Close allies of Donald J. Trump are preparing to populate a new administration with a more aggressive breed of right-wing lawyer, rejecting traditional conservatives whom they believe hindered his agenda in his first term. These allies have been compiling lists of lawyers whom they view as ideologically and temperamentally suited to serve in a potential second Trump administration. Their aim is to minimize the chances of politically appointed lawyers impeding a more radical White House agenda, as they occasionally did during Trump’s tenure.
As confidence grows among Trump allies about an election victory next fall, several outside groups staffed by former Trump officials, who are expected to assume senior roles if he wins, have initiated parallel recruitment efforts. Initially, Trump’s administration relied on the influential Federalist Society, a conservative legal network whose members filled key legal positions in the executive branch and played a role in selecting judicial nominations. However, in a notable shift, Trump allies are creating new recruiting channels separate from the Federalist Society.
These behind-the-scenes discussions were disclosed by individuals familiar with the planning, most of whom spoke anonymously. Additionally, former senior lawyers in the Trump administration and other close allies who are likely to serve in a second term were interviewed by The New York Times.
The interviews highlight a significant divide within the conservative movement. Top Trump allies increasingly view their party’s legal elites, including leaders with seemingly impeccable conservative credentials, as out of touch with their movement. Russell T. Vought, a former senior Trump administration official, argued that many elite conservative lawyers have shown timidity when the nation’s survival is at stake. Such observations may surprise those who perceive the Federalist Society as staunch conservatives. Nevertheless, this shift away from the group reflects the ongoing evolution of the Republican Party in the Trump era and the current inner circle’s efforts to take control of the government in an unprecedented manner.
Stephen Miller, Trump’s former senior adviser, and John McEntee, another trusted aide empowered by the then-president in 2020 to remove disloyal or obstructive political appointees, are leading the push to find new lawyers. The non-profit groups they are involved in are legally prohibited from supporting a candidate, and their work is not explicitly tied to Trump. However, Miller and McEntee remain close to the former president and are expected to influence him in any potential second term.
At present, Trump is preoccupied with multiple criminal and civil cases against him and appears disengaged from these efforts. Nonetheless, throughout his term, he expressed frustration with many lawyers who worked for him, often describing them as weak and foolish.
Lawyers appointed by Trump early on in his administration drew the White House’s ire by raising legal concerns about various policy proposals. However, his strongest anger was directed at White House and Justice Department legal officials who largely rejected his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. In this regard, Trump sought alternative lawyers who would tell him what he wanted to hear, turning to a group of outside lawyers, many of whom have since been indicted in Georgia.
Those close to the former president are now searching for a different type of lawyer committed to his “America First” ideology and willing to bear the personal and professional risks associated with being associated with Trump. They desire lawyers in federal agencies and the White House who are open to using theories rejected by more mainstream lawyers to advance Trump’s cause. This new mindset aligns with Trump’s assertion that he is engaged in a “final battle” against demonic “enemies” within a “deep state” that seeks to destroy America.
While a few lawyers with this mindset existed within Trump’s administration, they were largely outnumbered and overruled by more conventional legal conservatives. For those who joined the administration but grew disillusioned, the systematic installation of Trump loyalists, who might view the law as flexible in a potential second term, is cause for concern.
John Mitnick, who served as general counsel of the Homeland Security Department under Trump, was fired in 2019 along with other agency leaders installed by Trump. Mr. Mitnick believes that “qualified attorneys with integrity” would not be interested in serving as political appointees in a potential second Trump term. Instead, he predicts that Trump loyalists who will rubber-stamp whatever the former president and his senior White House staff desire will predominantly fill such positions.
The Federalist Society has become closely associated with the Republican establishment, and its members’ common interests, such as advocating for an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and federal statutes, can differ from Trump’s individual inclinations and grievances. Although many aggressive lawyers that Trump allies are considering have some ties to the Federalist Society, the phrase has become derogatory to some on the Trump-aligned right, symbolizing legal weakness.
Increasingly, hard-right allies of Trump criticize typical Federalist Society members as squishes, accusing them of prioritizing their standing in polite society and career prospects at large law firms over advancing the movement’s most contentious tactics and goals.
As per Mike Davis, a former congressional aide and close ally of the former president, the Trump administration learned during its first term that Democrats are playing for keeps. He argues that a second Trump administration would require much stronger attorneys who are not concerned about elite opinion and are prepared to fight crucial cultural battles.
Although the union between Trump and the conservative legal establishment seemed successful initially, it has since become more complicated. As his presidency progressed, Trump attacked and sidelined many of the lawyers around him, including members of the Federalist Society. One incident, involving Leonard A. Leo, a prominent figure in the conservative legal movement who contributed to shaping the judiciary, illustrates the underlying tensions.
In January 2020, while Leo dined at Mar-a-Lago, Trump approached his table unexpectedly, stunning Leo and criticizing his performance. This incident reflects the strained relationship between Trump and the conservative legal establishment.
In conclusion, close allies of Donald J. Trump are preparing to fill a potential new administration with a more aggressive breed of right-wing lawyer, bypassing traditional conservatives who they believe obstructed Trump’s first-term agenda. These allies are compiling lists of lawyers who align with their ideology and temperament in order to minimize potential obstacles to a more radical White House agenda. This effort signifies a significant break within the conservative movement and marks a departure from the reliance on the Federalist Society. Trump’s allies are seeking lawyers committed to his “America First” ideology, willing to take risks, and open to using unconventional legal theories. While the Federalist Society has been closely associated with the Republican establishment, Trump allies increasingly view its members as out of touch with their movement. The relationship between Trump and the conservative legal establishment has become more complicated over time, as Trump sidelined many of the lawyers around him, including Federalist Society members.