Alan Dershowitz and President Donald Trump. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Updated: 01/17/2020 01:57 PM EST
President Donald Trump has finally got the all-star, TV-friendly legal team he’s been clamoring for. All it took was an impeachment trial.
The real estate mogul, all-around salesman and former reality star who’s been known throughout his career for churning through attorneys at a breakneck pace rolled out several high-profile additions to his defense team Friday. In a matter of days, they’ll take center stage on the Senate floor as millions of Americans tune in.
It’s a who’s-who list of legal heavyweights, including former Bill Clinton special prosecutors Kenneth Starr and Robert Ray, plus retired Harvard constitutional law professor Alan Dershowitz. Each will have specific speaking roles during the upcoming trial, which begins in earnest on Tuesday, while serving as clean-up hitters behind White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s longtime personal attorney.
The optics are classic Trump. Not only do the lawyers bring a name-brand recognition to the televised proceedings, they also carry the Clinton linkages the president adores. Starr gained talk-show punch-line prominence as the legal nemesis of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, pursuing a variety of probes that ultimately fueled Clinton’s impeachment. To have him now defending Trump, with millions watching on national TV, is the type of juicy storyline Trump the executive producer wants to orchestrate. Collectively, the new impeachment defense team has made over 350 appearances on Fox News in the last year, according to conservative news tracker Media Matters.
Trump made the latest hires because he likes “star power,” said one former aide who remains close to the White House.
“Trump has hired names he knows from the headlines. That’s his comfort level. His familiar universe, if you will,” added Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary, LLC. “The president is gearing up for a fight. He’s not going to go in there with people he’s never heard of.”
Other additions to the Trump Senate floor team include Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general who joined the White House as an adviser on impeachment last fall, and Jane Raskin, a personal attorney for the president and former federal prosecutor who had a lead role in defending Trump during special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s legal team will be speaking to multiple audiences as they parse the House-passed impeachment articles alleging that the president abused his power and obstructed Congress. They claim that Trump withheld money and an Oval Office visit as leverage to get the Ukrainian government to launch probes of his political opponents, and then blocked lawmakers from investigating the matter.
One audience is the 100 senators who will determine whether the president should be removed from office and barred from holding elected positions ever again. But that Republican-majority crowd is already favorable to Trump, making it a long shot that Trump would face such ramifications.
That means Trump’s lawyers will also be speaking to a broader, and perhaps more important, audience — the American public. Trump is up for reelection in November, and he sees his defense during the nationally televised Senate trial as a critical part of that campaign.
It’s a distinct change from how Trump initially approached his legal troubles as president. The initial legal team he surrounded himself with as Mueller ramped up were a mix of brash New York fixers and prominent inside-the-Beltway figures, but not necessarily made-for-TV, prime-time players.
The team Trump has now assembled for his impeachment trial is much more familiar with catering to a national audience.
President Donald Trump and Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general who joined the White House as an adviser on impeachment last year. | Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images
Dershowitz, a constitutional and criminal law expert, has defended scores of celebrity clients, including Mike Tyson and Patty Hearst. He was even part of “the trial of the century,” serving on O.J. Simpson’s defense team.
In recent years, he has become a fixture on conservative networks as an outspoken defender of Trump. During last month’s House impeachment debate, the 81-year-old attorney suggested in an op-ed that Trump could appeal to the Supreme Court to throw out at least one of the charges, arguing the justices had just agreed to hear oral arguments on several related oversight cases.
Starr, a 73-year-old former federal appeals court judge and U.S. solicitor general, became a household name in America over the four years he dogged the Clinton administration as an independent counsel.
It was his team’s work — which started as an investigation into the Clintons’ real estate dealings in Arkansas — that eventually led to a salacious report that vividly described the president’s sexual trysts with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the effort to cover up the affair. The report was expected to be so culturally pervasive that there were fears its formal release would literally break the early internet when millions flooded to download the 453-page document.
House Republicans later used Starr’s recommendations as the launching pad to pass two articles of impeachment against Clinton, though the president was ultimately acquitted in the Senate.
During the Trump administration, Starr has been among the most prominent legal defenders of the president, though he has on occasion suggested that Trump deserved the legal scrutiny.
“If I’m on his criminal defense team, I would be very concerned,” Starr told POLITICO’s Off Message podcast in a September 2018 interview as the Mueller investigators considered a subpoena to obtain answers from the president. “I don’t know what President Trump knows, but there have been a number of guilty pleas. Some of those guilty pleas go to false statements, so I would just be cautious” before answering questions from Mueller.
And, in an interesting twist, Democrats have routinely cited Starr’s investigation in their attempts to call witnesses and obtain documents in the Senate trial. They note that Starr had access to all the information and materials he needed before completing his investigation.
Now, Starr will be working to undercut that argument.
While Trump’s legal team played an active role in the Russia probe, it sat out the entirety of the House-led impeachment probe, telling Democrats they disagreed with all aspects of the proceedings. Their decision to block compliance with subpoenas formed the basis for the ultimate obstruction of Congress article of impeachment.
Over the weekend, Trump’s legal squad will formally step into the fray, as it faces a 6 p.m. deadline on Saturday to formally respond to the impeachment charges. That reply is expected to be a relatively short and concise document denying the allegations. A more formal trial brief articulating their legal reasons behind the president’s defense is due at noon on Monday.
Once the trial starts in earnest on Tuesday, Trump’s lawyers will all be seated at a defense table near the front of the Senate. They’ll initially be spectators as the seven House Democratic impeachment managers deliver their opening presentations. Toward the end of the week, Trump’s team is likely to offer its formal response.
While the exact lineup of who will speak first and in what order remain under wraps, the whole group will be working behind the tag-team combination of Cipollone and Sekulow.
Cipollone, a 53-year old longtime corporate litigator, replaced Don McGahn as White House counsel in late 2018. Cipollone entered Trump’s orbit during the 2016 presidential campaign via an introduction from conservative commentator and longtime friend Laura Ingraham. He later helped prep Trump for his debates with Hillary Clinton.
As White House counsel, Cipollone added about 20 attorneys who were specifically assigned to oversight issues after Democrats took control of the House in 2018 and ramped up investigations of the president.
Cipollone’s top associates, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, will also be on the Senate impeachment team. Philbin is a former Cipollone colleague from Kirkland and Ellis who served in senior positions at the George W. Bush Justice Department, at one point even working as a top aide to then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey.
Purpura served as a federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York and later as a George W. Bush White House aide handling oversight issues when Democrats won control of the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms.
Among Trump’s impeachment lawyers, Sekulow, 63, has the longest legal relationship with the president, becoming a personal attorney for the president soon after Mueller’s 2017 appointment.
Since then, he’s been a prominent public defender of Trump on TV and via his own daily radio show. The conservative lawyer also runs the nonprofit American Center for Law & Justice and has on his resume a dozen cases that he’s argued before the Supreme Court. That includes another round of disputes going before the justices in March over the president’s resistance to subpoenas for his financial and tax records.
Trump’s hybrid team of lawyers from inside and outside his White House follows a pattern from past presidential impeachments.
Clinton White House counsel Charles Ruff led a defense team during his 1999 trial that included rising party stars Greg Craig and Cheryl Mills. They split up opening and closing statements and also took the lead on the House Republican charges that the president committed perjury and obstruction of justice to cover up his affair with Lewinsky.
The other prominent name came via a cameo, when longtime Clinton friend Dale Bumpers, who’d just retired from four terms in the Senate, delivered one of the opening arguments on behalf of the president.
Back in 1868, President Andrew Johnson’s defense team included Henry Stanbery, who resigned as attorney general to serve on his impeachment team. Johnson’s lawyers, a five-man team that also included former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, secured his Senate acquittal by one vote and kept the Democratic president in office to serve out the remainder of the late-President Abraham Lincoln’s second term.
Each of the veteran attorneys joining Trump’s team has faced varying degrees of personal controversy in recent years.
After a career defending notorious figures, Dershowitz has faced questions about his association with the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who apparently killed himself in a Manhattan federal prison last August. Dershowitz often socialized with Epstein beginning in 1996 and had even spent time at his private island in the Caribbean.