Trump lawyer may be edging closer to disqualification from hush-money case for conflict of interest

Attorney Joe Tacopina may be edging closer to getting disqualified from representing Donald Trump in the case about the former president’s alleged role in a scheme to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The basis for removing Tacopina from Trump’s defense team is an apparent conflict of interest. It stems from the fact that Daniels consulted with Tacopina in 2018 about representing her in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the non-disclosure agreement she had signed days before the 2016 presidential election not to talk about an “intimate relationship” she had with Trump in 2006-2007.  The Wall Street Journal had already broken the story about the hush money payment in January 2018. 

On Tuesday, MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Rubin reported that the judge presiding over Trump's criminal case had ordered Tacopina to turn over his communications with Daniels and disclose what information from Daniels he has shared with Trump.

RELATED STORY: The judge went too easy on Trump's lawyer in E. Jean Carroll case

NEW: The judge presiding over Trump's criminal case has ordered Joe Tacopina to turn over his communications with Stormy Daniels & disclose what information from Daniels he has shared with Trump.

— Lisa Rubin (@lawofruby) May 2, 2023

Rubin cited a story on the website that said Judge Juan Merchan will scrutinize the material handed over by Tacopina to determine whether Trump’s criminal defense attorney “is conflicted out” of the case. Here is a copy of the April 28 order issued by Merchan to Tacopina:

NEW: Judge will examine if Joe Tacopina, Donald Trump's criminal defense attorney, is conflicted out of the @ManhattanDA's hush-money case, ordering the attorney to turn over records related to his past interactions with Stormy Daniels. @Law360

— Frank G. Runyeon (@frankrunyeon) May 1, 2023

Merchan was responding to a request made in mid-April by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that the judge order Tacopina to open up his law firm’s files on Daniels for the court’s scrutiny.

On March 22, about a week before Trump’s indictment was announced, Daniels’ lawyer Clark Brewster turned over to Bragg’s office records of communications between the adult film star and Tacopina. Brewster said he believed the communications show a disclosure of confidential  information from Daniels. Brewster raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest on Tacopina’s part in a letter a day before Trump’s April 4 arraignment.

In his order, Merchan gave Tacopina until May 15 to provide the requested records. He said any in-person inquiry, if necessary, would be delayed until the completion of the civil trial in federal court in which writer E. Jean Carroll is seeking damages from Trump for defamation and rape. Tacopina is defending Trump in that case.  

Back in 2018, Tacopina avoided a question from CNN host Don Lemon by suggesting that he may have attorney-client obligations with Daniels, according to the Law & Crime website. Tacopina said: “I can’t really talk about my impressions or any conversations we had because there is an attorney-client privilege that attaches even to a consultation.”

But at Trump’s April 4 arraignment, Tacopina backtracked and told Merchan: “We refused the case. I did not offer her representation. Didn’t speak to her. Didn’t meet with her. And it is as simple as that.”

However, Law & Crime noted that prosecutors in Bragg’s office cited Daniels’ book “Full Disclosure,” in which she described her brief interactions with Tacopina—before she decided to retain attorney Michael Avenatti—in an unflattering light. Avenatti is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for defrauding Daniels and other clients.

“She writes that before retaining Mr. Avenatti, she spoke with a ‘very high-powered lawyer’ who seemed to take her call just for the curiosity factor, dragged it out for a couple of weeks and didn’t seem to share her passion, so she ended it,” prosecutors summarized. “She wrote that she was ‘anxious that this guy now knew my story and my strategy for confronting (Michael) Cohen and Trump.'”

And what’s even more remarkable is that as a legal commentator for CNN back in 2018, Tacopina speculated that Trump had an affair with Daniels, and that he would have advised Trump to admit to the affair and move on. He also said the hush money payoff could put Trump in legal jeopardy because it could be looked on as an in-kind campaign contribution at the time of the election.

Tacopina also said Trump deserved to be impeached. He told WABC radio in February 2021 that Trump incited his supporters—whom he called “a bunch of idiots” and “lunatics”—to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “I don’t think he did anything criminal,” Tacopina said on WABC in February 2021 when discussing the Capitol assault. “Did I think he did something impeachable? Yes, I do.”

But now, acting as Trump’s defense attorney, Tacopina is singing a different tune. He called the payment to Daniels “plain extortion” on her part, dismissed potential campaign finance violations, and repeated Trump’s denials that he ever had the affair.

“This was a plain extortion. And I don’t know, since when we’ve decided to start prosecuting extortion victims. He’s denied, vehemently denied, this affair,” Tacopina said on “Good Morning America.”.“But he had to pay money because there was going to be an allegation that was gonna be publicly embarrassing to him, regardless of the campaign. And the campaign finance laws are very, very clear, George, that you cannot have something that’s even primarily related to the campaign to be considered campaign finance law.”

Actually, all things considered, it might not be the worst thing for Trump if Tacopina gets disqualified from his legal team for the hush money criminal case. Just look at the bad reviews Tacopina has received defending Trump in the defamation and civil rape trial brought against the former president by E. Jean Carroll. 

Here’s what Salon wrote after Tacopina’s cross-examination of Carroll:

The common wisdom in the post-#MeToo era is that bullying an alleged rape victim is a bad look. So many legal experts were surprised when Donald Trump's defense attorney Joe Tacopino tore in E. Jean Carroll on the witness stand Thursday, during a defamation and rape civil trial of the former reality TV host-turned-fascist coup leader. There wasn't a misogynist rape myth that Tacopino left untouched. His browbeating got so bad that Judge Lewis Kaplan was forced to repeatedly interrupt and reprimand Tacopino.

"Tacopina was derisive, derogatory and dismissive," former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner wrote at the Daily Beast.

"Not exactly the impression Team Trump wanted the jury to be left with on the way home," defense attorney Robert Katzberg wrote at Slate.  

Tacopino fell "into this other trap," former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said on MSNBC on Saturday, "of putting the jury on her side and willing to listen to her testimony."

RELATED STORY: Trump's lawyer in defamation case leans on Samuel Alito's tired, misogynistic playbook