Attorney Jay Sekulow came out swinging when he debuted as the new public face of President Donald Trump’s legal team on the Sunday news shows.
It was not an entirely auspicious start.
He told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on June 18 that media reports of the president being under investigation for obstruction of justice were false.
Then, in a testy back-and-forth with Wallace, Sekulow, in the course of defending one of the president’s tweets, seemed to confirm the president was under investigation. When Wallace pointed out the contradiction, Sekulow protested he had not said that Trump was under investigation and again maintained the legal team has been notified of no such investigation.
The clip of the exchange went viral.
At first glance, Sekulow, 61, is an usual choice for the president’s legal team. He is known mostly for his work for evangelical Christian organizations to lower the First Amendment barrier between religion and state. He is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy organization started by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1990 as a counterbalance to the American Civil Liberties Union. He doesn’t have experience in defending politicians or white-collar crime.
Trump has retained legal counsel, led by his longtime personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, in the ongoing investigation into ties between his presidential campaign and Russian officials. According to media reports, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is weighing whether the president obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey, who had been leading the Russia investigation.
Neither Sekulow nor ACLJ responded to requests to be interviewed for this article.
Sekulow is articulate and not easily ruffled, said Susan Perlman, a former coworker of Sekulow and co-founder of Jews for Jesus, an evengelical Christian organization that welcomes Jews who believe Jesus was the messiah. Sekulow was general counsel there in the late 1980s.
Perlman imagined those traits were appealing to the president in a lawyer.
“I feel like he’s a good attorney. He’s someone who has done a lot not just for rights for Jews for Jesus, but for rights for all [those who are] religious,” she said. “He’s always been an advocate for the underdog.”
“I’ve only seen him on Fox News, and he seems very smart and articulate,” said Carol Greenwald, a Chevy Chase resident and a founder of Jews Choose Trump. “I’m glad he’s on the team. [But] I think the whole thing that Trump even needs Mr. Sekulow is ridiculous.”
Sekulow is not new to the Beltway, however. He was part of a team that advised President George W. Bush on choosing Supreme Court justices, as well as on a team that advised 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
In recent years, he has become well known in Christian Right circles for his syndicated talk show, which reaches about one million listeners, and as a frequent contributor to both Fox News and Robertson’s “700 Club.”
Sekulow’s career has intertwined with his religious beliefs in Jesus as the Jewish messiah.
He was raised in a “very Reform” Jewish family, first in Long Island and then Atlanta, according to his firsthand account on the Jews for Jesus site. Sekulow attended Atlanta Baptist College (now Mercer University) and, at the urging of a friend, started reading the Bible.
“As I read, my suspicion that Jesus might really be the messiah was confirmed,” Sekulow wrote.
After a brief stint as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, Sekulow started an ill-fated private practice in Atlanta in the 1980s. (He filed for bankruptcy protection in 1987.)
Meanwhile, he joined Jews for Jesus.
His first case before the Supreme Court came also in 1987, representing Jews for Jesus in a suit against a statute that prohibited members from distributing leaflets at Los Angeles International Airport. He won that case 9-0.
The majority of cases he worked on with the organization related to the First Amendment, Perlman said, particularly defending the right of the group to proselytize on college campuses.
His time with Jews for Jesus set Sekulow up as an emerging defender in evangelical Christian circles, and Sekulow formed CASE (Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism), which is now affiliated with, but still separate from, the ACLJ.
A 2005 Legal Times article criticized Sekulow’s “lavish lifestyle,” which it said was funded from the various nonprofit and for-profit entities he was a part of while also employing several members of his family. The Guardian published similar allegations Tuesday, saying members of his family and businesses they own have been paid more than $60 million by CASE and ACLJ since 2000.
In both cases, supporters and spokespeople — including Sekulow himself — contend that all payments are above board and reflect the important work of the organizations.
Now Sekulow, the loyal defender of the president on his radio show, has been elevated to legal defender.