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Bill Nettles. He's a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina in the Obama administration who has worked with Cipollone.

NETTLES: I live in a part of the world where people routinely wear it on their sleeve. And Pat is not like that. While faith is very significant in Pat's life, he doesn't use it as a vehicle to judge other people.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House declined to make Cipollone available for an interview. Before joining the administration, Cipollone was a partner at two firms with a wide range of clients. He was involved in one very high-profile case, representing the woman known only as Jackie, who was featured in a 2014 article in Rolling Stone magazine. The article, about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, was later retracted and the subject of lawsuits.

But even then, Cipollone worked behind the scenes, helping supervise the lawyers at his firm leading Jackie's defense. Early in his career, he did a stint in the public sector, working for Attorney General William Barr in the George H.W. Bush administration. Like Barr, Cipollone has written that the president wields broad executive powers.

KIMBERLY WEHLE: He's serving the president at the expense of the Constitution and at the expense of his true client, the American people.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Kimberly Wehle. She worked with former special prosecutor Ken Starr, who investigated the Clintons. She and other critics say Cipollone is twisting the law for the president's benefit.

WEHLE: He's operating to create a megapresidency that has more power than the other two branches, and that's very dangerous.

ORDOÑEZ: Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal adviser to Trump, disputes that. He's worked with Cipollone before and is a fan of his disciplined style in the Trump White House.

NEWT GINGRICH: He has been a very stabilizing factor. And I think that if you look at the letters he's written and the things he's done, there's a marked logic and a very disciplined approach.

ORDOÑEZ: An approach that will be tested as Cipollone takes a central role in a made-for-television Senate impeachment trial.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.