One of the intriguing questions about Donald Trump is whether his high-powered allies in the conservative movement have fully embraced the 45th president and his Make America Great Again cause or simply see him as a means to their own ends.
In Servants of the Damned, David Enrich delves into the history of one of the most important institutions in the Trump orbit, the law firm of Jones Day, and finds a collaborator that is more mercenary than Maga.
Jones Day lawyers figured prominently in Trump’s rise to power and his exercise of it. Enrich treats the relationship as a sign of a broader decline in ethical standards at big American law firms. He accuses the entire industry of enabling “the business world’s worst behaviour” and says “increasingly, that work bleeds into the political realm”.
The catalyst for this sad state of affairs, Enrich writes, was a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that a law firm is a business like any other and can advertise. “All manner of self-promotion became kosher,” he writes, and a “vicious cycle” followed as the trade press published details of firm finances, enabling lawyers to compare the size of their pay packages.
To attract talent, firms wrote bigger cheques. To afford higher salaries, they billed more hours. To secure extra work, they took on unsavoury clients, justifying their actions with the “fiction” that companies had “the right to the best lawyers, in all situations and at all times”. Enrich, business investigations editor of The New York Times, argues that the US constitution only guarantees accused criminals the right to counsel as a way to protect “the poor and the weak” and “says nothing” about representation in civil or regulatory matters.
Jones Day declined to comment on Enrich’s book. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Kevyn Orr, partner-in-charge of US offices, said “his portrait of Jones Day and the legal profession bears little resemblance to reality”. He said it was a “mischaracterization” to call Jones Day a “rightwing firm” and accused Enrich of wanting to “deny the protections of the law to the disfavoured”.
Jones Day traces its history back to what Enrich sees as the good old days of the legal profession. Starting during the late 19th century in industrial Cleveland, Ohio, the firm operated under the principle that it “must maintain its freedom and independence to turn down any representation”.
In 1944, when 130 people were killed and scores of homes destroyed by an explosion at Cleveland’s East Ohio Gas, Jones Day advised the company “to admit fault and . . . take care of a community that had suffered a tragedy”, Enrich writes. East Ohio promptly invited victims to its headquarters to detail their losses — and paid out millions of dollars.
Enrich contrasts that approach with Jones Day’s representation of tobacco company RJ Reynolds in the 1980s. By that time, law had become “more like a game”, which Jones Day played to win with a strategy that “consisted in large part of blaming smokers for their own misfortune” and burying opponents in thousands of pages of motions and briefs. Enrich quotes a Jones Day lawyer as saying: “To paraphrase General Patton, the way we won these cases was not by spending all of Reynolds’s money, but by making that other son of a bitch spend all of his.”
The author displays a visceral distaste for the Jones Day of today, a global firm directed from Washington since 2003 by its managing partner Stephen Brogan. He describes Brogan as a “bulldog faced” man who “exuded the same unpolished brawler vibe that he’d been known for in high school”. So secretive that his firm refused to confirm his age, Brogan “encouraged his underlings to act on their killer instincts”, Enrich writes.
The firm’s aggressive approach was evident soon after it acquired the UK Gouldens law firm in 2003. The London lawyers were told they “would generally be expected to bill about two thousand hours a year”, generating “disbelief” in the ranks. Setting such targets “was out of step with British legal culture”, writes Enrich, which, “with some exceptions, still prized professionalism over profits”.
Jones Day’s decision to work on the first Trump campaign was just business as usual for a firm on the make, in Enrich’s view. “Not a lot of thought went into this fateful decision,” he writes. “The Trump campaign was run through Jones Day’s standard client-onboarding process, but it was primarily focused on business considerations.” Enrich says the alliance “was what Brogan wanted and what Brogan wanted, Brogan got”.
The connection produced results for Jones Day. The firm’s Don McGahn served as Trump’s first White House counsel, and he helped populate the administration — and the federal judiciary — with Jones Day veterans. The firm remained in Trump’s corner after the polls closed in 2020, seeking to block a Pennsylvania court ruling extending the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots. Jones Day also welcomed back many of the lawyers who went to work for Trump.
Left unclear in the book is whether Brogan really liked Trump — or developed feelings for him along the way. In discussing Brogan’s politics, Enrich points to his Catholicism as an explanation, saying he was told by Brogan allies “that the key to understanding him was through his faith”. But the same could be said about Democrat Joe Biden; he is Catholic, too.
The possibility exists there is more to Brogan’s worldview than biblical precepts. “Some of Brogan’s confidants told me they suspected that the more criticism Jones Day got for its Trump work, the more Brogan wanted to keep doing it,” he writes, quoting one of his allies as saying: “He loves to give prissy establishmentarians a kick in the balls.”
It would be interesting to know how a consummate Washington insider like Brogan defines an “establishmentarian” or determines whether one of them is “prissy” and deserving of a knee to the groin. Enrich’s book leaves the reader wanting to know more about Brogan and lawyers like him.
Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice by David Enrich Mariner Books, $32.50, 384 pages