The Former White House Ethics Lawyer Umpiring Trump’s Washington

Norman Eisen spent his career building up a narrow area of expertise. Now it’s in higher demand than ever.

It’s a good time to be a former White House ethics lawyer. Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama’s ethics counsel, has, as of this writing, published 74 op-eds since January, including 16 for the New York Times and ten for the Washington Post. He’s been cited in more than 28,000 news reports since President Trump’s inauguration, according to the Brookings Institution’s tally. And he appears on CNN almost every time Trump is embroiled in a legal scandal, which is to say, all the time.

In another era, a former White House ethics lawyer wouldn’t enjoy such prominence. But Trump’s Washington has created an insatiable appetite for someone who can distill complex government ethics law. Eisen has become a go-to explainer. “He’s like the unemployed referee calling fouls and penalties every single day as he sees all of the rules and norms being trampled,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a former constitutional law professor who’s known Eisen for decades.

When I showed up to his office last month to meet with Eisen, he was running late. Eventually, he swooped in to his office and apologized profusely: He’d just come from giving a radio interview. Within seconds, he bounced right out to use the restroom. By the time he returned, he was already on the phone with another journalist.

Other than being very busy, Eisen isn’t necessarily what you picture as the D.C. lawyer-type. He’ll occasionally opt for a boldly-patterned suit, and before my meeting with him, he offers me chocolate instead of the customary glass of water or coffee.

His exuberance makes him seem more fitted for the stage than the confines of a think-tank headquarters. “He could be doing something mundane, and if he engages you in a conversation, you’re in for a ride,” said Aaron Keyak, a Democratic operative and close personal friend.

Eisen is one of those D.C. figures with many titles: senior fellow at Brookings, chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group, and CNN political commentator. Now, he’s added a new title: author. Eisen has just begun promoting his new book The Last Palace, tracing the history of the ambassadorial residence in Prague.

Eisen has spent his career building a narrow expertise that now, all of a sudden, is in remarkably high demand. But expertise alone does not get you on cable television every night and a book deal with Penguin Random House. There’s a unique mix of ingredients that reporters constantly seek out in an expert. Eisen’s got the whole stew.

Eisen’s mother is a Czech Holocaust survivor, and his parents ran a hamburger stand when he was growing up. After graduating from Brown, he went to Harvard Law School, where he became friends with Barack Obama. Years later, Obama tapped him to be his chief ethics lawyer. After spending two years in the White House, the president appointed him to a cushy ambassadorial gig. As U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Eisen lived in a palace. While he was there, he became Wes Anderson’s overqualified tour guide as the director was doing research for his 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Anderson later based the film’s crusading lawyer, played by Jeff Goldblum, on Eisen.)

Eisen isn’t a politically neutral expert, and his strong opinions make him all the better for journalists seeking comment, or for op-ed editors in need of an expert take.

“It takes about 12 seconds to figure out he’s not a particular fan of Trump” said Paul Farhi, a media reporter for the Washington Post. “He’s coming at it from a point of view, but that’s actually an advantage if you want opinions—you want people with strong points of view.” For editors, it also helps that Eisen can write an informed column almost immediately after news breaks. “If Trump does something crazy, I’ll get a text from Norm and we’ve got to swing into gear with an op-ed,” said Richard Painter, a former vice-chair of CREW and frequent co-author with Eisen.

There aren’t many people with Eisen’s expertise, and that’s one reason why he’s become such a ubiquitous media presence during Trump’s presidency. Most of the people who know government ethics thoroughly and systematically work for the government, which makes them less able to comment freely. People like Eisen, former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub, and George W. Bush’s ethics counsel Painter, have all recently exited government, and are among the few experts in the field who often comment publicly.

But that’s only part of the reason reporters and producers find themselves coming back to Eisen. “He knows how to make a soundbite happen” said Darren Samuelsohn, a White House reporter for Politico. “He’ll try and say something five or six or seven different ways until he says it in the way that ends up getting into the copy of your story.”

Eisen doesn’t shy away from superlatives. He was quick to call the successive guilty verdicts for the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign chair Paul Manafort “the worst hour of Trump’s entire presidency—no, make that entire life,” phrasing that made headlines in both The Guardian and The New Yorker.

Trump’s election was an inflection point for Eisen’s career. During the campaign he sounded alarms about the candidate’s conflicts of interest, but after November 8, the media and public were all the more eager to understand the legal implications of Trump’s global business ties: The Atlantic published a Q&A with Eisen to explain blind trusts and presidential powers; Politico profiled him; he and Painter were interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. Eisen garnered even more press attention when CREW filed a lawsuit against the president over the emoluments clause three days after he was inaugurated.

Eisen’s watchdog group argued that, when Trump Tower rents office space to a state-controlled bank, or a Trump-owned hotel rents a conference room to embassy staff, the president is violating a constitutional provision that forbids public office holders from accepting gifts or emoluments from foreign states. “Before Norm ever started talking about it, who ever heard of the emoluments clause?” Keyak said. “I bet most people didn’t even know how to spell the word.”

Practically overnight, the press had to understand the arcane law on deadline. Eisen was one of the few people ready to take their calls—and actually know what he was talking about.

The public also wanted Eisen’s explanation: A MoveOn.com video of Eisen and Painter breaking down the issue got more than 2.5 million views in one week. While CREW’s suit was unsuccessful on technical grounds, two similar lawsuits against the president are proceeding.

Eisen’s rising star is part of a common Washington story. As the tides of power change, pundits, experts, and specialists get pulled along in the current. Eisen’s specific—and relatively narrow—area of expertise is in high demand right now with the president running into unprecedented ethics law issues. It’s an unusual moment in history, and one that will pass. When it does, a new set of media-darling experts will emerge.

Until then, Eisen will be ready to hop on the phone with journalists. “Reporters love when their sources call them back, and Norm calls everybody back,” Samuelsohn said.

It’s not just journalists who can reach Eisen easily. Painter says that Eisen works around the clock. He can usually get ahold of him early in the morning or late at night. The exception is between Friday evening and Saturday night, when Eisen, an Orthodox Jew, observes Shabbat.

But Eisen and Painter have a mutual understanding. “We’re afraid that instead of a Saturday night massacre, there will be a Friday night massacre,” Painter told me, referring to Richard Nixon firing Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. There are certain circumstances, he said, under which Eisen’s rabbi would let him go on CNN on the Sabbath: “If Bob Mueller gets fired, there’s an arrangement.”

Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is an editorial intern at Washington Monthly. She is a graduate of Pomona College.