WASHINGTON, DC – Pat Cipollone doesn’t seem like Donald Trump’s kind of fixer.
His manner is unassuming. He hasn’t spent much time playing a lawyer in court or on TV.
But the president has turned to Cipollone, his White House counsel, when it matters most — to lead his defense in his impeachment trial.
Cipollone, 53, spent most of his career in commercial litigation and doesn’t have extensive experience with trials. The son of Italian immigrants, devout Catholic and father of 10 is more likely to be caught on the edge of a camera’s frame than behind the mic.
“He's the strong, silent type,” Trump said of Cipollone at a recent White House event marking the 150th judicial appointment of his presidency. The White House declined to make Cipollone as well as other administration officials available to comment for this story.
In correspondence with House Democrats during the impeachment saga, Cipollone has shown a knack for channeling the president’s provocative rhetoric.
Cipollone (pronounced SIP-uh-loan-ee) has forcefully defended Trump’s right to executive privilege and argued that congressional investigators have no right to question White House advisers about conversations with the president on withholding military aid from Ukraine. Democrats say Trump withheld the aid to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
One former GOP congressional attorney was so taken aback by the over-the-top tone of an eight-page letter that Cipollone sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October that he described the approach as “bananas.” In the letter, Cipollone flatly refused to allow White House cooperation with the House impeachment probe.
Other critics say the letter deepened Democrats' case that Trump had committed an abuse of power and obstructed justice in his pursuit of dirt on Biden.
“Pat’s approach has essentially led to Article 2 (obstruction of justice) of the articles of impeachment,” said Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel during the Obama administration and briefly worked with Cipollone at a law firm. “I suspect his style is driven by his client.”
But Cipollone’s backers counter that he’s proven a capable defender of Trump’s view on executive power.
“Pat Cipollone will be defending executive power from time to time during the Senate proceedings, which will be swimming upstream from certain segments of the media,” said Leonard Leo, a conservative attorney who has consulted with the Trump administration on judicial nominations and was among those who recommended Cipollone for the White House counsel post.
“He has the courage and determination to make those points and not be cowed by whatever criticism there might be," Leo said. "Those are the kind of attributes that brought him to the job. Those are the things that mattered to me when asked what I thought of him.”
Yet, tapping the unassuming Cipollone is in some ways a departure for Trump, who over the years has turned to a series of flashy lawyers to help him get out of legal jams.
Roy Cohn, of McCarthy-era infamy, fought the Justice Department on fair housing discrimination charges lodged against the Trump Organization in the 1970s. Michael Cohen, now serving a federal prison sentence for financial crimes committed while working on behalf of Trump, was an explosive defender of Trump and bought the silence of women who claimed that they once had affairs with the president.
And Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor now serving as Trump’s outside legal counsel, sought damaging material on Biden from Ukrainian officials and expatriates. Democrats pointed to Giuliani’s efforts as they made their case to impeach Trump.
Cipollone has been involved in plenty of high-profile cases in private practice, building a career around complex litigation. He was among the lawyers who sued credit reporting company Equifax in 2017 on behalf of consumers affected by a massive data breach. In 2015, he brought a lawsuit against the drug store chain CVS for overcharging insurers for generic pharmaceuticals.
Also while in private practice, he oversaw a team of lawyers defending “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student featured in a 2014 Rolling Stone article that was later retracted. Jackie had claimed she was the victim of a gang rape at a fraternity house.
Early in his career, Cipollone worked with Attorney General William Barr during the George H.W. Bush administration. Barr was appointed by Trump last year to again serve as attorney general, soon after Cipollone was tapped to be White House counsel.
Trump has also chosen Jay Sekulow, a Trump personal attorney, to have a major role on his defense team. Sekulow has argued before the Supreme Court at least a dozen times and represented the president during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump hasn’t ruled out adding to the team Harvard University constitutional law scholar Alan Dershowitz, who has regularly advised Trump during his presidency.
Cipollone's friends and colleagues say he has already proven himself a legally sharp and politically astute counsel to the president throughout the impeachment probe.
“He has the legal skills, but he also understands the political ramifications of the proceedings and the decisions that are made on the floor,” Sekulow said. “He gets it.”
Dershowitz said Cipollone "brings great judgment and lawyerly skills to the defense of President Trump. He’s very calibrated, very low-keyed and has excellent judgment. It’s exactly what’s needed.”
Trump critics have labeled Cipollone a Trump sycophant whose advocacy for an expansive view of executive authority is at odds with the Constitution. He faced an avalanche of criticism after the October letter to Pelosi, in which he argued that the impeachment inquiry “lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation.”
Twenty-one of Cipollone's classmates from his 1991 graduating class at the University of Chicago responded with an open letter accusing him of flouting the “traditions of intellectual honesty or rigor” taught at their alma mater.
Gregg Nunziata, a former attorney for Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the letter as “bananas” and a “barely-lawyered temper tantrum.” George Conway, a lawyer married to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, called it “hackery” that “disgraces the profession.”
Cipollone entered the president’s orbit through Leo, the conservative legal advocate, and Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham. She has described Cipollone as her spiritual godfather as she converted to Catholicism.
Leo and Cipollone have worked together at influential Washington-based Catholic organizations, including as founders of National Catholic Prayer Breakfast and on the board of the Catholic Information Center. The latter group calls itself an “intellectual hub” of Catholic thinkers and is affiliated with the ultraconservative order Opus Dei.
In her book “Power to the People,” Ingraham recalled Cipollone giving her a pep talk and encouraging her to lean on her faith as she battled breast cancer.
“I understood why he had the reputation as one of the top litigators in Washington legal circles--he could give one heck of a closing argument,” Ingraham wrote.
Melanie Sloan, an attorney with the liberal group American Oversight who attended law school with Cipollone, said they agree on little politically. But Sloan called him a person of integrity and generosity.
Sloan reconnected with Cipollone a few years ago, when she called him to ask for assistance on a legal matter and he was eager to help. She called to congratulate Cipollone not long after Trump picked him to serve as his White House counsel. Sloan said she told Cipollone that she was surprised that he would want to take a job with Trump, someone she saw as out-of-step with Cipollone’s character.
“He told me that he saw the president differently than I did,” Sloan recalled.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.