ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the new year, the Senate will take the next step in President Trump's impeachment - an impeachment trial complete with lawyers defending the president. One attorney who will play a leading role is White House counsel Pat Cipollone. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more about Cipollone, who, unlike some other lawyers favored by President Trump, is known for staying out of the spotlight.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: For most of his three decades as a lawyer, Pat Cipollone has worked behind the scenes. Even as an architect of the White House's fight against impeachment, he has not appeared on cable TV. He's better known for writing harsh letters to Congress and saying no to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY PELOSI: What that letter came from the White House is - a joke beneath the dignity of the presidency of the United States, in defiance of our Constitution. Shame on them.
ORDOÑEZ: That strategy has won him praise from President Trump, who has counted on Cipollone for giving him the legal scaffolding to stretch the powers of his office. Trump singled out his point man recently at the White House.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Where is Pat? Where's Pat? Stand up, Pat. Come on.
TRUMP: He's the strong, silent type. Strong - he's very strong - silent.
ORDOÑEZ: But not for long - he'll soon be playing a leading role in President Trump's Senate trial. Another member of Trump's legal team is Jay Sekulow. He says Cipollone is more than ready for the spotlight.
JAY SEKULOW: Pat has got exceptionally good legal skills and legal judgment. But he also understands the political side of this, especially an impeachment proceeding. And it's not every lawyer that gets both, and Pat clearly does.
ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone's conservative roots run deep. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in the Bronx. He went to high school in Kentucky and worked part time at McDonald's. He was valedictorian of his college class at Fordham University. And then he went to law school at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship.
MELANIE SLOAN: It is a conservative place.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Melanie Sloan, a law school classmate. She's still friends with Cipollone, even though she now fights the White House for public records with the liberal watchdog organization American Oversight. She says it was at the University of Chicago where Cipollone was immersed in conservative legal thought.
SLOAN: My friends tended to be in the progressive law students association and were on the liberal side of the spectrum. And Pat and the crowd he hung out with were on the more conservative side of the spectrum, including people who are often now shortlisted for the Supreme Court in the Trump administration.
ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone was managing editor for the law review. He worked closely with Eugene Scalia, the son of conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia. Republican Senator Mike Lee, whose brother was also on the law review, says he admires Cipollone's caution.
MIKE LEE: He is quick to think and slow to speak about an issue until he fully comprehends it and he knows how to assess it.
ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone clerked for federal Judge Danny Boggs, known for stumping new hires with his famously difficult trivia test. For Cipollone, it was 64 questions, including - how many chromosome pairs are there in a human genome? - and name a Beethoven symphony.
LEE: That is in and of itself a badge of distinction among lawyers.
ORDOÑEZ: Senator Lee said knowing a lot about a lot of things has helped Cipollone as White House counsel.
LEE: It's come in very handy for him to have access to such a broad and deep knowledge base.
ORDOÑEZ: Cipollone is 53 and has 10 children. Faith is another big influence in his life and career. He is among a group of elite conservative Catholics who serve as close confidants to the president. They include Attorney General William Barr and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who helped Trump pick judges, including for the Supreme Court.
BILL NETTLES: One of the many things I like about Pat is this - OK? - faith is a big deal of his.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Bill Nettles. He's a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina in the Obama administration who has worked with Cipollone.
NETTLES: I live in a part of the world where people routinely wear it on their sleeve. And Pat is not like that. While faith is very significant in Pat's life, he doesn't use it as a vehicle to judge other people.
ORDOÑEZ: The White House declined to make Cipollone available for an interview. Before joining the administration, Cipollone was a partner at two firms with a wide range of clients. He was involved in one very high-profile case, representing the woman known only as Jackie, who was featured in a 2014 article in Rolling Stone magazine. The article, about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, was later retracted and the subject of lawsuits.
But even then, Cipollone worked behind the scenes, helping supervise the lawyers at his firm leading Jackie's defense. Early in his career, he did a stint in the public sector, working for Attorney General William Barr in the George H.W. Bush administration. Like Barr, Cipollone has written that the president wields broad executive powers.
KIMBERLY WEHLE: He's serving the president at the expense of the Constitution and at the expense of his true client, the American people.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Kimberly Wehle. She worked with former special prosecutor Ken Starr, who investigated the Clintons. She and other critics say Cipollone is twisting the law for the president's benefit.
WEHLE: He's operating to create a megapresidency that has more power than the other two branches, and that's very dangerous.
ORDOÑEZ: Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal adviser to Trump, disputes that. He's worked with Cipollone before and is a fan of his disciplined style in the Trump White House.
NEWT GINGRICH: He has been a very stabilizing factor. And I think that if you look at the letters he's written and the things he's done, there's a marked logic and a very disciplined approach.
ORDOÑEZ: An approach that will be tested as Cipollone takes a central role in a made-for-television Senate impeachment trial.
Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.