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Donald Trump hasn’t surrendered to authorities yet. But his lawyers are already fighting — with themselves.
Days after the former president’s indictment at the hands of Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg, some of Trump’s lawyers are taking aim at Joe Tacopina, his co-lead defense attorney in the Bragg case.
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A source familiar with the matter and another person close to Trump tell Rolling Stone that a number of Trump’s other current lawyers have privately described Tacopina as “dumb” and a “loudmouth.”
Tacopina is no stranger to made-for-tabloid drama: He has a lengthy track record of repping high-profile clients, such as Meek Mill and baseball legend Alex Rodriguez, as well as securing hard-to-land wins. But he’s also had some equally high-profile flameouts, including an acrimonious parting with his ex-client, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik.
In recent days, as a Trump attorney, Tacopina has also become a more and more familiar face on cable television — and not always to the ex-president’s benefit. During a recent appearance on Ari Melber’s The Beat, for example, Tacopina tried to grab a piece of paper held by the MSNBC host during the heated exchange. Tacopina also defended Trump’s denial of paying off porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair, albeit in a somewhat unique way: Insisting that the denial wasn’t a lie as it wasn’t made under oath.
“A lie to me is something material, under oath, in a proceeding,” Tacopina said. Melber explained that he wasn’t asking whether Trump perjured himself, just if the statements were true or false. Tacopina said: “It’s not a lie because it was a confidential settlement. So if he acknowledged that he would be violating the confidential settlement.”
And some five years before Tacopina represented Trump, he said on CNN that, if the facts in the hush money scandal were as Daniels described, he thought the alleged payoff could be considered an in-kind campaign contribution, meaning it would have needed to be disclosed on campaign finance forms, which it was not. This omission could well be at the crux of Bragg’s attempt to get Trump on a felony charge.
Framing his comment as a hypothetical, Tacopina said on CNN at the time it could be legally risky for Trump, “because this could be looked as an in-kind contribution at the time of the election. This is a real problem. And they both, and I’m telling you this, the reason we’re here I strongly believe is because of the words of both Michael Cohen and Donald Trump.” Tacopina has since called the Daniels’ payment “plain extortion” and argued it wasn’t a problem with campaign finance law.
Tacopina tells Rolling Stone that he did not change his mind. Instead, he says, his previous comments were qualified as a hypothetical, whereas his current opinion follows having learned the case’s facts. “It was a hypothetical question asked by a T.V. host and I answered by twice qualifying my answer with ‘if those are in fact the facts!!’,” Tacopina says.
The two sources say some of Trump’s lawyers and advisers have warned the ex-president that he should be careful with Tacopina, and that he cannot trust the attorney’s loyalty.
“He pisses off others with his antics, but he’s a blunt object that Donald Trump wants, apparently,” says one of the sources.
A third source familiar with the matter calls Tacopina “such a frickin’ idiot.”
The acrimony could forecast trouble for Trump, as he faces legal battles on multiple fronts. While the former president is well-known for tolerating — even encouraging — some fighting between advisers, it doesn’t help Trump to have some of his lawyers engaged in back-biting, rather than cooperating with each other on the common goal of their client’s defense.
Tacopina criticized his critics for being anonymous, and he attributed their criticism to jealousy. “When anonymous sources make comments criticizing others it reveals jealousy and cowardice. Anyone who takes a look at my track record of trial success and the results I have achieved for my clients couldn’t seriously criticize my work or my intelligence,” he says in a statement to Rolling Stone.
“My results are documented and if you truly wanted to do an honest and thorough story you would speak to the clients I served over the years instead of printing false allegations from ‘unnamed sources’ who are jealous that they haven’t been chosen in this case or the other many high profile cases I have had. The story loses journalistic value and calls into question the integrity of the story and the credibility of the so-called anonymous sources,” he added.
Asked for comment on the infighting, a Trump spokesman replied: “President Trump has the strongest legal team at his disposal as he fights against the radical Manhattan DA and other woke Democrats who are weaponizing the Justice system to persecute the leading Republican candidate for president.”
Some of the tension is playing out publicly. Asked on CNN Friday whether Tacopina is the right lawyer to defend Trump in Manhattan, Trump attorney Tim Parlatore said Tacopina had “potential conflict issues given his prior contacts with Stormy Daniels.” Daniels and Tacopina allegedly communicated around 2018 about her purported sexual encounter with Trump, when she was looking for legal representation. Their communications were turned over to Bragg’s office, according to CNN.
Asked again, directly, if he thought Tacopina is up to the job of defending Trump, Parlatore replied: “I’m not going to comment on Joe Tacopina.”
Parlatore, who now represents former President Trump in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, instead on CNN praised Susan Necheles, Tacopina’s co-counsel on the Bragg case. And others tell Rolling Stone the Necheles-Tacopina team provides a strong combination of skills: Necheles excels with the intellectual aspects of criminal law, while Tacopina knows how to woo jurors.
“Susan’s job is to understand the law, the legalities, the law in the case, and Tacopina’s sole purpose is to speak to the jury in a manner that they can understand,” one source says. The source also says of Tacopina: “This is not a legal scholar. This is somebody who speaks to a jury, to the lowest common denominator. … That’s not necessarily a bad thing — not many lawyers are capable of speaking to the common man.”
Tacopina successfully defended former NYPD police officer Kenneth Moreno in a rape case and obtained an acquittal for actor Lillo Brancato for allegedly killing a police officer, according to the New York Post. He’s an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop and also owns a professional soccer club, S.P.A.L., based in Ferrara, Italy.
Ron Kuby, a veteran criminal defense attorney, says “Joe first became well known in New York for his defense of brutal … cops. So I guess representing Trump isn’t much of a movement away from that.” However, Kuby feels that a Necheles-Tacopina team could work well. “It’s a good team, as teams go. Necheles has a reputation of being a very smart and careful litigator and Joe has a reputation of [being] a brawler, so it’s not a bad combo.”
Necheles criticized allegations of internal discord and praised Tacopina. “Joe and I are both committed to a total defense of President Trump and are working hand in hand. This kind of gossip is a distraction and unnecessary drama,” Necheles says. “Joe is a committed, hard-fighting attorney who’s a formidable adversary in court.”
So formidable is Tacopina’s reputation that a GQ profile, which ran when Tacopina was representing Joran van der Sloot in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, was titled “1-800-Save-My-Ass.”
Tacopina’s “brawler” reputation, however, is also well-earned, as his career is full of controversy — some which put him at odds with familiar players in Trump’s subsequent legal troubles.
Parlatore and Tacopina have a history. Tacopina represented Kerik in 2006 when the former commissioner pleaded guilty to charges in a Bronx court that he had illegally accepted gifts while working as New York’s jails boss and that he didn’t report a loan on financial disclosure documents. In 2014, Kerik sued Tacopina, challenging the attorney’s legal representation and alleging racketeering and defamation. Tacopina denied the claims and filed a defamation lawsuit against Kerik. Kerik’s suit was dismissed by a federal judge, and Tacopina’s defamation suit was dropped.
Parlatore was a member of Kerik’s legal team for Kerik’s lawsuit against Tacopina, and Tacopina also sued Parlatore for defamation. The case was subsequently dismissed.
Some members of New York City’s legal world described Tacopina as a dogged advocate. “He’s a dedicated defense attorney and he is not afraid of a fight,” says Stacey Richman, a veteran defense attorney whose high-profile clients have included the late rapper DMX. Richman similarly described Necheles in positive terms. “She’s erudite, and she’s dedicated,” Richman says. “She’s tenacious, and she will give a client her all.”
But Tacopina is known for frequent TV appearances where rhetoric can not only get heated but take an odd turn. On Friday morning, Tacopina said on CBS that former Manhattan prosecutor Mark Pomerantz’s tell-all book clearly showed this to be a political prosecution. “What he said was they had Donald Trump, they despised and loathed him, and he was looking for a crime to fit the person,” Tacopina said. “That’s Nazi-Germany era. That’s communist China, Soviet Union. We do not do that in this country. We do not go after people we don’t like and try to find a crime.”
Televised takes might not land well with the presiding judge, Justice Juan Merchan, Kuby says. “The other problem he may have is Judge Merchan may well remind the lawyers about the ethical prohibitions on extrajudicial comments. I don’t think he’ll impose a gag order next week, but he may well remind everyone that there are whole categories of commentary that are presumed to jeopardize a right to a fair trial — and one of those categories is commenting on the credibility of witnesses.”
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