Based on the sheer number of high-profile clients he’s representing, William Burck stands apart from other lawyers helping Trump administration and former campaign officials respond to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. A partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Burck represents Steve Bannon, the former chief political strategist for Trump, Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, and White House counsel Don McGahn.
Burck’s triple-play has raised some eyebrows, mainly on the left, over whether the arrangement raises conflict of interest concerns. Other defense attorneys have withdrawn from representing Trump campaign and administration officials on Russia probe matters after conflict questions emerged.
But white-collar criminal defense lawyers don’t necessarily agree with pundits and politicians sounding alarms over Burck’s trio of clients. Indeed, some argue Burck has strategically—and quite appropriately—positioned himself to serve each of his three clients much more effectively than he could if he only represented one.
It doesn’t hurt that Burck has the kind of credentials that the white-collar bar respects. A former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and former federal prosecutor, Burck helped convict homemaking mogul Martha Stewart on obstruction of justice charges. In private practice, he led the successful defense of Maureen McDonnell, then the first lady of Virginia, against corruption charges. He also worked in the West Wing for President George W. Bush during his second term.
Given his background, Burck could take full advantage of anything he gleans from investigators questioning Bannon, Priebus and McGahn—all of whom who have spoken to Mueller’s team. With his three clients, Burck “is able to have better insight into where the investigation is going, the type of questions his clients are likely to be asked, and know more about what the government knows and doesn’t know,” said Peter Joy, a law professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
The arrangement offers “the not insignificant advantage of giving him first-hand knowledge of a bigger part of the picture, as opposed to relying on what other lawyers may be willing to share,” according to an attorney who represents a target in the investigation and did not want his name used for this story. “It also can save on some basic costs” for the clients, he said.
“Provided none of the three are potentially adverse to each other such that one might implicate the other or have their credibility optically impaired with the prosecutor, there is no real downside,” he added.
Burck declined to comment on his crop of White House clients beyond noting what he told Politico.com in January, prior to Bannon speaking to Mueller’s team. “It’s a general pool type of relationship where, if a conflict arises, where everyone in good faith will try to figure out what the best way to proceed is,” Burck said at the time. “I can never be adverse to one of those guys.”
Mueller and his team have not been shy about calling out potential conflicts. In November, they asked a judge to review whether Walter Mack of Doar Rieck Kaley & Mack could continue to represent Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide who was indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges, because of a potential conflict stemming from his representation of another client. Earlier this month, Mack and two other lawyers who had represented Gates asked to withdraw from the case. In a motion to withdraw that they initially sought to file under seal, they stated as their reason for exiting: “Irreconcilable differences have developed with the client which make our effective representation of the client impossible.”
Earlier this past summer, Jamie Gorelick of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, Mueller’s former firm, stepped away from representing Trump son-in-law and West Wing official Jared Kushner in Russia probe matters. The National Law Journal reported that Gorelick faced conflict questions related to Mueller and three other former Wilmer partners’ appointments to the special counsel investigation, despite Justice Department assurances.
In August, Reginald Brown, also a Wilmer partner, withdrew from representing Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was indicted at the same time as Gates on related charges.
So far, there’s no sign that Burck is under pressure to withdraw from any of his representations. And in the meantime, according to one defense lawyer familiar with the investigation who asked not to be named, his clients’ testimony could end up helping Mueller’s team build a possible obstruction of justice case against President Donald Trump. The centerpiece of any such case could be the president’s role on Air Force One on July 8, 2017, in crafting Don Trump Jr.’s public characterization of his June 2016 meeting with Russians, according to a report in The New York Times and a criminal defense lawyer representing a witness in the investigation.
None of Burck’s three clients appear to have been present for discussions about Trump Jr.’s statements to the Times about the meeting. But any testimony they offer about events such as Trump’s firing of then FBI director James Comey or his reported desire to terminate Mueller—thwarted by McGahn, The New York Times reported—could help Mueller establish elements of a potential obstruction charge.
“Prosecutors often like it,” when one lawyer represents multiple witnesses who are not facing any real exposure, said another white-collar criminal defense lawyer, who declined to be identified because he also represents a target in the investigation in an unrelated matter. At the same time, he said Burck’s multiple representations signal an aggressive posture—“a circling of the wagons” that could cause prosecutors “heartburn.” He noted that many other white-collar lawyers besides Burck were available to Bannon, Priebus and McGahn. “It’s fraught with risk,” he said about the trio choosing to use the same lawyer.
Ultimately, either Mueller’s team or a defendant charged in the investigation—even the president—could seek a court ruling to determine if Burck has a potential conflict. “When prosecutors raise a conflict issue due to joint representation, they do so for one of two reasons, either there is an advantage, they are getting rid of a good lawyer, or to preclude it from being an issue on appeal,” Joy said.
It would be a trial judge who would be called upon initially to rule whether a potential conflict exists for Burck, and if he has to withdraw from one or all of his multiple representations. “The Supreme Court has given trial judges a lot of discretion” when making such rulings, Joy said. In this instance, “a judge would be highly skeptical” of conflict claims by either the prosecutors or a defendant, Joy predicted. The situation doesn’t appear as if Burck could sway one client on behalf of another, Joy said.
Burck’s clients are “not stock boys at a supermarket, where the lawyer is holding a lot of influence,” Joy said. “I would not be surprised if all three of them are each consulting with another attorney,” he added.
In any case Burck, a seasoned defense lawyer, has likely erected safeguards to counter any conflicts claims. He most likely has kept very detailed records and advised his clients not to talk to each other, for instance, without going through Burck, so there is no chance of “tainting each other’s memories,” a defense lawyer close to the investigation said.