When Attorney General Jeff Sessions was called in for an interview last week with the special counsel investigating Russian election interference, he turned to a friend and fellow Alabama lawyer to accompany him.
The lawyer, Chuck Cooper, worked in the Reagan Justice Department and is well-known in conservative circles for his private-practice work on social causes, such as defending a California law that banned same-sex marriage.
What Cooper isn’t known for is criminal work, a fact that surprised some white-collar criminal lawyers who questioned Sessions’ decision.
“No one — no one — should ever speak to law enforcement without a criminal defense attorney present,” said Michael Koenig, a former federal prosecutor now at Hinckley, Allen & Snyder. “It does not matter how smart, experienced, educated or innocent someone is.”
Cooper declined to comment and referred questions to the Justice Department. A department spokeswoman, Sarah Flores, said that Cooper was the only lawyer to accompany Sessions for the interview.
Cooper’s constitutional law expertise might have helped Sessions decide what questions to be answered given his multiple roles in the campaign, transition and Trump administration. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team could also have worked out ahead of time with Cooper the scope of the questions, thus limiting the risk that Sessions might be tripped up.
For Sessions, who has been adamant that he’s done nothing wrong, the optics of hiring a criminal defense lawyer might have been a consideration.
The roster of lawyers in the Russia probe has featured some unconventional choices. New York bankruptcy lawyers and religious rights litigators have taken roles once reserved for only the most experienced criminal defense lawyers in Washington. President Donald Trump’s personal legal team lacks a law firm experienced with handling criminal probes. And three central characters are sharing the same lawyer.
Still, prominent criminal lawyers underscored that forgoing a criminal defense lawyer is risky. “If it were me, I would be looking for a former prosecutor who has lots of experience with white-collar investigations,” said Peter Zeidenberg, who worked as prosecutor on the special counsel investigation into the leaking of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Cooper, now at the boutique Washington firm Cooper & Kirk, focuses on constitutional, commercial and civil rights cases. As did Sessions, he received his law degree from the University of Alabama.