Donald Trump impeachment trial: Twisted facts and other staples of ex-US president's playbook

On Friday, the latest members of Trump’s legal cast took center stage in his impeachment trial and for the most part delivered exactly what he always seems to want from his lawyers: not precise, learned legal arguments but public combat

The New York Times February 13, 2021 10:14:23 IST
Donald Trump impeachment trial: Twisted facts and other staples of ex-US president's playbook

File image of Donald Trump

Ever since Donald Trump began his run for president, he has been surrounded by an ever-shifting cast of lawyers with varying abilities to control, channel and satisfy their mercurial and headstrong client.

During the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, Michael Cohen arranged for hush money payments to be made to a former pornographic film actress. In the second year of Trump’s presidency, John Dowd, head of the team defending the president in the Russia investigation, quit after he concluded that Trump was refusing to listen to his counsel.

By Trump’s third year in office, he had found a new lawyer to do his bidding as Rudy Giuliani first undertook a campaign to undermine Joe Biden and then helped lead the fruitless effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election, with stops in Ukraine and at Four Seasons Total Landscaping along the way.

On Friday, the latest members of Trump’s legal cast took center stage in his impeachment trial and for the most part delivered exactly what he always seems to want from his lawyers: not precise, learned legal arguments but public combat, in this case including twisted facts, rewritten history and attacks on opponents.

Despite an often unorthodox and undisciplined approach from his legal teams, Trump has survived more legal challenges as president than any of his recent predecessors. Although federal investigators uncovered the hush money payments and significant evidence he may have obstructed the Russia investigation, he was never charged. He was acquitted by the Senate in his first impeachment trial related to the Ukraine pressure campaign, and he appeared poised Friday to see a similar outcome in this impeachment.

Legal experts, white-collar defense lawyers and even some of Trump’s former lawyers acknowledge that his survival has largely been a function of the fact that he is the president of the United States, a position that has given him great powers to evade legal consequence.

“At the outset of the administration I would have said it would be remarkable for someone to run this gauntlet and survive,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former longtime senior Justice Department official.

After initially stumbling in its first round of arguments Tuesday, the latest team — either the seventh or eighth to defend Trump since he became president, depending on your math — followed the playbook Trump has long wanted his lawyers to adhere to.

They channeled his grievances and aggressively spun what-about arguments that tried to cast his own behavior as not so bad when compared with the other side. Democrats found their performance infuriatingly misleading, but it potentially provided the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate opposed to convicting Trump with talking points they can use to justify their votes.

“Hypocrisy,” one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael van der Veen, said after they played a several-minutes-long clip of prominent Democrats and media commentators using language like “fight” in an effort to show that Trump’s own words before the riot could have had no role in inciting the violence.

“The reality is, Mr. Trump was not in any way, shape or form instructing these people to fight or to use physical violence,” van der Veen said. “What he was instructing them to do was to challenge their opponents in primary elections to push for sweeping election reforms, to hold Big Tech responsible.”

Serving as one of Trump’s lawyers is a true high-wire act for a range of reasons, from his indifference to the law and norms to his long-held belief that he is his own best defender and spokesman. In the 1970s, under the tutelage of the Roy Cohn — whose aggressiveness was matched by his lack of adherence to ethical standards — Trump began conflating legal and public relations problems.

These factors have often led Trump to ignore legal advice and dictate to the lawyers what he wants them to do. Some lawyers have survived for years with Trump through various investigations, such as Jay Sekulow and Florida-based couple Marty and Jane Raskin. They were involved in defending Trump in his first impeachment battle. And they had successes defending Trump in the highest-profile investigation he faced as president, the special counsel inquiry into possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Russian officials.

But those lawyers are not part of his current team.

Neither is Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel who spent weeks at the end of the Trump term batting away various efforts to overturn the election results. As he did with a previous White House counsel, Donald McGahn, Trump repeatedly wanted the White House counsels to act as his personal lawyers.

And Trump’s willingness to listen to lawyers who tell him what he does not want to hear dwindled significantly after the Nov. 3 election. Instead, he relied on Giuliani, whom other Trump aides blame for ensnaring Trump in his two impeachment battles, to guide him in his effort to overturn the results of the election.

Giuliani repeatedly told associates that he would be involved in the impeachment defense, despite his status as a potential witness, since he addressed the Trump rally crowd on 6 January. Trump ultimately told Giuliani that he would not be involved.

But Trump’s advisers struggled to find a legal team that would defend him.

Finally, with help from an ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Trump’s advisers announced that he had hired Butch Bowers, a well-known lawyer with experience representing South Carolina politicians facing crises.

But just over a week before the trial was to begin, Bowers and the four lawyers connected to him abruptly left, though another lawyer, David Schoen, who was expected from the beginning to be part of the team, remained on board.

In another reminder of his ad hoc approach, Trump asked associates Thursday night whether it was too late to add or remove lawyers from the team.

Just a few hours before Trump’s team was to appear in the well of the Senate, the group was still hashing out the order of appearance of his two chief lawyers, Schoen and Bruce L. Castor Jr. In the end, they decided that a third lawyer, van der Veen, would deliver the opening act.

The uncertainty apparently stemmed from Castor’s widely panned appearance Tuesday, when he delivered a rambling, unfocused opening statement that enraged his client. Trump has told advisers and friends he did not want to hear from Castor anymore, people familiar with the Trump team’s discussions said.

People familiar with the makeup of the legal team said Eric Herschmann, a lawyer and ally of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who worked in the West Wing in the final year of the administration, was a key figure in putting it together.

When Trump asked Herschmann who had hired Castor after his disastrous outing Tuesday, Herschmann, according to two people with knowledge of the exchange, sought to lay the blame on Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. Herschmann did not respond to an email seeking comment.

By the end of the day Friday, van der Veen, a personal injury lawyer from Philadelphia, had emerged as Trump’s primary defender, handling questions from senators, making a series of false and outlandish claims, calling the impeachment a version of “constitutional cancel culture” and declaring that Friday’s proceedings had been his “most miserable” experience in Washington.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead House impeachment manager, responded, “I guess we’re sorry, but man, you should have been here on Jan. 6.”

Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman c.2021 The New York Times Company

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