Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
The ongoing investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia involve reams of classified material. Yet Marc Kasowitz, the New York lawyer whom President Donald Trump has hired to defend him in these inquiries, told ProPublica through a spokesman that he does not have a security clearance — the prerequisite for access to government secrets. Nor does he expect to seek one.
Several lawyers who have represented presidents and senior government officials said they could not imagine handling a case so suffused with sensitive material without a clearance.
“No question in my mind — in order to represent President Trump in this matter you would have to get a very high level of clearance because of the allegations involving Russia,” said Robert Bennett, who served as President Bill Clinton’s personal lawyer. Like many Washington lawyers, Bennett has held security clearances throughout his career.
As the spotlight on Russia intensifies with new email disclosures that his son, son-in-law, and then-campaign manager met in June 2016 with a Russian attorney who promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Kasowitz’s lack of a security clearance could hinder the president’s legal and political response to the scandal.
One possible explanation for Kasowitz’s decision not to pursue a clearance: He might have trouble getting one.
In recent weeks, ProPublica spoke with more than two dozen current and former employees of Kasowitz’s firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, as well as his friends and acquaintances. Past and present employees of the firm said in interviews that Kasowitz has struggled intermittently with alcohol abuse, leading to a stint in rehab in the winter of 2014-15.
Several people told ProPublica that Kasowitz has been drinking in recent months. (The vast majority of those who spoke to ProPublica for this article declined to be quoted by name, citing Kasowitz’s penchant for threatening lawsuits.)
Experts on federal security reviews told ProPublica that recent episodes of alcohol abuse are a major barrier to receiving clearance, a process that involves government agents poring over a person’s past and interviewing family, friends and colleagues. Investigators typically raise flags about behaviors that might make someone vulnerable to blackmail or suggest poor judgment.
Kasowitz’s spokesman said he doesn’t need a clearance. “No one has suggested he requires a security clearance, there has been no need for a security clearance, and we do not anticipate a need for a security clearance,” the spokesman said. “If and when a security clearance is needed, Mr. Kasowitz will apply for one with the other members of the legal team.”
Kasowitz’s spokesman did not directly respond to questions about whether he has struggled with alcohol abuse, but said the attorney is able to drink in moderation without a problem.
While not a government employee, Kasowitz has become a public face of the administration on the Russia case. Last month, he went before the cameras to deliver the president’s response to the landmark testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey. White House officials have regularly referred media inquiries about Russia-related matters, including queries about Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, to Kasowitz.
In Washington, where every word and action of the president’s lawyer is scrutinized, Kasowitz is a neophyte. Instead of negotiating deals among the capital’s power brokers or fending off FBI investigations, Kasowitz, 65, built a lucrative practice in civil court suing banks and representing, among others, a leading tobacco company.
Kasowitz has been described by colleagues in the scrappy world of New York lawyers as the “toughest of the tough guys.” Bloomberg News called him a “Pit Bull Loyal to The Boss” while The New York Times described him as “the Donald Trump of lawyering.” His aggressive legal style has spurred rebukes from two judges.
For over 15 years, he represented Donald Trump, earning the president’s loyalty through his eager pugilism. Kasowitz has defended him in the Trump University fraud lawsuit. He fought to keep records from Trump’s 1990 divorce private, and threatened to sue The New York Times for publishing a story in which women accused Trump of unwanted touching and sexual assault. He also recently represented Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly after multiple women accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment.
Before representing Trump in the Russia inquiry, Kasowitz was informally advising the president. He has told friends he recommended firing Preet Bharara because the crusading prosecutor posed a danger to the administration. He has told people Trump wanted him to be attorney general.
Trump reportedly sought a classic Washington lawyer to represent him on Russia before choosing Kasowitz. Initially Kasowitz was reluctant to take it on. “He didn’t seek this,” said Joseph Lieberman, the former senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate who is now senior counsel at the firm. “In the end, the president said, ‘I need you. I know you and trust you.’”
Lieberman and Kasowitz grew up in the same neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. The future senator used to see Kasowitz’s father, who ran a scrap-metal business, walking through the neighborhood, greeting everyone as he went. Kasowitz went to Yale to study American history and then to Cornell Law School. After graduating in 1977, he started his law career in New York. In 1993, Kasowitz broke off from the prominent firm Mayer Brown to found his own firm.
As the firm met with early success, Kasowitz became wealthy. He brags to friends he makes anywhere from $10 million to $30 million per year. He owns an apartment in a white-glove building on Park Avenue and a mansion in Westchester County. He travels by private jet and, when in New York, is driven around in a black Cadillac SUV. He owns at least two horses, according to a lawsuit Kasowitz once filed against his daughter’s equestrian stable.
From the start, Kasowitz Benson had a hard-drinking culture that its leaders epitomized.
“It’s like a time warp,” said one former employee, citing the firm’s “macho, scotch-drinking, fist-fighting” ethos. Multiple former attorneys said they saw Kasowitz under the influence at the office, an accusation Kasowitz denies.
Associates would vie to join powerful partners in Kasowitz’s inner circle during the day at the Palm West Side, the steakhouse just across the street from the firm’s offices, and more recently, at another midtown steakhouse a couple of blocks away called Gallaghers. A framed magazine profile of Kasowitz hangs on the wall across from the bar at the Palm. Three former employees at the firm recall attorneys having to go across the street to the restaurant during the workday to consult Kasowitz on work matters, as he held court, drinking and eating. In response to questions, a spokesman for Kasowitz disputed that, saying he never had a drink during the day at the Palm outside of lunch and dinner and never handled firm business while at the restaurant.
Former employees pointed to reckless behavior by Kasowitz while drinking. ProPublica spoke with 10 people who attended the firm’s holiday party on Dec. 10, 2013, at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan. Spouses and significant others were not invited.
Kasowitz, according to an attendee, was visibly inebriated, appearing to have a hard time standing on his feet without support. During the festivities, Kasowitz and a much younger woman not employed by the firm hit the dance floor. According to multiple eyewitnesses, they danced intimately in a way many employees felt was inappropriate for a work event. One person described it as “dirty dancing.” Some employees had seen Kasowitz’s dancing partner before: the then-25-year-old woman had been a hostess at the Palm. “It made women feel uncomfortable,” said one former female attorney who attended the party.
Kasowitz’s spokesman, Michael Sitrick, initially said Kasowitz “does not recall whether he danced with her at a holiday party over 3.5 years ago.” Later, he said that the descriptions of Kasowitz dancing at the party were “untrue.” Kasowitz said in a statement he never had “a romantic relationship” with the woman, “who many of us came to know (as we have many others) because she worked at the Palm Restaurant across the street from our offices.”
Kasowitz has been married for 25 years to Lori Kasowitz, a former Mayer Brown administrator and regular on the Manhattan charity circuit. The couple has one daughter.
Sitrick supplied eight statements from Kasowitz employees attesting to his character and behavior at the party and denying the allegations about the young woman. He said ProPublica could not quote the employees’ statements by name without their permission. ProPublica reached out to all of them. Two declined to be named, and six did not respond to requests to use their names.
That was not the only dramatic incident involving Kasowitz and the Palm hostess. Late one Thursday night in March 2013, the same woman was arrested for felony assault at Beauty & Essex, a lower Manhattan restaurant and club, after allegedly throwing a bottle that hit another woman in the head, according to NYPD records. A former partner in the law firm said that Kasowitz was with her and sustained an injury. Afterwards, Kasowitz walked around the office with two black eyes looking “like a raccoon,” according to the former partner.
Asked about that incident, Sitrick did not answer directly. He said Kasowitz attended a dinner at a restaurant where the woman was in attendance. As Kasowitz was leaving the restaurant, he was “assaulted by a total stranger,” Sitrick wrote in a statement. The Palm hostess was not involved in that assault and Kasowitz’s assailant was arrested, the spokesman said.
According to current and former attorneys at the firm, Kasowitz hit a low point in the winter of 2014-15. He abruptly left New York for Florida, where he owned a mansion at the Equestrian Club Estates in Wellington. Kasowitz sought alcohol treatment at the nearby Caron, a high-end rehab facility, according to two people who heard it from Kasowitz himself.
According to Sitrick, that winter had been difficult for Kasowitz because of the death of his father and that he had “sought out counseling” like “millions of Americans.” The spokesman did not answer directly whether Kasowitz was in rehab that winter but said he was not “at Caron in January 2015.”