Veteran GOP operative Mark Corallo is known for accepting tough crisis-management cases, but even he wasn’t daredevil enough to accept the job an embattled President Trump considered him for last month: White House communications director.
Instead, Corallo chose to stay outside the building, becoming the top spokesman for Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz. In his new role, he finds himself handling the White House’s defense against independent counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the presidential election, which has expanded to include inquiry into whether Trump himself tried to obstruct the investigation.
Corallo had never met Trump or Kasowitz before taking the job but is now routinely in the West Wing several times a week, strategizing with a temperamental and media-obsessed president who sees himself as his own best spokesman.
“I think I will be more help to the president on the outside than I would have been on the inside,” Corallo told POLITICO.
Close friends say Corallo likes being in the middle of the action. “You do get a bit of a rush going into these things,” said Ed McFadden, a longtime friend.
“He’s been through the investigations churn, he’s been through the Whitewater churn, and there’s not much he hasn’t seen,” McFadden added. But, he also said: “This thing is a little bit different.”
Corallo says he was a supporter of the president’s campaign but wasn’t interested in joining the White House. He worked as a spokesman for the House committee that investigated President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and then after President George W. Bush was elected went to the Justice Department as a spokesman for former attorney general John Ashcroft. He went on to establish his own shop — and was making a lot more money while working a lot less, while getting to watch his son play a lot of baseball.
“He’s served the country. He’s made money. He doesn’t really need to do this for his career,” said David Ayres, Ashcroft’s former chief of staff and a personal friend of Corallo.
Corallo sat down with chief strategist Steve Bannon in the West Wing a day after Bannon’s early return from Saudi Arabia last month to lay the groundwork for a crisis-response operation to deal with Mueller’s investigation while the president completed his first overseas trip. A week later, Corallo was called back to the White House to meet with Trump, who was as impressed by Corallo as his chief strategist had been.
Former White House communications director Michael Dubke, whose resignation was made public in late May, has not yet been replaced. Though the president and his senior advisers considered building a “war room” inside the White House to handle the Russia probe and hiring former Trump campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to run it, they scrapped the plan before it materialized, opting instead to seal the White House off from Russia-related inquiries – and dump them into Corallo’s lap.
“That’s the more important comms director right now,” said a senior White House aide.
Corallo has plenty of experience defending high-profile clients in politically fraught investigations. Silver-haired and sharp-featured, with a penchant for bespoke suits and a deep love for the New York Yankees, Corallo is a true Washington insider, one of the few people with deep political experience surrounding the president.
But he occupies a unique nexus between establishment Washington and Trump’s world. His firm has represented Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, but he is also close to Trump’s deputy campaign manager David Bossie from their time working together for former House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Dan Burton during the Whitewater years. Corallo has a single byline on Breitbart, the news site for which Bannon served as chairman before joining the Trump campaign last year.
It was his establishment bonafides that earned him the confidence of the White House. The president’s aides were looking for someone who knew the inner workings of the Justice Department and, unlike other people close to Trump, wouldn’t have to learn on the job.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, Corallo’s message has diverged from that of many Trump allies who have criticized Mueller in an effort to undermine his investigation. Corallo praised the former FBI director for his honor and integrity just two days before he became Kasowitz’s spokesman, saying specifically that his investigation would not expand beyond his original portfolio.
“If he finds nothing, he will stand up there and say there is nothing,” Corallo said. “This is not a guy who wants mission creep.”
“I don’t know if there is a finer human being than Bob Mueller,” he said, describing him as “the brother you want – the dad you want – he’s the guy you want your daughter to marry.”
He added in a later interview: “You’ll never hear me say a bad thing about Bob Mueller.”
Over the years, he’s developed a reputation as a fierce defender of the free press – a position that may put him at odds with the Trump administration’s avowal to crack down on leakers.
Corallo, who was the public affairs director at the Justice Department when then-deputy attorney general James Comey appointed special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity, later complained that Fitzgerald subpoenaed journalists including Judith Miller, Matt Cooper, Tim Russert and others without consulting with Corallo’s office. Fitzgerald’s team maintained that the powers Comey granted to Fitzgerald were so broad that no such consultation was required, though it was standard procedure.
After Corallo left the Justice Department, Rove—who had to testify before a grand jury in the Plame affair—retained him as a spokesman. Corallo offered him a sense of relief, Rove said: “It was, ‘I got this, I got it covered.’”
“I think the world of him,” Rove added.
Before taking the job, Corallo told friends he understood the challenges from the president’s tweets to a fractious West Wing and a Democratic Party looking to capitalize politically on the scandals ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. But he doesn’t expect to be able to stop Trump’s tweets and said he has been impressed with the president’s thoughtfulness and kindness in their meetings.
“The order of magnitude is a little bigger than some of the other high-profile matters I’ve been involved in,” Corallo said. “But the president will be cleared because he did nothing wrong. Don’t underestimate this guy.”