Bobby Burchfield. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
In a Feb. 8 letter, Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democratic ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, hurled a series of 13 pointed questions at the Trump Organization’s general counsel, George Sorial, and its newly-appointed ethics counsel, King & Spalding partner Bobby Burchfield. The senator wanted clarification on how Burchfield will do his job of vetting Trump Organization transactions for conflicts of interest involving President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, in the first two months of the Trump presidency, transactions by Trump businesses—including the $15 million sale of a penthouse to a consultant to Chinese companies and two planned resorts in Indonesia—have already attracted critical scrutiny from the media, lawyers and watchdog groups. Burchfield’s response has consistently been “no comment.” At press time, Burchfield and Sorial hadn’t publicly responded to McCaskill, either.
There will be no shortage of controversy for Burchfield in his new role. While it’s routine practice in Washington, D.C., for lawyers to give ethics opinions to politicians on issues, Burchfield’s new job is unprecedented. Some watchdog groups, including Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, have questioned whether he’ll be able to fulfill his mission for an already taciturn company. “Frankly, he’s been given a pretty impossible task, and I don’t know that there are going to be very high expectations that he is going to prevent conflicts of interests [between Trump and his companies] from happening,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a frequent critic of Burchfield’s positions on campaign finance.
Yet even Democratic-leaning lawyers give credit to Burchfield’s experience and qualifications.
“He’s going to have to give good advice, which he’s certainly capable of doing. This is sort of old hat in the corporate world,” says Stanley Brand, former counsel to the House of Representatives when it was led by Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill, and an Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld senior counsel. “He’s a heavyweight.”
Burchfield, 62, and a native of Kentucky, has been on the district’s map for more than two decades, with strong ties to the Republican establishment. He was general counsel for the 1992 Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, and during the 2000 presidential election showdown Burchfield, then a Covington & Burling partner, was among the first lawyers to land in Florida to stop the Miami-Dade County recount. Since then, Burchfield says he has provided counsel on ethics to a president, several U.S. senators and members of Congress, two governors and various national candidates. That list includes Tom DeLay, the former Republican House majority leader, who resigned amid an ethics scandal; and now-Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, after the former governor faced felony charges (later dismissed) in Texas.
He’s also advised corporations and nonprofits. This year, for instance, he’s represented DaVita Inc., a kidney-dialysis company, in a $538 million settlement of a suit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Other clients are Amgen, United Airlines, Bank One Corp., the NFL and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Burchfield still considers himself a trial lawyer and frequently cites that he’s never lost before a jury. Much of his court advocacy relates to the long-running quest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to dismantle campaign finance donation limits. Burchfield has argued before the Supreme Court twice on the topic, chalking up one win, in McCutcheon v. FEC, and one loss. In January, Burchfield filed an amicus brief on McConnell’s behalf in another campaign finance case in the high court. Burchfield is also chairman of Crossroads GPS, a large conservative political spending group.
Before his current position at Atlanta-based King & Spalding—whose Washington, D.C., office he joined in 2015—Burchfield was co-managing partner at McDermott, Will & Emery for nine years. He was a candidate for McDermott’s chairmanship in 2009 but lost to Jeffrey Stone and Peter Sacripanti, who ran for the job together to avoid splitting the vote. When Burchfield moved to King & Spalding, he filled a niche for a banner Republican litigation partner that had been left by the departure of Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general, for Bancroft. At King & Spalding, several of Burchfield’s partners have ties to Republican Washington. Stephen Vaughn—who resigned from the partnership in January—is currently acting U.S. Trade Representative and likely to become the trade agency’s general counsel, while partner Gil Kaplan is rumored to be in the running for the position of Commerce Under Secretary for International Trade.
Burchfield is already busy with his vetting work for the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, which holds the Trump companies’ assets. He declined to give specifics but says his team so far has reviewed a number of transactions made by the Trump Organization. He expects more to come fairly consistently.
The Trump trust is paying Burchfield his standard hourly rate for the work, he says—which is likely around the $1,000 an hour or more that top litigators in Washington command. He’s working with two associates and another King & Spalding partner, Matthew Leland, a litigator who moved with Burchfield from McDermott. Burchfield says he will review every transaction made by the trust and provide a written opinion when a transaction complies. He also has veto authority on deals. If one doesn’t clear his bar, he says, he’ll tell the company what it needs to do to make the transaction free of conflicts: “If you do X, Y and Z, then it’s approvable,” he says.
Ultimately, the public may never have the chance to judge the quality or scope of Burchfield’s work, unless the Trump Organization releases details or information leaks. Burchfield’s work still falls under attorney-client privilege.
Burchfield, in an interview, reiterates his independence. “I think if I do a really good job, as I intend to do, I hope it’s consistent to the rest of the tenor of my career,” he says. “I’m far enough along in my career that I’m not looking for one big boost to put me on a different level. I consider it an honor to do this.”