Trump chooses high-profile but controversial legal team
President Trump on Friday unveiled a legal team for the upcoming impeachment trial that boasts a roster of high-profile and in some cases controversial attorneys to make his case on the Senate floor.
Ken Starr, Alan Dershowitz, Pam Bondi, Robert Ray and Jane Raskin will join White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow in representing the president.
The White House officially announced the additions to the president’s legal team in a statement late Friday, revealing that Eric Herschmann of the Kasowitz firm would also play a role in Trump’s defense.
The legal team includes multiple individuals with ties to former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and reflects Trump’s emphasis on including media-tested attack dogs he’s familiar with and views as sufficiently loyal.
It also features a few figures who will bring baggage that might distract from Trump’s case as he seeks exoneration from charges he abused his office and obstructed Congress.
Cipollone and Sekulow will be the driving forces behind the president’s defense, the substance of which has been closely guarded leading up to the trial. But each of the attorneys announced Friday are expected to have a speaking role once the White House has a chance to present its case.
The addition of Starr, Dershowitz, Ray and Bondi — fixtures on cable television in recent months — addresses one glaring concern those close to the White House expressed in recent weeks: that Cipollone, a former commercial lawyer, lacked experience on television and in the public realm ahead of what is sure to be one of the most watched events in years.
“It shows a very smart acknowledgement of the fact that the real jury here is the American public,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser and co-host of a radio show devoted to defending the president on impeachment.
“Even though the formal Senate hearing will be conducted between noon and 6 p.m. six days a week, the public debate will be going on 24/7 on the cable news channels, and the eyes of the world will be watching every single word that’s spoken,” he added.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who was a Republican witness during the impeachment inquiry, described the legal team as one with “an impressive level of legal firepower.”
But Turley pointed to a slight risk in bringing in such a large team, saying it could complicate the defense’s ability to adhere to a coherent narrative. He also argued it would be unwise for the lawyers to present a defense with “sensational elements,” suggesting it would be unwelcome in the Senate given the restraint and decorum expected on the floor.
“The president is known to prefer aggressive advocacy with sensational elements. He tends to prefer lightning-rod lawyers, which is not a good fit for this forum,” Turley said. “This is not the place for brass-knuckled advocacy if you want to maintain your core among Republicans and seek to peel away a few Democrats.”
A few of the most high-profile additions come with controversial pasts that will provide fodder to Democrats and could foster unease for some Republicans.
Starr investigated a range of matters related to then-President Clinton as independent counsel, including the sex scandal that ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment. Some legal experts suggested his positions on the Clinton impeachment could conflict with his defense of Trump.
More recently, Starr resigned as president of Baylor University in 2016 in the wake of a damning investigation that found the school had failed to respond to several reports of sexual assault involving football players dating back several years.
Bondi, who joined the White House in November in a communications role, was caught up in controversy in 2013 when the Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to aid her reelection campaign for Florida attorney general. Critics suggested the donation influenced Bondi’s decision not to pursue an investigation into the now defunct Trump University, a claim Bondi has denied.
Dershowitz’s list of former clients includes some of the most infamous cases of the last 25 years. He worked on the defense team during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial; defended Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 amid allegations he had sex with underage girls; and advised Harvey Weinstein’s legal team in 2018 after multiple women accused the Hollywood mogul of sexual abuse.
“He has a long history of doing a lot of cutting-edge criminal defense work,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond. “He’s a smart person. He’s got a long track record. He’s represented a number of controversial clients. He likes being in the public spotlight.”
Some close to the White House suspected Dershowitz — who had been spotted in recent weeks at the White House and at the president’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida — would not play a formal role on the defense team because of the scrutiny he could invite.
The Harvard law professor, who has filed opinion columns to The Hill as a contributor, said in a statement Friday that he was participating in the trial to “defend the integrity of the Constitution and to prevent the creation of a dangerous constitutional precedent.”
He later sought to downplay that his participation in the trial amounted to a formal role in defending Trump.
“I will be there for one hour, basically, presenting my argument,” Dershowitz told Dan Abrams on his SiriusXM radio show. “But I’m not a full-fledged member of the defense team in any realistic sense of that term.”
While the White House’s legal arguments are expected to be detailed in a written brief submitted to the Senate by Monday, several members of the defense team have been outspoken in their views on Trump’s impeachment and have been quoted on the president’s Twitter feed.
Dershowitz, who is adamant that he is not a political supporter of Trump, has argued in television interviews and opinion pieces that the articles of impeachment against Trump do not meet the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Ray has similarly argued in Fox News appearances that the impeachment articles are overly partisan and fail to produce evidence of a crime committed by Trump.
And Starr, who until Friday was a contributor for Fox News, appeared on the network as recently as Wednesday when he opined that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “chose well” in selecting impeachment managers.
“She is going to, I think, continue to be guiding this process, which is above all, all about witnesses on the Senate side,” Starr said.
Raskin is less of a presence in the public sphere, but Trump is still familiar with her. She worked on the president’s defense team during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
There remains some uncertainty surrounding the process of the trial, most notably on whether witnesses and new evidence will be admitted. But the White House will likely make its opening arguments late next week, providing the first glimpses at how the newly assembled team works together and chooses to defend Trump.
“We’ve been hearing for a while that the White House was thinking about putting a lot of its defense in the hands of House members who had defended the president in some really over the top language,” said Gregg Nunziata, an attorney and former GOP Senate aide. “And I think the decision to go with this team instead of some of the House figures really does suggest a more fine-tuned and sober approach to this.”
Updated: 9:32 p.m.