The weekend backlash was swift after John Dowd, one of the president’s outside lawyers, told reporters he had composed the Saturday morning tweet about the guilty plea of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn that was posted on @realDonaldTrump’s account.
The social media post—and Dowd’s ensuing claim of authorship—each led to a Twitterstorm of reaction from lawyers, and fueled speculation that the tweet could provide ammunition for special counsel Robert Mueller III as he investigates connections between Russians and the Trump campaign.
“I would say his own lawyer put a bull’s-eye on Trump’s back and did so based on information that apparently isn’t even accurate,” said a criminal defense lawyer representing an individual in the Russian case, who spoke to ALM on condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post quoted a person close to the White House involved in the Russian case, who called the tweet “a screwup of historic proportions” that has “caused enormous consternation in the White House.”
The tweet read:
“I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”
Television commentators and tweeting lawyers quickly pounced, debating whether the message amounted to an admission that President Donald Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI, potentially bolstering an obstruction of justice case against him. Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey after Comey allegedly refused to stop investigating Flynn.
Dowd, a former partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, told first CNN and then Michael Allen at Axios that he wrote the tweet. Dowd conceded it was sloppily worded, but said it was inaccurate to suggest the president was told that Flynn had lied to the FBI.
Dowd also adopted the position that the tweet won’t hurt the president in his defense against any allegations of obstruction of justice.
“The tweet did not admit obstruction. That is an ignorant and arrogant assertion,” Dowd told Axios. In any case, he added, the ”president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case.”
On Twitter, critics both doubted that Dowd actually wrote the tweet, and damned him for doing so if he did.
”A lawyer who writes a tweet like that incriminating a client should be disbarred. He can tell Mueller he wrote it,” tweeted Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, and former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
“I’m just trying to imagine a circumstance where I, as a lawyer, would take the fall for a client’s crazy tweet,” tweeted Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law.
“I dare you to tell Mueller you logged into POTUS’s Twitter account and wrote “pled” and the rest of that, John Dowd. I dare you,” tweeted Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, who has been a vocal critic of Trump since leaving the federal government in July.
Shaub’s quotation marks around the word “pled” reflect a related dispute among tweeters over whether any lawyer would ever had used the word “pled,” rather than “pleaded.”
Shaub tweeted later:
“Dowd’s explanation to CNN makes no sense. He claims he wrote the tweet claiming Flynn was fired partly for lying to the FBI, but he also rejects the idea that POTUS knew Flynn had lied. Why would you write the tweet then, Dowd? Or did you?”
But Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and an authority on legal ethics, said some of Dowd’s critics are going too far.
“My take is that the idea that Dowd should be disbarred is nonsense. Lawyers routinely draft public comments in a client’s name and often have the authority to do so without even clearing the language with the client. Dowd messed up. If his explanation is true, he did not ‘put a bull’s-eye’ on Trump’s back. He embarrassed himself,” Gillers wrote in an email.
He added: “We who teach and study legal ethics must resist becoming advocates and letting Trump’s perversion of norms distort our own judgment. Dowd has to answer to his client. Perhaps his client will lose confidence in him. But to say he should be disbarred or suffer any professional discipline based on what we know will diminish our own credibility as academics when it will most be needed.”