‘Isn’t That the Trump Lawyer?’: A Reporter’s Accidental Scoop

“Isn’t that the Trump lawyer?” he asked. I turned slightly in my chair and noticed the unmistakable visage of Ty Cobb, the veteran Washington lawyer with a prominent handlebar mustache, who was accompanied by another man I did not immediately recognize. Mr. Cobb had been retained by the White House in July to coordinate its response to investigations into Russia’s connections with President Trump and his associates, including whether they conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election. My source and I continued chatting as our lunches arrived, even as I periodically strained to hear Mr. Cobb’s conversation with his dining companion, apologizing to my source for seeming more interested in the conversation at the adjacent table than our own. Eventually, he took mercy on me, excusing himself not long after he polished off his crab gazpacho and Caesar salad, and leaving me to focus completely on Mr. Cobb’s conversation, except for a brief and unwitting interruption from a pair of fellow Times journalists passing on the sidewalk on their way to the bureau. I tried to hustle them along when they paused to gently rib me over what must have appeared to be a lonely solo lunch. The interaction didn’t seem to trigger concern from Mr. Cobb and his dining partner. To my astonishment, they were in the midst of a detailed discussion of the Russia investigations being conducted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and various congressional committees, as well as the strategy of Mr. Trump’s team for responding. They were in a public place where they could have been overheard by anyone. I just happened to be a reporter, and I did not misrepresent myself, so I figured their conversation was fair game. I ordered another iced tea, pulled out my phone and began typing out notes, hoping that they would assume I was merely responding to emails, tweeting or surfing the internet. I did not record the conversation, but during a lull in their conversation, I did surreptitiously snap a photo of the pair, emailing it to my colleagues in the Times’ Washington bureau who were covering the Russia investigation, in an effort to identify Mr. Cobb’s dining companion. “Ty Cobb having a very revealing convo at blt steak right now on patio w someone I don’t recognize,” I wrote. “Can’t tell for sure but looks like John Dowd,” one responded, referring to John M. Dowd, the president’s lead outside attorney in the Russia investigations. “That’s him,” another confirmed. I ordered yet another iced tea, and continued typing away, as Mr. Cobb and Mr. Dowd delved deeper, not paying me any mind. They discussed presidential privilege and its effect on document production, tensions on the legal team and their colleagues. Mr. Cobb suggested one colleague was not on the president’s good side, but added, “I’m trying to get the president not to pick a fight with her.” Finally, after more than 45 minutes of my assiduously listening to their conversation by myself, Mr. Cobb picked up the check and announced to Mr. Dowd, “All right, boss, I got to roll back to my little hole. I’ve got like a seven and a half foot ceiling … Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t stand up in it.” I let the pair leave before me, then hurried back to the office to write a memo for my colleagues summarizing what I’d heard. This overheard conversation, they agreed, had the makings of an interesting story revealing a potentially significant debate within Mr. Trump’s legal team about how to respond to these investigations consuming the Trump presidency. An editor consulted a Times lawyer, who said the conversation was indeed fair game and could be the basis for other reporting. So we began contacting people close to the legal team who confirmed that, yes, in fact there was a real divide between Mr. Cobb and the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, about document production strategy. And, yes, there was friction between Mr. Cobb and Mr. McGahn. That friction was exacerbated, we learned, when word of Mr. Cobb’s overheard lunch conversation reached Mr. McGahn, who chastised Mr. Cobb for his carelessness with sensitive information. The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, also reprimanded Mr. Cobb for his indiscretion. In an interview with the Times, Mr. Cobb sought to defuse the situation, praising Mr. McGahn, but acknowledging that he and Mr. McGahn are approaching the response to the investigation differently. The resulting story, published Sunday evening, led an editor at The Washington Post to write “It is every Washington reporter’s dream to sit down at a restaurant, overhear secret stuff and get a scoop.” It was certainly enough to keep my ears perked at lunch. Continue reading the main story
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