Trump’s Trial Lawyer Gambled a Gilded Manhattan Career to Represent Him

Just over a year ago, Todd Blanche was a registered New York Democrat and a partner at Wall Street’s oldest law firm, where the nation’s corporate elite go for legal help. Now, he is a registered Florida Republican who runs his own firm, where the biggest client is a man both famous and infamous for his legal troubles: Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Blanche recently bought a home in Palm Beach County near Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. He brought his family to Mr. Trump’s campaign celebration there on Super Tuesday. And during Mr. Trump’s first criminal trial, set to begin in Manhattan on April 15, he will use space at 40 Wall Street, the former president’s office tower near the courthouse.

After a well-credentialed career as a federal prosecutor and a white-collar defense lawyer, Mr. Blanche, 49, has bet his professional future on representing Mr. Trump, the first former U.S. president to be indicted.

It was a striking career move — forfeiting a lucrative law firm partnership to represent a man notorious for cycling through lawyers and ignoring their bills — that has baffled Mr. Blanche’s former colleagues at the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York.

Many have privately questioned, at social events and in informal alumni gatherings, why he would upend his life and risk his reputation for Mr. Trump, whose refusal to acknowledge his loss in the 2020 election has become a chasm in the U.S. political and legal systems. Many prominent lawyers have refused to represent the former president, they note, and three of Mr. Trump’s former lawyers are now witnesses against him.

Mr. Blanche’s decision to defend Mr. Trump in three of the former president’s four criminal cases has pushed the lawyer outside his comfort zone. He developed a reputation as a skilled courtroom prosecutor — working in the same office as Alvin L. Bragg, now the Manhattan district attorney prosecuting Mr. Trump — but has far less experience at the defense table. Mr. Trump’s Manhattan case will be only his second criminal trial as a defense lawyer, and one of his few state court engagements.

Despite the risks, Mr. Blanche has much to gain from Mr. Trump. No longer just another high-priced defense lawyer in a city full of them, Mr. Blanche is handling the country’s most significant criminal case, raising his profile and creating a question about whether a door would open for him in a second Trump administration.

He jokes about having his eye on an ambassadorship to Italy, friends say, although he often says he has no actual interest in a government job. Still, many assume he would welcome the chance to run his old office, the Southern District, a role that the agency’s alumni covet.

As the Manhattan trial draws near, some of his former Southern District colleagues have come to Mr. Blanche’s defense, noting that every defendant, no matter how polarizing, is entitled to capable counsel.

“I have heard from a good number of people in the S.D.N.Y. who have said, ‘Why the heck would Todd do this — why would he ever take this case?’” said Elie Honig, the CNN senior legal analyst, who worked with Mr. Blanche at the Southern District and speaks highly of him. “My response is, generally, when did we become pearl-clutchers about defense lawyers defending defendants?”

“That’s what the job is and what our system requires,” he added.

Mr. Blanche has his hands full. He is the lead counsel on both Mr. Trump’s trial in Manhattan on charges that he covered up a sex scandal surrounding his 2016 presidential campaign, as well as the case in Fort Pierce, Fla., where he is charged under the Espionage Act over his retaining of sensitive government documents after he left office. Mr. Blanche is also a co-counsel in Mr. Trump’s federal case in Washington on charges that he conspired to defraud the United States with his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

At the heart of the strategy used by Mr. Blanche and his colleagues on the Trump legal team is a favorite Trump tactic: stalling.

The defense team has sought to delay the trials as long as possible, hoping to push them past Election Day, and Mr. Trump’s associates privately say they see it working. In the case brought by the Manhattan district attorney, the judge recently granted a three-week delay, though he has rejected Mr. Blanche’s effort to postpone the case further.

Mr. Blanche, who is working on the Manhattan case with Susan Necheles, a veteran defense lawyer, is not a total newcomer to Mr. Trump’s world. With the blessing of his former law firm, Cadwalader, Mr. Blanche had in recent years represented other associates of the former president, including Paul Manafort, his onetime campaign chairman, and Boris Ephsteyn, a roving adviser.

Last April, he founded Blanche Law in New York and began defending Mr. Trump himself.

His fees, like those of other Trump lawyers, have been paid through Save America, the political action committee seeded with tens of millions of small-dollar donations that Mr. Trump raised as he pushed false claims of widespread election fraud in November 2020 and after. The PAC paid Cadwalader roughly $420,000 when Mr. Blanche was representing Mr. Epshteyn, while Blanche Law has been paid just over $3 million since April 2023, federal records show.

While no one’s job in Mr. Trump’s world is ever safe, Mr. Blanche is enjoying an extended honeymoon, developing a reputation in Mr. Trump’s orbit for reading him well.

Some of Mr. Blanche’s friends said that they had perceived him to be a centrist, law-and-order Democrat, whose politics were not so at odds with Mr. Trump that his transition to voting as a Republican was especially jarring.

They describe him as deeply loyal to the people he cares about, and a true believer in the notion that Mr. Trump should not face trial in the Manhattan case. Mr. Blanche has a competitive streak — he has finished two full Ironman races — but by Trump lawyer standards, he is nonconfrontational and soft-spoken. He also is uninterested in appearing on television, even though Mr. Trump often likes to see his lawyers onscreen.

Although Mr. Trump usually doesn’t refer to Mr. Blanche as a “fighter,” one of. his highest accolades, he does tell associates that his lawyer is smart and doing a good job. In recent court appearances, the two men have seemed almost chummy, whispering frequently to one another at the defense table.

Mr. Blanche’s decision to move to Florida reflected how fundamentally his representation of Mr. Trump has influenced not only Mr. Blanche’s professional life, but his personal one. Mr. Blanche’s wife, a doctor, has joined him in Florida, where he had for some time been looking to move for family reasons, and where he maximizes his time with a client who doesn’t like being scheduled. He commutes to New York for trial matters.

The website of Mr. Blanche’s firm briefly listed its address as Mr. Trump’s building at 40 Wall Street, where the former president has repeatedly held news conferences after court appearances. Two people close to Mr. Blanche, who were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said the space was a temporary war room; the address was removed from the firm’s website after The New York Times asked the campaign about the arrangement.

Bruce Green, who teaches legal ethics at Fordham Law School in New York, said he didn’t see a problem with Mr. Blanche’s tight bond with Mr. Trump, although he did question whether it could affect the lawyer’s judgment.

“Lots of defendants don’t trust their lawyers, but here there’s obviously a good relationship,” Mr. Green said. “Still, while it’s important to have trust, it’s also important to have a sense of detachment. If you drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, it could impair your willingness to tell a client hard truths.”

Many of the arguments that Mr. Blanche has raised on behalf of Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, echoed the former president’s own laments about his criminal cases. In filings and hearings, Mr. Blanche has painted a picture of the former president as the victim of partisan attacks from Democrats and has attacked the cases themselves as attempts to derail Mr. Trump’s campaign for the White House.

Even some seemingly casual phrases Mr. Blanche has woven into his court filings appear designed with the client’s perspective in mind. In papers recently filed in the classified document case, he referred offhandedly to Mr. Trump’s “first term” in office, implying that there would be a second.

At times, his rhetoric has irritated the judge overseeing the Manhattan criminal case. Just last week, the judge wrote in an order that while he welcomed “zealous advocacy and creative lawyering,” he also expected attorneys to “demonstrate the proper respect and decorum that is owed to the courts.” Sending a none-too-subtle shot across the bow, the judge reminded Mr. Blanche’s team of his power to punish disobedience with criminal contempt.

The judge, Juan M. Merchan, also lambasted Mr. Blanche in a courtroom full of reporters last week, rebuking him for not directly answering a question. (Mr. Blanche apologized.) When Mr. Blanche accused the district attorney’s office of prosecutorial misconduct, Justice Merchan questioned how long Mr. Blanche had worked as a prosecutor, implying that he should have known better than to have leveled that claim.

Mr. Blanche joined the Southern District in 1999, not as a prosecutor, but as a paralegal. He worked days and went to Brooklyn Law School at night, commuting from Long Island. Mr. Blanche, who was married at 20 and a grandfather in his 40s, conveyed a decidedly middle-class vibe at an office known for its Ivy League pedigree.

When he returned to the Southern District a few years later as a prosecutor, he focused largely on violent crime, rather than the white-collar cases that prosecutors have parlayed into lucrative law firm jobs. Mr. Blanche ultimately became a co-leader of the Southern District’s violent crimes unit.

As a violent crimes prosecutor, Mr. Blanche was responsible for handling a variety of unsavory cooperating witnesses, including drug dealers and murderers. That experience, his former colleagues said, showed a contrarian streak and an empathetic side that explains his decision to essentially put his career on the line for someone as divisive as Mr. Trump.

Sabrina Shroff, a longtime federal defender, recalled that as a prosecutor Mr. Blanche had once dropped robbery charges against one of her clients after she demonstrated to him that the case should be dismissed.

“It would have been easy to write my client off,” she said, “and he didn’t.”

Nicole Hong contributed reporting, and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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