Figures to watch as White House mounts impeachment defense
Speculation is increasing about the defense team being assembled by the White House as President Trump stares down an impeachment trial in the GOP-controlled Senate.
While Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to delay transmitting the articles of impeachment has created uncertainty around the contours and timing of the trial, it’s still widely expected the Senate will begin the proceedings in January.
The Trump administration has disclosed very little about its forthcoming defense apart from signaling that White House counsel Pat Cipollone will play a significant role, but the president is considering tapping others to play a part in the trial.
Here are the key figures to watch as Trump mounts his impeachment defense.
The White House counsel has played a key role in the impeachment response from Day One, and he’s expected to be a major player in Trump’s defense when the trial gets underway.
“It looks like that, yeah,” Trump told reporters when asked recently whether Cipollone would be his lead defense attorney. “We have a couple of others that we’re going to put in, but Pat’s been fantastic as White House counsel.”
Cipollone has been meeting regularly with GOP senators in recent weeks to discuss strategy and impeachment trial procedures. He has been accompanied on Capitol Hill by Eric Ueland, Trump’s legislative affairs director who was a top Senate aide during the impeachment of former President Clinton.
Cipollone authored much of the correspondence sent to House Democrats as they investigated whether Trump abused his power when he pressed Kyiv to launch probes into 2016 election interference and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s dealings in Ukraine during the Obama administration.
He wrote the Oct. 8 letter that characterized the impeachment inquiry as a partisan and unconstitutional effort to “overturn the results of the 2016 election” and conveyed the White House’s decision to refuse cooperation despite congressional subpoenas issued by Democrats.
Trump tapped Cipollone to replace Don McGahn as White House counsel in October 2018. A leading role in the impeachment trial is likely to come with more of a public spotlight than Cipollone, a former Washington commercial lawyer, has been used to during his legal career.
Cipollone’s deputies in the White House counsel’s office — Patrick Philbin and Michael Purpura — are also likely to be involved in the defense preparations.
The White House is said to be considering Dershowitz, a Harvard Law professor emeritus, to help with Trump’s defense.
Dershowitz has frequently criticized the two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — passed by House Democrats last week.
In a recent opinion piece for The Hill, Dershowitz argued that the articles failed to “satisfy the express constitutional criteria for an impeachment, which are limited to ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.’”
He recently appeared at the White House to participate in a Hanukkah reception where Trump signed an executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses. Trump invited Dershowitz to speak briefly at the Dec. 11 event.
Dershowitz could prove a controversial addition, however, given his prior work for clients like alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in a federal jail over the summer while awaiting trial.
“The White House would be best served by using Dershowitz in a public facing role as one of their top surrogates during the impeachment trial, rather than inviting the negative media scrutiny that would certainly come with selecting him to work the trial,” said one source close to the administration.
Dershowitz has refused to say anything publicly about his conversations with the White House, telling The Hill on Monday he had nothing to share on the topic.
Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, hasn’t played much of a role in impeachment. But that could change as the Senate trial draws near.
The chief counsel for the conservative Christian advocacy group American Center for Law & Justice signed on as part of Trump’s personal legal team in June 2017, a month after the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference and contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow in 2016.
Along with White House lawyer Emmet Flood and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Sekulow was a key player in the president’s defense during the 22-month Mueller investigation.
Sekulow, who declined to comment for this article, has plenty on his plate, which could factor into any decisions on his level of involvement in the Senate trial.
He is representing Trump in various legal matters, including the fight over the president’s tax returns. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear three cases involving Trump’s financial records, scheduling arguments for the high court’s session in March.
Trump’s House GOP allies
There’s been talk that Trump could bring in some of his Republican allies in the House to play some role in his defense.
GOP Reps. John Ratcliffe (Texas), Doug Collins (Ga.), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Mike Johnson (La.) are all under consideration for possibly contributing to Trump’s defense, though the White House has said no decisions have been made and lawmakers have said very little about the possibility.
“I’m really not at liberty to talk about that,” Johnson said on CNN after the Dec. 18 impeachment vote in the House. “I would be delighted to serve on the defense team. I feel very strongly in the president’s case, and if he asked me to serve in that capacity I certainly would.”
Republican sources argue that lawmakers who participated in the House impeachment hearings are best suited to present a defense of Trump because of their knowledge of the facts.
“This is a complicated fact pattern and there’s a lot of details here you really have to have lived in order to appreciate the detail,” said a senior GOP official.
“To that end, nobody understands the facts better than the House members that were in all these depositions, that sat through all these hearings, that have already fought this fight with [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff [D-Calif.],” the official added.
Both Jordan and Ratcliffe are members of the Intelligence and Judiciary panels and sat through hours of public hearings during which witnesses testified about their knowledge of the administration’s contact with Ukraine about investigations sought by Trump and Giuliani. Collins and Johnson both sit on the Judiciary panel, Collins is the top Republican on the committee.