Donald Trump’s legal team for months has weathered deep distrust and interpersonal conflict that could undermine its defense of the former president as the criminal investigation into his handling of classified documents and obstruction of justice at Mar-a-Lago nears its conclusion.
The turmoil inside the legal team only exploded into public view when one of the top lawyers, Tim Parlatore, abruptly resigned two weeks ago from the representation citing irreconcilable differences with Trump’s senior adviser and in-house counsel Boris Epshteyn.
But the departure of Parlatore was the culmination of months of simmering tensions that continue to threaten the effectiveness of the legal team at a crucial time – as federal prosecutors weigh criminal charges – in part because the interpersonal conflicts remain largely unresolved.
It also comes as multiple Trump lawyers are embroiled in numerous criminal investigations targeting the former president: Epshteyn was recently interviewed by the special counsel, while Parlatore and Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran testified to the grand jury in the classified documents inquiry.
The turmoil has revolved around hostility among the lawyers on the legal team who have come to distrust each other as well as their hostility directed at Epshteyn, over what they regard as his oversight of the legal work and gatekeeping direct access to the former president.
In one instance, the clashes became so acute that some of the lawyers agreed to a so-called “murder-suicide” pact where if Parlatore got fired, others would resign in solidarity. And as some of the lawyers tried to exclude Epshteyn, they withheld information from co-counsel who they suspected might brief him.
The infighting eventually reached the point at which some of the lawyers started to believe the biggest impediment to defending Trump might just be the distrust and interpersonal conflict, rather than someone like Parlatore deciding to cooperate with prosecutors.
In fact, the legal team is said to be confident that Parlatore will not flip on Trump after he told the grand jury hearing evidence in the case last year that Trump gave him free rein to search for any remaining documents at his properties last year, according to a transcript of his testimony.
But an eventual attempt to remove Epshteyn from the case ended in failure, and Epshteyn remains a trusted member of Trump’s inner circle. The months of worsening relations that led to that moment were described to the Guardian by six people familiar with the situation.
In a statement, a Trump spokesperson said: “This is completely false and is rooted in pure fantasy. The real story is the illegal weaponization of the Justice Department and their witch-hunts targeted to influence an election in order to try and prevent President Trump from returning to the White House.”
The lawyers named in this story either declined to comment or did not respond to calls for comment.
Palm Beach dinner foreshadows divisiveness
The animosity inside the Trump legal team started almost immediately after the FBI seized 101 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago last August, when Trump’s lawyers asked a federal judge to appoint a special master to review the materials for any privilege protections.
The legal team, at the time, was composed of the former federal prosecutors Jim Trusty and Evan Corcoran – whose search for classified documents in response to a subpoena later proved incomplete – the former Florida solicitor general Chris Kise and the lawyer Lindsey Halligan.
The lawyers presented a united front as they argued to the US district court judge Aileen Cannon that she should grant a special master, which she did – a strategic win for Trump that enabled him to delay the criminal investigation and prosecutors’ ability to review the documents.
But Trusty, who played a leading role in the special master litigation, was already frustrated with how things were going.
Trusty’s private frame of mind emerged over dinner with Halligan and Corcoran at the five-star Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, hours after the special master court hearing. The conversation was overheard by this Guardian reporter who happened to be sitting at the table next to them.
Trusty’s main irritation with Epshteyn, as he recounted, was having to run his legal decisions by him even though he did not consider him a trial lawyer and objected to how, in his eyes, he gave more priority to Trump’s perceived PR problems than to genuine legal problems.
He criticised Epshteyn for trying to “troubleshoot” those problems before they could reach Trump, instead of allowing him to straightforwardly brief the former president himself. The entire situation meant the lawyers were having to play “a game of thrones nonsense” that he found distracting.
Trusty then discussed legal strategy, suggesting Kise was “too apologetic” in opening remarks to the judge and questioned the validity of the FBI warrant for Mar-a-Lago. He also said he had no interest in talking to reporters from the publication Lawfare or the New York Times on account of their coverage.
Lawyers split over further searches
Trusty’s annoyance with Epshteyn for inserting himself into legal deliberations came to be shared by Parlatore several weeks later, when the justice department told the Trump legal team in October that it believed the former president still possessed classified documents.
The deliberations over how to respond to the department’s accusations split the legal team. Epshteyn and Kise were not in favor of doing voluntary searches of the Trump properties, while Parlatore and Trusty suggested a more proactive approach that involved new searches.
Epshteyn and Kise for weeks were unconvinced. But Parlatore and Trusty reasoned that if they did find more classified documents but immediately returned them to the justice department, it would make it harder for prosecutors to say that Trump wilfully retained classified material.
New searches of Trump’s properties did take place, though in Parlatore’s retelling of the deliberations to CNN last week, Epshteyn was reluctant to allow a search of Trump’s Bedminster golf club. Later, the Trump lawyer Alina Habba was booked on CNN to dispute Parlatore’s account.
But the episode also precipitated new distrust among the lawyers themselves, not just with Epshteyn. When the news about the justice department’s suspicions were reported, Parlatore and Trusty were surprised to see Kise portrayed as having always sought a cooperative approach with prosecutors.
To Parlatore and Trusty, while Kise ultimately supported further searches, he was hardly the leading voice. And when Kise pulled out of arguing before the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit to keep the special master with 24 hours’ notice, they had him exiled to the civil litigation team.
Lawyers stage Mar-a-Lago intervention
With Kise gone from the team defending Trump in special counsel matters, Parlatore and Trusty’s interpersonal conflicts with Epshteyn reached new levels as they grew increasingly annoyed at what they considered their inability to directly consult Trump without having to go through Epshteyn.
The pair chafed that when they spoke to Trump on the phone, Epshteyn was typically also on the line. At other times, they sniped that Epshteyn would give overly rosy outlooks to Trump and, in March, travelled to Mar-a-Lago to seek Trump’s permission to exclude him from future deliberations.
It was not clear whether the issue was actually resolved. Parlatore came away from the meeting content that he no longer needed to speak to Epshteyn. However, Epshteyn remained Trump’s in-house counsel and the legal team’s liaison with the Trump 2024 campaign.
Around that time, Parlatore and Trusty also started withholding information from Corcoran because they worried that Corcoran was too close to Epshteyn and was briefing him behind their backs.
That meant that as the special counsel intensified the documents investigation, after prosecutors convinced a US appeals court to force Corcoran to turn over his notes to a grand jury, at least two members of the legal team had little to no visibility into what the other two lawyers were doing unless they found out another way.
Personal conflicts explode publicly
Around that time, Trump advisers and lawyers started to hear murmurs about whether Parlatore and Trusty should continue in their roles. When the pair heard about those inquiries, they resolved that if one of them actually got fired, the other should also resign.
The animosity had also been increasing as the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, prepared to charge Trump in the hush money case and Parlatore insisted to Epshteyn that the celebrity lawyer Joe Tacopina – whom he detested related to a prior case – should not be on the team defending the former president.
Epshteyn suggested it was not in his control because Tacopina was recommended by others in Trump’s orbit, including Kimberly Guilfoyle – which Parlatore interpreted as a snub.
Parlatore also had a misstep when he and Trusty last month urged Congress in a letter to tell the justice department to “stand down” its criminal investigation in the documents matter, laying out a detailed defence that claimed in part that responsibility lay with aides instead of Trump himself.
The 10-page letter was sent to Trump and they believed it had the former president’s approval. But Trump was furious days later when he saw that the language in the letter cast doubt on his previous public statements about how White House and classified documents ended up at Mar-a-Lago.
Parlatore had also decided against giving Epshteyn advance warning about the letter, which some on the Trump campaign and other lawyers used as an example of why the legal team needed his supervision.
But the proximate cause of Parlatore’s departure was a row over discussing the letter on CNN. Parlatore had made a point of appearing on the network because he figured the attorney general, Merrick Garland, was more likely to watch CNN than a conservative network like Newsmax.
Exactly who ordered Parlatore’s appearance to be cancelled remains unclear, though the Trump 2024 campaign later told the lawyers it was because he criticized Tacopina the last time he was on CNN. As the special counsel investigation neared its end, Parlatore told Trump he would be leaving.