Chris Kise, Florida’s former solicitor general who served on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ transition team, inked a contract to represent Donald Trump in the criminal case that resulted in the FBI search of the former president’s home in Mar-a-Lago, according to two sources with knowledge of the discussions.
Kise, who declined to comment, began negotiations with Trump shortly after the FBI’s search of his Palm Beach estate Aug. 8. Numerous other criminal defense attorneys have said they couldn’t represent the former president in the Southern District of Florida, citing the all-consuming job of representing Trump or his reputation as a penny-pinching problematic client with a history of having rival advisers who backstab one another, according to five people with knowledge of the legal effort.
Other attorneys declined because their firms wanted to avoid the political blowback of representing such a divisive figure, according to those in Trump’s orbit who say that Kise is considering leaving the firm of Foley & Lardner — where he had briefly represented Venezuela’s government two years ago when hostilities with the United States ran high — to take the job.
Kise has won four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous ones before the Florida Supreme Court, and he also has a reputation as a skilled political knife fighter. In the waning days of the 2018 governor’s race, Kise widely publicized damaging information about Democrat Andrew Gillum secretly accepting free tickets to the Broadway show “Hamilton” from undercover FBI agents, in contravention of Florida’s ethics laws. Gillum, who denied wrongdoing, went on to narrowly lose to DeSantis and was indicted earlier this year following the FBI investigation.
“Chris is a 360-degree lawyer: appellate, civil, criminal, state and federal — he can do it all,” said former Florida Sen. George LeMieux, who was the chief of staff to then-Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist in 2003 when the office appointed Kise as state solicitor general.
Brian Ballard, a top lobbyist and fundraiser for Trump and DeSantis, told NBC News that “Chris is not only my friend, he is one of the finest lawyers I have ever met. His unique experience is perfectly suited to assist [former] President Trump.”
Ballard also was a top fundraiser in 2006 for DeSantis’ current political opponent, Crist, who is now in the Democratic Party and is a member of the U.S. House. After Crist left the governor’s mansion, Kise went on to advise the transition team for his Republican gubernatorial successor, Rick Scott, and advised DeSantis’ transition after he succeeded Scott.
Kise’s hire comes at a crucial time for Trump. His legal representation has been widely derided in recent weeks for suggesting baseless conspiracy theories that the FBI planted evidence during the search to the late and unconventional way it drafted a legal filing for a special master to review some documents that were seized in the search.
But despite the mockery, a Trump-appointed federal judge agreed to hear the special master issue Thursday, when Kise is expected to appear in West Palm Beach federal court for the first time as Trump’s attorney.
“I wish nothing but the best for Kise, but hope is not a strategy when it comes to working for Trump. I hope he has a good contract,” said one attorney who has represented the former president but did not want to speak on record because of the political consequences of crossing him.
Kise’s exact title is unclear. Boris Epshteyn continues to serve as a top legal adviser to Trump and de facto in-house counsel who helped hire attorneys Jim Trusty and Evan Corcoran.
Over the course of a year, the case that began as a records dispute with the National Archives metastasized into a full-blown criminal investigation that led to the FBI’s unprecedented search and seizure of numerous classified documents and secret records. Trump maintains the search was unjustified and he was legally in possession of the documents, a defense many legal experts dispute.
Trusty and Corcoran, who do not live in Florida, are expected to stay on the team for now, but those who understand prosecutions involving classified and sensitive records say Trump might need specialized counsel familiar with criminal cases involving classified documents if he’s indicted.