The White House announced the composition of Donald Trump's defense team, as it prepares to grapple with impeachment hearings, starting in earnest on Tuesday. In this story, originally published on July 19, 2017, Haaretz profiles the president's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who was tapped Thursday to co-lead a high-profile team.
With his impassioned defense of embattled U.S. President Donald Trump, amid the constant drip of new revelations regarding his campaign’s relationship with Russia, Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, has quickly become a familiar face to viewers of the Sunday morning news shows in the United States.
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Tanned, bespectacled and nattily dressed with a red tie and a uniquely folded pocket square, Sekulow, 61, came out swinging this past Sunday, on four major news shows. He asserted firmly on all of them that Trump was not aware until “very recently” of the now-infamous June 2016 meeting between his son, son-in-law and campaign manager, and a Russian government lawyer promising to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton. Sekulow insisted that the president knows of “no other meetings” with the Russians.
But years before he was all over television screens doing battle with network hosts Sekulow was a celebrity legal warrior for conservative Christian causes. A Messianic Jew who affiliates with Jews for Jesus and has served on its national board and as its general counsel, he argued a landmark case on behalf of the group before the Supreme Court.
Sekulow went on to become chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. The lawyer’s comfort during his recent pro-Trump media appearances reflects the fact that he has hosted a radio show called “Jay Sekulow Live!” and is a frequent commentator on law and civil liberties.
In addition to cases involving freedom of religious expression, he also is involved in a case in which he is defending a host of right-wing pro-Israel groups. He is representing the Gush Etzion Foundation, one of over a dozen defendants, in al-Tamimi vs. Adelson – a 2016 lawsuit brought by Palestinian activist Bassem al-Tamimi and others. The latter contend that the defendants, a group of U.S. nonprofits, philanthropists and corporations led by American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, are guilty of war crimes against Palestinians, among other accusations.
Sekulow’s co-counsel in the case is Marc Zell, co-chair of Republicans Abroad Israel, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.
Sekulow discussed the case at the Ambassadors Against BDS International Summit in March at United Nations headquarters, where he introduced himself as “the grandson of a fruit peddler from Brooklyn, New York, who came to the United States from Russia.”
He said he had been brought into the Tamimi case by Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon because “the folks in Gush Etzion” (a cluster of settlements located in the Judean Hills, south of Jerusalem) needed a “tough” lawyer. “I like being a tough lawyer,” he declared. “And when you know the story of Gush Etzion, it brings out the toughest part of who you are.”
Sekulow penned a personal account of his spiritual path on the Jews for Jesus website in 2005, titled “How a Jewish Lawyer From Brooklyn Came to Believe in Jesus.”
He wrote there that he was raised as a Reform Jew on Long Island and later moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he had his bar mitzvah. As an undergraduate at Atlanta Baptist College, he said he had been determined in a mandatory Bible class to “outsmart” the Christians and prove Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, but soon developed “genuine curiosity” and made an “intellectual” decision that this was the proper interpretation of the Bible.
“I’d always thought my cultural Judaism was sufficient, but in the course of studying about the Messiah who would die as a sin bearer, I realized that I needed a messiah to do that for me. When I concluded that Jesus was that Messiah, I was grateful,” he wrote on the website.
Later, he found fellow travellers in the Jews for Jesus organization.
Early in his legal career Sekulow joined the group’s board of directors, and then, he noted, “I thought more and more about using my legal skills to serve God. In 1986 I became the Jews for Jesus general legal counsel."
It was in that capacity that he successfully argued his first Supreme Court case in 1987, contending that a Los Angeles International Airport ban on the group handing out pamphlets constituted a ban on "First Amendment activities," and violated the organization’s right to free speech.
In 1992, Sekulow moved to Robertson’s ACLJ, an organization that takes on cases involving evangelical and Christian rights. It also spearheaded the legal effort to stop the building of a mosque at Ground Zero in New York City.
However, Sekulow’s financial success while working for nonprofits that back his numerous high-profile legal activities have raised eyebrows. When Donald Trump hired him as his personal attorney, the liberal blog Think Progress described the lawyer as “fantastically, opulently, obnoxiously rich. And, much like his most famous client, Sekulow got that way through an elaborate web of business ventures, family-led operations, and media savvy.”
An extensive 2005 investigation in Legal Times detailed how Sekulow, thanks to “a string of interconnected nonprofit and for-profit entities, has built a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle – complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet.”
A 2011 article in USA Today reported that Sekulow served as the principal officer of both the ACLJ and another group he founded called Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, whose structure has been criticized by charity watchdog organizations that point the finger at practices that seem to be disproportionately bankrolling his family.
According to the article: “Since 1998, the two charities have paid out more than $33 million to members of Sekulow’s family and businesses they own or co-own, according to the charities’ federal tax returns. One of the charities is controlled by the Sekulow family — tax documents show that all four of CASE’s board members are Sekulows and another is an officer.”
The same story quoted numerous Sekulow friends and supporters defending him, saying he was “a humble man dedicated to the Christian cause.”