Ty Cobb: The White House counsel launched his career in Baltimore

As challenging clients go, surely a president who won’t stop tweeting about an ongoing investigation would be right up there.

But if President Donald Trump’s free-tweeting ways are vexing his new White House special counsel, Ty Cobb isn’t letting on.

“It’s fun,” Cobb said. “It’s always fun to move to the high stakes table.”

With a handlebar mustache curled up at the ends and the cowboy boots that he favors, Cobb indeed looks more like a riverboat gambler than what he really is: a Washington power lawyer hired to manage the White House response to the multiple probes stemming from Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

It is a sprawling, minefield-strewn mission, but in Baltimore, where the 66-year-old Cobb”s legal career took off, friends and former colleagues say he is more than up to it.

Cobb, a distant relative of the baseball great who played for the Detroit Tigers in the early 1900s, was an assistant U.S. attorney here from 1981 to 1986. He prosecuted drug dealers and murderers and headed a regional narcotics and organized crime task force — on a couple of occasions receiving personal threats that prompted him to wear a bulletproof vest and his wife to move from their home. He later moved into white collar criminal litigation, representing clients in congressional investigations and SEC enforcement actions and taking on cases involving Washington scandals, the Bernie Madoff investment scheme and the 2008 financial crisis.

“He was a go-to guy for the important cases,” said David Irwin, a Towson-based criminal defense lawyer who mentored Cobb during their time as federal prosecutors in Baltimore. “He’s still like he was in Baltimore — larger than life.”

Irwin, who has represented his own share of headline-grabbing clients, said he was not surprised Cobb was offered the White House job nor that he took it.

“He loves a challenge,” irwin said, “and he loves the spotlight.”

Other lawyers reportedly were approached but rejected the job of counseling a president who tends to keep his own counsel.

Cobb said that when a president asked for help, he saw it as his duty to provide it. The reaction from his friends has been mostly positive, he said, although he describes one daughter as “anxious” about his new role.

“I don’t think she shares the views of this administration,” Cobb said.

Cobb, who started his new job July 31, is among a string of recent hires said to be brought in to enforce discipline in an often chaotic White House. Friends and colleagues say he has a long history of winning the confidence and trust of clients, and that should serve him well as the president’s lawyer.

“If he won’t listen to Ty, he won’t listen to anyone,” said Kenneth Robinson, a Prince George’s County defense attorney who has gone up against Cobb. “He’s very smart, very charming … and he looks like Wyatt Earp.”

Cobb has a disarming style, lapsing into a heartlands drawl particularly when the subject turns to his origins in Great Bend, Kansas, where he grew up as the oldest of eight children.

“I’m a simple government lawyer,” he said wryly. “I’m an assistant to the president, counsel to the president. I focus largely on the alleged Russian controversy and certain other tasks as they come about. I’m here to represent the interests of the presidency.”

The Justice Department’s special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and several House and Senate committees are investigating Russian interference in the election, whether the Trump campaign colluded in those efforts and whether the president himself tried to obstruct investigators. Trump has repeatedly characterized the probe as a “witch hunt.”

In an interview, Cobb echoed another Trump talking point, saying, “This began as an excuse for a poorly run campaign by his opponent.”

But Cobb has said he thinks “very highly” of Mueller, the man appointed to head the Justice Department’s investigation, whom he has known for years. They overlapped as assistant U.S. attorneys, with Mueller serving in San Francisco and Boston during the time Cobb was in the Baltimore office.

“I love Baltimore,” Cobb said. “Being a federal prosecutor was the best job I ever had.”

Cobb prosecuted two particularly tragic cases that even today tend to make those involved wince in memory. In 1985, he won a conviction in the murder trial of Lascell W. Simmons in the killing of an undercover narcotics detective, Marcellus “Marty” Ward, who was wearing a wire that recorded the fatal shots and the desperate cries of his partner coming to his aid.

Two years earlier, Cobb prosecuted Anthony Grandison on heroin and gun charges in a case in which two people, including a witness, were killed just before the trial began. Grandison was convicted in that case, and later in the deaths.

“It was gut-wrenching,” Cobb says now, recalling how he had to put on the stand a woman who was the wife of one victim and the sister of the other.

Several attorneys who defended clients prosecuted by Cobb had nothing but complimentary things to say about him.

“We fought and fought,” recalled Edward Smith Jr., who represented Grandison. “He was an aggressive guy. That made two of us.

“Ty is a good lawyer, and he’s a good person,” he said.

Given his famous namesake, it is perhaps unsurprising that Cobb was known in Baltimore as a pretty good ballplayer.

A brief article in The Baltimore Sun reporting his appointment as assistant U.S. attorney in February 1981 was titled, “Cousin of Ty Cobb gets state legal position.”

“I didn’t inherit enough speed to make it in that particular pursuit,” Cobb was quoted as saying, adding that his brief baseball career ended in injury after his freshman year as a shortstop at Harvard.

Herbert Better, a former U.S. Attorney for Maryland, recalled Cobb was recruited for the office softball team even before he was hired. Cobb, then a recent Georgetown law grad, was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office was allowed to use law clerks for the softball team,” said Better, a founding Baltimore partner of the Washington firm Zuckerman Spaeder. “We thought, anybody who has the name Ty Cobb must be good, and he was.”

The lawyers’ league was quite the big deal, said Better, who like others on the 1983 championship winning team keeps a team picture in his office. It shows Cobb, in a Harvard T-shirt, a plug of tobacco in his cheek, along with teammates who also would go on to prominent legal careers. Among them are Irwin, who has defended the likes of former Baltimore police commissioner Ed Norris and Linda Tripp, famous for taping her friend Monica Lewinsky speaking about her affair with President Clinton; and Michael Schatzow, who as State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s chief deputy prosecuted police officers in the death of Freddie Gray.

The head of the office at the time, now U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, is notable for his absence, Better said. He is teased relentlessly for thinking the team didn’t have a chance and refusing to return from vacation for the championship. Motz could not be reached for comment for this article.

Cobb lived in Baltimore County, first on Greenspring Valley Road and then in Phoenix, during his time here. He and his wife, Leigh, a lawyer who received a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins, had an annual Christmas party to benefit the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Cobb was one of three nominees to replace Motz as U.S. Attorney for Maryland but was not selected. He left the office in 1986, joining the local firm Miles & Stockbridge. He moved again two years later, opening what The Baltimore Sun described at the time as “the first major beachhead” in the city of a Washington law firm, Hogan & Hartson. He became one of the top partners at what is now known as Hogan Lovells, one of the largest law firms in Washington. It remained his professional home until last month when he accepted Trump’s invitation to work for the White House.

“He would be one of the logical people you would want to talk to” for that position, said Stephen Immelt, Hogan Lovells CEO and a fellow alum of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore.

“He’s able to think strategically, see around the corner,” Immelt said. “He’s become known for handling complex matters, where you’re known for your credibility, for advocating for your client. He has 30-plus years of doing this at a high level.”

In the mid-1990s, for example, Cobb represented John Huang, a Democratic fundraiser and key figure in an investigation of campaign finance abuses. In 1998, he moved to the firm’s Denver office, where he represented a number of Qwest Communications executives in a huge financial scandal before returning to Washington in 2003.

For the kind of far-flung work he has done in recent years — his clients have included members of the Saudi royal family, Argentina’s largest privately held oil company and companies investigated for foreign corrupt practices — Cobb said he just needs access to an airport. His main home now is in South Carolina, although he keeps a residence in the Washington area.

Despite his global practice, his small-town Kansas childhood is “still the lens through which he sees the world,” Immelt said.

“He makes friends easily. People are drawn to Ty, he’s fun to be around,” he said. “He does a good job of maintaining those ties.”

Cobb has a story from his childhood that seems appropriate today, managing as it does to involve a president, his own famous name and media attention.

On the day President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, Cobb was an eighth-grader whose regular homeroom teacher was out for emergency surgery. The substitute teacher spoke movingly to the class, telling them how important the day would always be for them. Then, because he didn’t have the class list, he asked the students to one by one tell him their names — which they dutifully did until the kid right before Cobb.

“Babe Ruth,” the boy said.

The substitute teacher exploded at the boy for making a joke on such a somber occasion. The boy “apologized obsequiously,” said Cobb, who realized he had just been set up as the next student in line to give his name.

“Ty Cobb,” he said in all truthfulness. Now even more livid, the teacher grabbed him by his shirt and practically carried him to the principal’s office, where he learned that indeed was his student’s name. It was the teacher’s turn to apologize profusely. Cobb says he replied no problem and complimented the teacher on his remarks.

The sub ended up becoming the sports editor of the local paper, where he unfailingly found a way to write something positive no matter how his once wronged student performed in a baseball game.

“I could fly out,” Cobb said with a laugh, “and he would write about my hustle and defense.”

Ty Cobb

Age: 66

Hometown: Great Bend, Kansas

Current home: South Carolina

College: Harvard

Law School: Georgetown

Work: assistant U.S. attorney for Maryland; partner and executive committee member, Hogan Lovells; special counsel to President Trump.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°