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Good lawyers and good military officers share a trait. So do good nurses, good journalists and good financial advisers. All of them are hard to take by surprise.

The president's lawyers get surprised a lot. I am no fan of the president, but these pratfalls concern me. This crew may be brilliant as individuals but they are no team. They also have what lawyers call a difficult client.

The special counsel to investigate the president's campaign was appointed May 17. By July, two members of the president's legal team had quit. In September, two of the remaining team members argued legal strategy in a restaurant. A New York Times reporter heard the whole thing and wrote a story about it.

Things never settled down. For instance, there was an awful tweet on the president's account at the start of this month. It said the president knew his then-national security adviser had lied to the FBI. That one will get quoted a lot. Then there was the claim by one of the lawyers that the president did not send that damaging tweet. The attorney did. If true, the president should fire that attorney.

Then the president's lawyers admitted they were caught flat-footed when they learned the special counsel's team already had records from the president's transition team, which handled taking over things from the previous administration. The president's lawyers said they had assumed they would have gotten a chance to review a request for such documents first. Lawyers who are on their toes do not assume anything.

Oh, and the supposed head of the legal team argued in public earlier this month that collusion with Russia is not a crime. Whether this is legally true or not, it is not helpful when a dispute carries as many political consequences as legal ones.

All this reminds me of something W.H. "Dub" Arnold told me a long time ago. Arnold was a high-profile prosecutor from Arkadelphia many years before he served as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He tried many a murder case that I covered. Defense lawyers struggled just to save their client from the death penalty in most of those cases. Acquittal was usually out of reach. Some of those attorneys were court-appointed. Some of them I would not have hesitated to hire as my lawyer if I had needed one. They were that good. Others were not.

In one trial, though, there was room for doubt in the case and a defendant who could afford a first-rate attorney. I do not remember that lawyer's name, but he never gave an inch. At a recess in the trial, I joked to Arnold that I bet he wished he had a different defense lawyer on this case. Arnold gave me a reply I will never forget:

"Oh no," he said. "I would much rather try a case against a good lawyer," laying a heavy emphasis on "much." In a serious cases, you do not want to be plagued by any doubt. A good lawyer brings up everything. There are no reversals on appeal, either.

Good representation on both sides of a legal dispute nails things down. The thumbs of this president's legal team, however, would be in grave danger if they could find a hammer. Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller brought the government's A-team. The president's defenders can accuse them of bias all they want. Nothing else makes a difference if the defense is a pushover.

The president's partisans also gripe that Mueller takes too long and ranges too wide. I disagree, but there is nothing to stop him. Mueller gets to walk through doors left open and rummage around. Blame those who did not close and lock the doors, assuming they could have.

Some members of the special counsel's team, before they were on that team, sent indiscreet text messages disparaging the president and other public figures. For that they get shrieked at for bias. The president's legal team, if it is to be believed, sent out a tweet in the president's name and on the president's Twitter account admitting foreknowledge that the national security adviser had lied to the FBI. This one example happened more than six months after the special counsel's appointment. Such blundering is the greater problem -- for the president and for everyone else.

Commentary on 12/30/2017

Print Headline: The president's bigger problem

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