Inside Trump's Frantic Hunt for 'Killer' Criminal Defense Attorneys

Behind closed doors this summer, Donald Trump and his advisers have been narrowing the shortlist of criminal defense attorneys he’d need to take on the Justice Department. The former president has had preliminary conversations with Tim Parlatore, a lawyer best known for successfully representing an accused war criminal, about possible legal strategies should the department escalate its probe or hit Trump with charges, two people with knowledge of the matter and a third source briefed on it tell Rolling Stone.

Trump’s conversations with Parlatore and other newly retained lawyers are part of his broader push to assemble yet another new legal team, both for his current legal woes and for any future ones coming from the FBI and Biden-era DOJ. Throughout the summer, Trump has been quizzing confidants on what they think of specific criminal defense lawyers, throwing out a number of names both big and obscure. In other words, as one Trump advisor describes it, the ex-president is conducting the “Apprentice: Avoid-Federal-Prison Edition.”

Monday’s FBI raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago will likely intensify that search, as the Justice Department broadens and accelerates its investigations into Trump, his team and close associates, and their efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election. The federal search of the twice-impeached leader of the GOP’s Florida estate, however, appears connected to an investigation into Trump’s retention of classified materials and sensitive presidential documents. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida didn’t respond to a request for comment on the raid, as the former president and his team described it.

In recent years, Parlatore has represented retired Navy SEAL and accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher, when Navy prosecutors accused him of committing war crimes in the killing of a 17-year-old ISIS fighter. A military jury rejected murder charges against Gallagher but instead convicted him on one count of illegally posing for a photo with the corpse. Trump intervened in Gallagher’s favor when the Navy tried to take away his Trident pin — a symbol of his membership in the SEALs — as a result of the conviction, and the then-president ultimately granted clemency to Gallagher along with pardoning two other service members accused or convicted of war crimes.

In recent months, Trump and Parlatore have sporadically discussed the possibility of the Department of Justice charging the former president, according to the two people with knowledge of the situation. Sources requested anonymity from Rolling Stone in order to discuss sensitive matters related to former President Trump. As Parlatore’s stock has shot up MAGAland, Trump himself has privately referred to the lawyer as “a killer” (one of the ex-president’s preferred descriptors for attorneys or businesspeople he deems adequately ruthless or effective) who won big for “warrior” Gallagher.

Tim Parlatore, defense attorney for Eddie Gallagher, speaks to members of the media in 2019.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Parlatore has represented a who’s-who of MAGA clients. When the January 6 committee asked Pennsylvania Republican and senate candidate Doug Mastriano to testify about his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and hand over documents, Mastriano turned to Parlatore for legal help. Parlatore has also represented Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police chief and Trump campaign strategist, to handle his interactions with the Jan. 6 committee. Parlatore first represented Kerik in 2009 when he was charged and convicted of tax fraud by federal prosecutors.

Parlatore has also represented the (notably anti-Trump) rapper and TV star, Ice-T. As the New York Post wrote in 2010, Ice-T “was charged with driving with a suspended license, without valid insurance and without a seat belt — charges all now blamed on bad DMV records.”

Officially, the lawyer is already a member of Trump’s legal team, though on a different matter. He is, the New York Post reported in May, probing for ties between the 2020 Biden campaign and a group of 51 former intelligence professionals who sought to downplay the Hunter Biden laptop story in an October 2020 letter.

Even before the feds’ Mar-a-Lago raid, Trump was expanding the legal team that’s negotiating with the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigators about access to executive communications. Trump and his lawyers are arguing such conversations and other materials are protected under executive privilege, and attorneys John Rowley and Evan Corcoran have joined that team, The New York Times reports. A source familiar with the situation confirmed their involvement to Rolling Stone on Monday, adding that the DOJ has talked to the Trump lawyers about whether the ex-president is going to exert executive privilege now that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed former Trump advisers like ex-White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

In Trump’s conversations with his lawyers and allies this summer, Corcoran’s name has also come up as a potential defense attorney for Trump should the Justice Department bring criminal charges against him, according to two people familiar with the matter. A white-collar criminal defense attorney, Corcoran has represented three defendants in January 6-related cases, including Steve Bannon in his criminal case after the former Trump political advisor defied a subpoena from the January 6 committee (Bannon was convicted in July). He has also represented Capitol police officer Michael Angelo Riley, whom prosecutors charged with two counts of obstruction after he allegedly told rioters to remove incriminating photos of themselves at the Capitol, and Frank Scavo, a rioter who organized bus trips to the Capitol and was inside the building during the insurrection. Scavo pleaded guilty in July 2021. Riley has pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial.

Corcoran and Parlatore did not respond to emails seeking comment on this story. Reached for comment on Sunday — before the Mar-a-Lago raid — Trump’s spokesman Taylor Budowich wrote back: “President Trump will not be deterred by witch hunts or kangaroo courts from continuing to defend and fight for America, our Constitution, and the Truth.”

There are various ongoing civil and criminal probes into Trump, his business empire, and his accomplices in attempting to overturn the presidential election. According to a source close to the ex-president, Trump has even recently begun asking associates if it is possible that the feds have tapped his phones.

The Justice Department is now investigating then-President Trump’s conduct preceding the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but it hasn’t indicated whether it plans to file charges against him. People advising Trump on this matter say that the former president still needs to retain additional legal firepower for his new team dedicated to this issue, specifically. “The infrastructure for something of that magnitude is not entirely in place yet, but progress is being made,” one of the sources says.

There are some in Trump’s inner sanctum, as well as veterans of his legal teams, who argue that a greater amount of urgency is required.

“There should have been a first-rate criminal lawyer months ago. The number 1 priority for something like this is to prevent an indictment, to engage in extensive preparation long before indictment, and to have a top-rate team in place so the Justice Department knows what they will face if they indict. You win something like this before trial, not at trial,” says celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, who was on Trump’s first impeachment defense team. “If Donald Trump does not have his top criminal defense lawyer and team on this and in place yesterday, he is doing this all wrong. If he doesn’t have his defense team organized now, it’s malpractice. However, I still think chances of an indictment are small, because someone like Merrick Garland is not going to do that unless it’s really, really a slam-dunk.”

Asked if he’d consider advising a Trump legal team in a situation like this, Dershowitz responded, “On the constitutional issues and legal strategy, I would give advice to a team like that, whether for a Democrat or a Republican.” He added that, as a veteran of a Trump legal team, he has not yet received any calls or outreach on this matter by anybody in the Trump orbit. Dershowitz said that if asked, the first person he would recommend that former President Trump try to hire is attorney Ronald Sullivan, who like Dershowitz has taught at Harvard Law.

“It’s still a remote possibility that charges could be brought, but if charges are brought against former President Trump, he shouldn’t be hiring individual attorneys here or there. He should be hiring a law firm worth of attorneys,” says Steven Groves, formerly a lawyer and then a spokesman in the Trump White House. “You would want to throw dozens of attorneys at this defense. This isn’t going to be like the Mueller probe. It would be much bigger than that.”

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