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Ex-Big Law Attorney’s Trump Role Brings Risk, Possible Reward

Sept. 28, 2022, 9:30 AMUpdated: Sept. 28, 2022, 2:36 PM

Christopher Kise is taking a risk in representing Donald Trump in the Mar-a-Lago documents case—one that could give him new career opportunities, even in the White House, or foreclose others.

On the reward side, success would burnish Kise’s reputation in Republican circles and possibly open the door to an appointment in a Republican presidential administration, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor.

On the risk side, Trump helpers have gone unpaid, been attacked publicly by the former president, or exposed themselves to criminal or professional sanctions, leaving their reputations and career prospects in tatters.

Kise’s role with Trump is “a big risk, big reward” proposition, Jewett said. “The road is littered with people who’ve gone to work for President Trump.”

The risk side emerged Tuesday when CNN reported, citing two people familiar with the matter, that Kise has been sidelined from the documents case.

Kise denied the report. “Ridiculous,” he said in an email. “This is simply fake news.” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich also denied it. “Chris Kise’s role as an important member of President Trump’s legal team remains unchanged,” Budowich said in an email.

Kise, 57, has seemed prepared to navigate Trump World after successfully counseling three Florida governors and showing a keen sense for political theater. He had released incriminating documents about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum two weeks before a 2018 election Ron DeSantis narrowly won.

Kise also had managed to secure a $3 million advance payment from the former president’s Save America PAC, Politico reported Sept. 15, citing three people familiar with the matter.

Lifetime Opportunity

People who know Kise said that in taking Trump’s case he couldn’t resist the lure of the high profile—and important—public matter.

A matter involving the FBI seizure of documents from a former president’s home is precedent-setting, said Gregory Coleman, a Critton Luttier Coleman partner and Kise ally.

“From the perspective of someone that’s really attracted to difficult cases that are going to have real meaning going forward, this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Coleman said.

Complex cases like the Trump dispute are Kise’s specialty, said Rusty Hardin, a well-known Houston lawyer who worked with Kise on bankruptcy matters. Hardin recently defended Deshaun Watson of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns against a series of sexual assault allegations. Kise can “make a lot of moving parts work together,” Hardin said.

As Florida’s solicitor general, Kise helped to successfully defend claims that Tenet Healthcare Corp. inflated hospital charges to increase Medicare reimbursements. He won three cases he argued at the US Supreme Court, all on matters tied to criminal convictions in the state.

At Foley & Lardner, the Big Law firm he left to go to work for Trump, Kise represented International Oil Trading Co. in a bankruptcy and the state of Florida in a fight with Georgia over water rights. He won a fourth high court case defending an oilfield services company in a patent infringement dispute.

Leaving Foley, with that firm’s lucrative business and comfortable lifestyle it provided, was a sacrifice, said Brian Ballard, a Republican lobbyist and Kise friend.

“There’s a lot of—in Chris’s mind—public service to this,” Ballard said. It was an opportunity for “serving a former president on a very important legal question that has huge political overtones.”

Return Trip?

It’s unclear whether Foley & Lardner would want to take Kise back—if he wants that as a future option. The firm didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Some top Trump administration lawyers returned to Big Law jobs after their service—Jones Day’s Don McGahn, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s Eugene Scalia, and Holland & Knight’s Jason Klitenic among them. Others had a harder time finding new jobs.

Lawyers who worked for Trump have been more difficult to place in AmLaw 200 firms than those who served in previous presidential administrations, said Lauren Drake, a partner at search firm Macrae.

“It’s pretty clear that lateral candidates with a close association with Trump are still problematic for many top law firms,” she said in an email.

Some lawyers who worked for Trump have had to endure ongoing scrutiny.

Cleta Mitchell, a colleague of Kise’s at Foley & Lardner, left in January 2021 after it was revealed she was on a phone call on which Trump asked the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” enough votes to turn the state’s election in his favor. Mitchell was subpoenaed in July to testify before a Fulton County, Georgia grand jury investigating attempts by Trump and his supporters to change the 2020 election result, according to court records.

Jeffrey Clark, who left a Kirkland & Ellis partnership to work in the Justice Department under Trump, is under scrutiny for encouraging the department to send Georgia state lawmakers a letter claiming it had “significant concerns” about election fraud. The DC Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel alleges that Clark violated rules that govern the conduct of licensed attorneys with the false claims.

Jan Jacobowitz, a legal ethics consultant, said she doesn’t see Kise being “shunned” if he wants to go back to private practice because his Trump case wasn’t about overturning an election.

“This is very high-level legal work and he’s a highly-credentialed lawyer,” she said.

Political Connections

Kise also has political connections—beyond Trump—to rely on if he wants.

In 2002, Florida Attorney General-elect Charlie Crist named him solicitor general. Four years later, when Crist was elected governor, he named Kise to his transition team and then as his chief legal and policy adviser.

In 2010, another Florida governor-elect came calling. This time it was Republican Rick Scott, who asked Kise to help with his transition. Governor-elect DeSantis made the same request in 2018.

“I don’t think people truly understand the extent to which these governors over the years relied heavily upon Chris’s advice,” Coleman said.

It was two weeks before the DeSantis election that Kise began releasing hundreds of emails, text messages, and other documents related to a state ethics investigation of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gillum. The documents revealed that Gillum accepted several gifts from an undercover FBI agent posing as an Atlanta developer.

Kise contended at the time that the releases were meant to exculpate his client, Tallahassee lobbyist and former Gillum confidant Adam Corey, from Gillum’s ethics troubles.

With more than 8.2 million votes in the 2018 election, DeSantis won by just more than 32,000 votes. The US Justice Department in June charged Gillum with wire fraud.

“It could have been both in his client’s best interest and smart politics” for Kise to release the Gillum documents, said John Thomas, a Republican political consultant and strategist.

“I would also argue the same thing with Trump’s legal challenges,” Thomas said. “The law is the dominant consideration there, but one would be naïve and foolish not to want counsel who understands the political ramifications.”

(Adds Kise, Trump spokesman comments in sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiana Headley at theadley@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com