WASHINGTON — Jay Sekulow is a real lawyer, and he plays one on TV.
Mr. Sekulow, the coordinator of President Trump’s personal legal team, does not have an office in the White House. He is best known as a prodigious fund-raiser on evangelical television and a litigator for the Christian right, not for handling criminal prosecutions or executive power disputes. In 2016, Mr. Sekulow said he voted for Hillary Clinton, according to people close to him.
Yet with the House Judiciary Committee set to begin impeachment hearings on Wednesday and Mr. Trump enmeshed in legal battles on other fronts — like his tax returns, claims of immunity from prosecution and elements of his immigration and health care policies — Mr. Sekulow has emerged as one of Mr. Trump’s most trusted advisers and loyal defenders in the news media.
Operating under the name Constitutional Litigation & Advocacy Group from a co-working space in a Pennsylvania Avenue office building, Mr. Sekulow, 63, coordinates the efforts of eight outside lawyers enlisted to help Mr. Trump. He is in regular touch with the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and speaks frequently with the president.
A long list of lawyers have cycled tumultuously in and out of Mr. Trump’s orbit over the past three years: Donald F. McGahn II, his first White House counsel; Ty Cobb and John M. Dowd, who represented him in the early stages of the special counsel’s investigation; and Emmet T. Flood, who saw Mr. Trump through the completion of the Mueller report. Then there is Rudolph W. Giuliani, like Mr. Sekulow a personal lawyer for Mr. Trump, whose aggressive digging for political dirt in Ukraine has put him under federal investigation and led to the president facing a House impeachment inquiry.
But Mr. Sekulow has hung on.
He was recommended by the erstwhile Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon to help guide Mr. Trump’s legal response to the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Like Mr. Giuliani, he has New York roots and spent decades as a pugilistic advocate on television, in Mr. Sekulow’s case in a natty on-air uniform of bespoke suit and three-corner silk pocket square.
Unlike Mr. Giuliani, he has avoided messy public conflicts that upstage his client, and he reflects the embattled president’s reliance on evangelical Christians, a crucial political constituency. He declined to be interviewed on the record for this article.
“Jay is not a criminal lawyer, and he’s not even a checks-and-balances constitutional lawyer,” said Paul Rosenzweig, who was senior counsel to Ken Starr for the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration. “The substantive background he has is not a particularly good fit for any of those tasks. But he’s been at it for two years, so maybe he’s got more experience in defending this president than anybody.”
A Faith Journey and a Path to the Supreme Court
Mr. Sekulow was born in Brooklyn and grew up an observant Jew, first on Long Island and later in Atlanta, where his father, a clothing buyer, moved the family to take a job at a department store.
Mr. Sekulow attended Atlanta Baptist College, today known as Mercer University. It was around that time, he has said, that he became a Christian, in part because of the influence of a college friend, Glenn Borders, who led him through an exploration of the Bible. He would go on to be active in Jews for Jesus, an organization of evangelical believers of Jewish ancestry.
In a first-person biography on the Jews for Jesus website, he wrote that during his reading of the Old and New Testaments, “my suspicion that Jesus might really be the messiah was confirmed.” At a later gathering, “they invited people who wanted to commit their life to Jesus to come up the aisle to meet with them at the front of the church,” Mr. Sekulow wrote. “I responded to that invitation.”
After graduating from law school at Mercer, Mr. Sekulow worked briefly at the Internal Revenue Service, then opened a law firm in Atlanta with a few Mercer classmates and his brother Gary. Working a network of contacts, including a local pastor, Mr. Sekulow swiftly moved from routine real estate closings and wills to a business renovating and flipping historic properties, at the time a popular tax shelter for the wealthy.
The venture imploded in 1986, a development Mr. Sekulow omits from his Jews for Jesus biography. Mr. Sekulow; his brother Gary; his father, Stanley; his law partner Stuart Roth; and their business associates were sued for fraud and securities violations. They declared bankruptcy, leaving a trail of unpaid debts.
Within a year of his bankruptcy, Mr. Sekulow reinvented himself as a litigator for the Christian right. As general counsel for Jews for Jesus, he argued before the Supreme Court and won a 9-to-0 victory in 1987, successfully making the case that by banning Jews for Jesus from distributing pamphlets at Los Angeles International Airport, the Board of Airport Commissioners violated the group’s First Amendment rights.
Within months Mr. Sekulow founded his own faith-based advocacy group, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, or CASE, to meet, Mr. Sekulow wrote, “a growing need to challenge the state’s infringement upon the right of Christians to proclaim the gospel” in “parks, school campuses at every level, malls, street corners and, of course, airports.”
Mr. Sekulow won a string of Supreme Court cases in the early and mid-1990s by arguing that bans on various forms of religious expression in public places violated the practitioners’ right to free speech.
Links to the Televangelist World
His legal successes impressed the televangelists Janice Crouch and Paul Crouch Sr., founders of Trinity Broadcasting Network and icons of what is commonly called prosperity gospel, the belief that following God yields wealth and health. Many mainstream Christians consider the theology heretical.
Mr. Sekulow appeared on the rhinestone-clad couple’s “Praise the Lord” TV show, where they solicited “love gifts” for the young lawyer they called “our little Jew” and “our little David,” battling the Goliath of the secular state.
The Crouches gave Mr. Sekulow his own show, broadcast from a mock courtroom in a TBN studio in Mobile, Ala., and produced by their son, Paul Crouch Jr.
“We got him launched,” the younger Mr. Crouch, who has since left TBN, said in an interview.
Mr. Sekulow still appears on TBN, which carries his show and hawks his books, like “Unholy Alliance,” whose blurb says it “exposes the attempts by fundamentalist Muslims to destroy our legal system and liberties.” Paul Crouch Jr. has also asked Mr. Sekulow to appear in “Trump 2024,” an election-year Christian documentary about Mr. Trump that assumes a second term.
In 1990, the televangelist Pat Robertson, a close friend of the Crouches, hired Mr. Sekulow as chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, a group founded in opposition to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Over three decades, CASE and the A.C.L.J., funded by donations Mr. Sekulow solicits on TV and through telemarketers, have channeled tens of millions of dollars to the Sekulow family and their affiliated businesses, financing homes in Washington, Tennessee and France; private jet travel; and a chauffeur.
Over the years, several news outlets have investigated the groups and their payments to Mr. Sekulow and his wife, sons, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. In 2017, The Guardian, citing documents, published an article saying that between 2000 and 2017 CASE has “steered more than $60 million to Sekulow, his family and their businesses,” including for property, production services and a private jet lease.
The same day, The Washington Post published an investigation of the organizations’ tax records, finding that between 2011 and 2015 the interconnected charities paid $5.5 million in compensation directly to Mr. Sekulow and five family members, another $7.5 million to “businesses owned by Mr. Sekulow and his sister-in-law for producing and consulting on TV, movie and radio shows, including his weekday program, ‘Jay Sekulow Live!,’” and $21 million to a law firm co-owned by Mr. Sekulow: Constitutional Litigation & Advocacy Group.
“CASE and A.C.L.J. comply with all rules and regulations of the Internal Revenue Service,” the law and justice center said in a statement to The New York Times. “We have independent auditors and two independent tax law firms, and we’re in good standing in all 50 states.”
During the Obama administration Mr. Sekulow continued his work at the center, fighting against the Affordable Care Act and defending an Operation Rescue activist sued over “undercover” videos filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic. During the recession, the group used telemarketers to solicit “sacrificial gifts” from struggling people by phone, according to the Guardian article.
Mr. Robertson said in an interview that if Mr. Sekulow were being “compensated as an attorney for the work that he does, he would be making in the seven-figure range.” Unlike Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Sekulow is paid for representing Mr. Trump; Mr. Sekulow’s son Jordan and Mr. Roth are also on the Trump payroll.
Every weekday Mr. Sekulow takes to the Christian airwaves, amplifying White House talking points and raising money for the A.C.L.J. Last month he and his son worked to impugn the impeachment inquiry’s “alleged whistle-blower,” casting him as part of an Obama administration “chain of deep staters.” As witnesses testified before the House Intelligence Committee, his show promoted its “exclusive live analysis of Adam Schiff’s phony, lacking-due-process” hearings.
After a federal appeals court again rejected Mr. Trump’s efforts to shield his tax returns from New York criminal investigators last month, Mr. Sekulow vowed to take the battle to the Supreme Court, telling CBS News that the president’s claims of legal immunity even from murder “go to the heart of our republic.”
Whether he will argue the case himself before the Supreme Court has not yet been decided.
Charlie Savage contributed reporting.