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Stumbles, clashes and egos: Behind the scenes with Trump’s legal team

This article is based on interviews with a half-dozen members of the legal team and others involved in the process, which ultimately led to Trump’s acquittal.

By: New York Times |
February 17, 2021 10:01:50 am
Bruce Castor, one of former President Donald Trump’s lawyers, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, the second day of Trump’s second impeachment trial. The lawyers assembled by the former president to represent him in his Senate impeachment trial hardly knew one another. (Brandon Bell/The New York Times)

Written by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt

On the afternoon of Feb. 10, when former President Donald Trump’s legal team gathered in a conference room in a special suite at the Trump hotel in Washington, a longtime adviser to Trump, Justin Clark, had an announcement to make.

Clark told one of the lawyers, Bruce Castor, that after his widely panned performance a day earlier, Trump did not want him appearing on television any more during the impeachment trial.

Castor rose from his chair, and began angrily shouting at Clark, arguing that Trump was wrong to demote him. The back and forth became so heated that Castor left the conference room in a huff.

He later apologized to Clark. But the tense exchange was just one example of how Trump’s hastily assembled legal team — a mash-up of political hands, a personal-injury lawyer, a former prosecutor and a longtime defense lawyer, most of whom did not particularly like or trust one another — clashed, stumbled and regrouped throughout the impeachment proceeding under the watchful and sometimes wrathful eye of its client.

The result was an airplane held together with duct tape as it tried to land.

This article is based on interviews with a half-dozen members of the legal team and others involved in the process, which ultimately led to Trump’s acquittal.

“You have to remember that we had literally one week and one day to prepare the defense and we were all people who never had met each other before,” one of the lawyers, David Schoen, said in a statement after he was approached for this article.

In the days after the House impeached Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot, Trump and his aides tried to assemble a legal team. Several lawyers who had represented him in his past impeachment made clear they would not be involved this time. Other high-end white-collar defense lawyers were afraid to work for him because of the political backlash and fears that Trump would refuse to pay his legal bills.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., departs Capitol Hill after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Two weeks before the Senate trial was scheduled to begin, Trump announced he had hired a team led by Butch Bowers, a lawyer from South Carolina who had defended many of the state’s prominent politicians. Soon after, Schoen, who is based in Atlanta, was brought on to be, as Schoen said, “co-quarterbacks” with Bowers.

But Bowers and four other lawyers working for Trump abruptly parted ways with him about 10 days before the trial. Bowers and Trump had no chemistry, and some people familiar with the events said that Trump had wanted the team to push his false claims of a stolen election, something Bowers did not want to do. Schoen disputed that account, saying Trump never pressured him on the issue.

Nonetheless, the team suddenly needed more lawyers. Stephen Castor, the top Republican congressional lawyer who took on Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment, recommended his cousin, Bruce Castor, a former prosecutor in Pennsylvania.

Schoen believed he was still going to be in charge of the legal team. But, by Schoen’s account, when Bruce Castor and several other lawyers he worked with in Philadelphia — including a personal-injury lawyer named Michael van der Veen — showed up, they took over the defense.

“Again, the president made clear that I was to take the lead and do most of the presenting,” Schoen said. “However, when Bruce came in, he brought his partner Mike and several other lawyers to help them. He immediately began setting an agenda and assigning roles. My role was marginalized.”

Schoen said that he mistakenly declined to push back on Castor’s plan.

“My personality is such that I simply was not comfortable asserting myself and I just accepted the agenda and figured I would just do the best job I could at whatever I was assigned,” Schoen said. “That was my mistake and my shortcoming.”

Schoen, who said he was in regular contact with Trump, added that he made another mistake: He did not tell Trump that Castor was going to have such a prominent role in the public arguments.

Schoen was still scheduled to make the opening argument on the first day of the trial. House managers began the proceeding with a compelling presentation that included a chilling compilation of video clips of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Castor then told Schoen that he wanted to address the jurors.

“I admired his courage for jumping right in,” Schoen said. “Unfortunately, he got panned by the media pretty soundly and a number of people thought perhaps the agenda should be reconsidered.”

Van der Veen said in an interview that Castor had stepped up to speak because he believed it would be a way to reduce the emotion in the room.

But Trump became enraged by Castor’s meandering, low-energy performance. The former president called Clark, among others, to vent that afternoon.

Defense attorneys Michael van der Veen, left, and Bruce Castor speak to reporters after former President Donald Trump was acquitted in his second Senate impeachment trial on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. The lawyers assembled by the former president to represent him in his Senate impeachment trial hardly knew one another. (Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)

“Bruce doesn’t go on TV again,” Trump said, referring to the televised presentations from the floor of the Senate. Trump also wanted Clark to join the legal team and present arguments in the chamber. Other advisers told the former president that shaking up the defense in the middle of the trial was a bad idea.

Castor did not respond to an email seeking comment. But both van der Veen and Schoen said they believed that Castor was unfairly pilloried.

What happened next is the subject of debate.

Two people involved in the effort said that Clark, as well as Alex Cannon, another lawyer who had worked on the Trump campaign and for the Trump Organization, took over writing the scripts that the lawyers would use to present and told them not to deviate from them. Jason Miller, a political adviser to Trump, looked over the completed scripts, those people said. And Ory Rinat, a former White House aide, helped develop the visual presentations.

Both Schoen and van der Veen denied that the Trump aides scripted the presentations.

“I’m not taking credit for anybody else’s work and they shouldn’t take it for mine, either,” van der Veen said.

Schoen, whose mother had died a few weeks earlier of the coronavirus and who blew a kiss toward the sky after his final presentation, said that Trump was far from a micromanager.

“He literally called me a few times a day some days just to tell me how much he appreciated me and had confidence in me and that I should have more confidence in myself,” said Schoen, who did not participate in the Senate proceedings Saturday because of the Jewish Sabbath.

But Schoen added that he should have kept Trump more in the loop about who was going to speak at the trial.

“I think I let him down,” he said.

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