Trump legal switch hints at larger problems
Former President Trump abruptly changed his legal team over the weekend, underscoring his difficulties in putting together a strong defense just a week before his impeachment trial is to begin.
The president announced late Sunday that his legal defense will be led by attorneys David Schoen and Bruce Castor, two figures involved in controversial cases in the past.
The two replace South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers, who had been connected to Trump with the help of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) but reportedly differed with the ex-president over strategy for the trial.
Multiple sources familiar with the process of assembling Trump’s team described it as chaotic and dysfunctional. Trump met with Schoen and Castor on Saturday in Florida, but it’s unclear how well the former president knows the two attorneys.
“It’s a little crazy to me that you’ve got a former president of the United States who’s about to be tried for impeachment for a second time, and you can’t find an attorney to represent you,” one source said.
“This goes to a larger narrative, which is just like we saw during his administration, his post-administration is being advised by people who don’t know what they’re doing,” the source added.
Schoen and Castor have indicated since their roles were publicly announced that they will steer clear of claims there was widespread election fraud last November, something Trump pushed for weeks leading up to violent mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In a statement issued Sunday night, Trump’s office touted the achievements of his new legal team, depicting Schoen and Castor as effective trial attorneys with a wealth of experience handling high-profile cases.
Trump’s statement highlighted Schoen’s effect on the criminal defense bar, as well as his advocacy on behalf of civil rights and victims of terrorism. It underscored Castor’s experience representing Pennsylvania, including his role as district attorney for eight years and stints as the state’s solicitor general and acting attorney general.
But critics were quick to pounce on some of the less flattering dimensions of their careers.
Schoen represented Trump ally Roger Stone when he appealed his conviction for lying to Congress and witness tampering in connection to the probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election. Stone later received a pardon from Trump. He also discussed taking over as counsel for financier Jeffrey Epstein just days before the convicted sex offender was found dead in his New York jail cell.
Castor gained notoriety for his decision in 2005 not to charge Bill Cosby with sexual misconduct after allegations from a Temple University employee surfaced. Cosby was convicted 13 years later of drugging and raping his accuser.
“Bruce is a decent prosecutor, meticulous and has a flair for the dramatic,” said Keith Naughton, who consulted for Castor for two years in the early 2000s. “The problem he has is that he gets thrown by the unanticipated and has trouble under an intense, well-prepared cross-examined. Basically, he can’t hit the curveball.”
Neither Schoen nor Castor responded to requests for comment.
Trump is on trial after 10 Republicans joined with Democrats in the House last month to impeach him for inciting violence against the government Jan. 6.
Trump, who was president at the time, made unproven claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the election and urged his supporters to march to the Capitol to protest the certification of the electoral count affirming Joe Biden as president. A pro-Trump mob stormed the complex, killing a Capitol police officer in the ensuing mayhem, and rioters threatened violence against then-Vice President Mike Pence and others.
Trump is almost certain to be acquitted after 45 out of 50 GOP senators voted last week to support a dismissal of the post-presidency trial on constitutional grounds. At least 17 Republicans would need to vote with all 50 Democrats to convict Trump.
Despite the seemingly slam dunk nature of the case and the high-profile stage, however, Trump has struggled to find attorneys willing to represent him.
No members of his first impeachment defense team, headlined by Jay Sekulow and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, showed an interest. Jonathan Turley, who testified in defense of Trump during House hearings on his first impeachment, also declined to represent the former president.
The legal team headed by Bowers reportedly walked away from the case because they were at loggerheads with Trump over his impeachment defense strategy.
One former Trump White House official described that as a worrisome development. The person said Trump would need additional lawyers to mount a constitutional defense that his speech at the Ellipse does not satisfy the elements of “incitement,” noting that the former president is running out of time to assemble a full team.
Schoen, one of the new lawyers, in an interview with The Washington Post on Sunday batted down the notion that he had been tapped as a replacement in order to fulfill Trump’s wish that his impeachment defense center on relitigating the validity of his electoral defeat.
“It’s not what has drawn me into this impeachment trial,” he said. “I think the proceedings are unconstitutional.”
Turley said it would be a “serious mistake” to tailor the defense around claims of election fraud, particularly when so many Republicans appear ready to acquit the former president.
“This is an example of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory,” said Turley, who is an opinion contributor for The Hill. “If he focuses on electoral fraud, he could change the minds of a number of senators who would view that argument as a sign of contempt for the institution.”
Trump’s counsel will confront a team of Democratic impeachment managers who are expected to marshal a trove of documentary and photographic evidence to make their case that the former president incited the riot.
Democrats have sought to draw a direct line between Trump’s repeated claims and his Jan. 6 remarks to supporters at a rally, to the breach by a pro-Trump mob at the Capitol.
James Robenalt, a lawyer at the firm Thompson Hine and an expert on Watergate, said he expects much of the defense’s focus will be that the trial is unconstitutional. As a fallback argument, he said the lawyers are likely to attack the factual basis underlying the impeachment article.
“He never expressly called for an attack on the Capitol and the lawyers will argue that his speech was protected Free Speech that did not call for imminent violence,” he said.
Morgan Chalfant and Bob Cusack contributed.