Dershowitz: Trump trial is my 'worst controversy'

Celebrity attorney Alan DershowitzAlan Morton DershowitzCBS All Access launches animated 'Tooning Out the News' series Trump's three-track clemency process just might work A disgraced Senate and president have no business confirming judges MORE has become the lightning rod of the Senate impeachment trial. 

Dershowitz, 81, insists he isn’t a political supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE and that he backed Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe two infectious diseases spreading across America Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left MORE in the 2016 election.

Yet the Harvard Law professor emeritus, who has repeatedly offered a public defense for Trump since his election, is now taking a star turn on the president’s legal impeachment team, delivering passionate and controversial statements extolling a broad notion of executive power.

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And he’s doing so as he takes a 180 on arguments he made in 1998, when he argued against President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMonica Lewinsky says 'no matter the past' she hopes Linda Tripp recovers COVID is a very different kind of crisis politically History's lessons for Donald Trump MORE’s impeachment.

Dershowitz now says that criminal-like conduct is required for an act to be impeachable, a complete shift from his Clinton-era take that Dershowitz attributes to his having refined his views after extensive study.

Trump’s inclusion of Dershowitz, who is an opinion contributor to The Hill, proved controversial from the beginning. His arguments in defense of the president earned praise from the White House and are likely to give cover to some Republicans seeking a rationale for acquitting the president while making him a pariah among Democrats and some legal analysts, underscoring the risks and rewards of making him part of the team.

In a phone interview, Dershowitz described his role as “very specific,” focusing only on delivering a constitutional argument against impeachment that he wrote over a two-week period. He said his wife was initially opposed to the idea of him joining the president’s defense and that it took a conversation with Trump in order for them to agree on him playing a limited role. 

“I did not participate in strategic decisions or tactical decisions about witnesses or anything like that. I just delivered my Constitutional argument and made myself available to answer questions on the constitutional argument,” he explained. 

But even on a legal team stacked with television bona fides, Dershowitz has stood out. He has given demonstrative presentations rooted in history that have in some ways resembled a lecture he might give at Harvard and produced viral moments with his defiant and at-times head-scratching defenses of presidential power.

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He was the first on Trump’s legal team to explicitly address the bombshell allegations about the president from former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonChina sees chance to expand global influence amid pandemic Trump ignores science at our peril Bolton defends decision to shutter NSC pandemic office MORE’s forthcoming book that were described in a New York Times report. 

At the height of his argument on the Senate floor Monday evening — a finale of sorts for the day’s proceedings — Dershowitz asserted that even if Trump had withheld security assistance to Ukraine for help with political investigations, it would not constitute an impeachable offense. 

Following that argument, Dershowitz said he received a phone call from Trump. “Just thanking me, and that was it,” he recalled. 

Dershowitz upped the ante on Wednesday when he asserted anything a president does to win reelection is not impeachable as long as it doesn’t involve a criminal act and they believe their election is in the public interest.

That argument has dominated headlines and cemented Dershowitz’s role as a central figure in Trump’s impeachment trial given his extraordinary view of protections for the executive branch. It also stunned Democrats and threatened to leave Dershowitz further isolated in legal circles.

“The Dershowitz argument, frankly, would unleash a monster,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHouse Republicans, key administration officials push for additional funding for coronavirus small business loans Rep. Massie threatens to block next relief bill, calls for remote voting Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference. “More aptly, it would unleash a monarch.”

Neil Eggleston, former White House counsel under President Obama, called the position “ludicrous.” 

“The problem with what he did ... is that he equates the national interest of the country with the reelection of a particular person,” he said. “Those are not equivalent.”

Dershowitz’s Wednesday presentation was perhaps more jarring because he had delivered what Republicans, legal scholars and even some Democrats viewed as a cogent and convincing argument just two days earlier that the Constitution requires that impeachable offenses be based on “criminal-like conduct akin to treason and bribery.” 

“It is true that the vast majority of academics reject this theory, but that doesn’t mean this is a frivolous or moronic interpretation,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who testified as a Republican-called witness during the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment proceedings.

“I think after Monday his arguments became increasingly untethered,” Turley added. “I think he did on occasion allow his rhetoric to outrun his reasoning.”

Turley called what is being dubbed the “Dershowitz Doctrine” an unnecessary tenet of the president’s defense given the legal team had otherwise managed to refute key portions of the House’s case.

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“The most significant arguments made by the president’s defense have been swamped by the attention given to this flawed theory,” he said.

Even White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin on Thursday evening suggested senators ignore “the more radical portion” of Dershowitz’s argument, while endorsing his overall theory that a crime is required to impeach during remarks on the Senate floor.

Dershowitz, who agreed to appear with the team on the Senate floor on Monday and Wednesday, spent Thursday defending himself against backlash to his statements a day earlier. He accused the media of having “willfully distorted” his argument and emphasized his belief that a president’s conduct, as long as it’s not criminal, is not impeachable if he has at least a “mixed motive” that is focused both on political gain and the national interest.

“I did not and categorically do not believe a president can do anything if he thinks that his election is in the national interest,” Dershowitz told The Hill, claiming his remarks were “totally distorted, deliberately and willfully,” by Democrats and the media. 

Dershowitz has long been a regular presence on Fox News and has subsequently appeared in the president’s tweets. He has popped up at recent events at the White House, participating in a Hanukkah celebration in December and more recently mingling with top administration officials when Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan. He also spoke with Trump at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays.

Still, he’s maintained that he’s not a political supporter of Trump and is part of the defense merely to protect the Constitution.

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Dershowitz has been something of a recurring character in impeachment trials. He weighed in on the Nixon proceedings as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and he consulted with Clinton’s defense team during his impeachment.

In the Clinton trial, Dershowitz argued that a criminal act is not required to impeach. He has taken the opposite view in the Trump trial, a flip-flop that Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCoronavirus watch: Southern states begin to see rise in cases Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus Politicians mourn the death of Bill Withers MORE (D-W.Va.) raised Wednesday during time for lawmaker questions.

“What happened since 1998 is that I studied more, did more research, read more documents, and, like any academic, altered my views,” Dershowitz said on the Senate floor.

But it was his nonpolitical clients that made him one of the most controversial additions to Trump’s defense team. Dershowitz worked on the defense team during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial; he defended sex predator Jeffrey Epstein in 2008; and the professor advised Harvey Weinstein’s legal team in 2018 after multiple women accused the Hollywood mogul of sexual abuse.  

His role on Trump’s defense team is likely to be just as memorable, but for different reasons. His presentations will be played on a loop on cable television and in classrooms where legal experts debate the historical significance of the third impeachment trial in U.S. history — Dershowitz even plans to write a book about the trial, he said.

Dershowitz said his decision to play a role in the defense came with some negative consequences, which he attributed to the current political climate.

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“This is the worst controversy I have ever been in politically,” Dershowitz said. “I have some family members who won’t talk to me, I have some friends who have refused to have anything to do with me. But it shows me who my real friends are.” 

Asked if he regrets playing a role in the case, Dershowitz said he had “mixed feelings.” 

“In O.J., people hated what I did. With Trump, people hate who I am,” Dershowitz said. “And there’s a big difference.”