As he heads into a fraught Senate impeachment trial, President Trump boosted his defense team Friday by adding a bevy of high-wattage outside lawyers who carry considerable political baggage but are practiced in the arts of legal theatrics and comfortable in the glare of TV lights.
Chief among them were Alan Dershowitz, who has defended celebrity clients including Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, and Kenneth Starr, whose four-year independent counsel investigation led to the House impeachment of President Clinton in 1998.
Both veteran lawyers are brand-name fixtures on Fox News, where they have fiercely defended Trump in his impeachment struggle, and can be expected to deliver a spirited defense on the Senate floor once the trial gets past a rules debate next week.
But both attorneys have seen their careers tarred in recent years for helping billionaire Jeffrey Epstein win a lenient plea deal in Florida in 2008 after he was accused of raping numerous underage high school students. Epstein committed suicide last year while in custody after federal prosecutors in New York reopened the case.
One woman later alleged that Dershowitz, now 81, had sexually assaulted her when she was being sex-trafficked by Epstein, a charge Dershowitz has vehemently denied. The two have sued each other for defamation.
Starr, a former dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, was forced to resign as president of Baylor University in Texas in 2016 following an investigation that found he had mishandled sexual assault cases at the school.
Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as independent counsel and wrote the final Clinton report, will also join the team. So will Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general and frequent Fox News guest, and Jane Raskin, a defense attorney who represented Trump during the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow will lead the president’s defense team.
Senate Democrats are likely to cite previous pro-impeachment arguments and writings by Starr and Ray, including their efforts to get the Senate to call witnesses during Clinton’s trial in 1999, as they push for the Republican-led Senate to agree to hear new evidence and witnesses in Trump’s case.
Starr “pushed the weakest impeachment case, certainly in my lifetime, and now he’s up here to [argue against] the strongest impeachment case in my lifetime,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was in the Senate for Clinton’s trial and is the most senior member of the Judiciary Committee. “That’s their choice. But it’s a weird choice.”
On Friday, a video clip surfaced of Trump, back in 1999, calling Starr a “lunatic” and “disaster” as Trump stuck up for Clinton during an interview on NBC News.
“This is definitely an ‘are you [expletive] kidding me?’ kinda day,” tweeted Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose sexual affair with Clinton was central to the scandal.
In Trump’s view, any credibility, character questions or embarrassing inconsistencies are outweighed by the lawyers’ proven loyalty, combativeness and ability to perform on television — a skill Trump has long valued and one likely to be crucial during a trial that, above all, will be a political battle to shape public opinion.
Fox News announced Friday that Starr would step away from his role as a commentator because of his new position with Trump.
Although the White House said Dershowitz was on the defense team, he sought to downplay his role, saying he would present a constitutional argument against convicting the president of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the two articles of impeachment.
“I was asked to present my constitutional argument against impeachment,” he said in an interview on Sirius XM. “I will be there for one hour, basically, presenting my argument. But I’m not a full-fledged member of the defense team.”
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in south Florida who has written a book, “Spinning the Law,” about trying cases that draw intense public interest, said Trump’s TV-savvy lawyers may help him more than the dry arguments of his in-house counsel.
“Certainly, given the expected media intensity, some of the individuals such as Pam Bondi and Ken Starr and certainly Alan Dershowitz are very effective advocates in the court of public opinion, and that’s going to be a big part as history’s being written,” said Coffey, who considers himself a close friend of Dershowitz.
According to a person familiar with the legal team’s strategy, the strategic objective will be to portray the Democrats’ impeachment effort as “totally political,” and to avoid trying to litigate the facts presented by House managers selected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
The House managers are expected to argue, based on hearings since September, that Trump improperly pressured a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. election by withholding $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine for its conflict with Russia while demanding Ukrainian officials dig up dirt on Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are familiar with the Trump team’s tactic.
“If the evidence is weak, the defense will attack the evidence and try to win on the merits,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in Washington. “If the evidence is strong, the defense will attack the people bringing the case.”
Trump’s approach to impeachment has echoed his response to the 22-month investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump relentlessly denounced the inquiry as a “witch hunt” and claimed that the final 448-page report exonerated him, though it did not.
Indeed, Trump and his defenders portray the impeachment, which focuses on events that transpired months after Mueller finished his report, as a continuation of a Democratic effort to undermine his presidency and fight for his ouster before he can win reelection.
“Our opponents say, ‘We’re not going to win. Let’s impeach him,’” Trump bellowed during a rally in Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
This week, Trump and allies tried to brush off bombshell allegations by Lev Parnas, a Soviet-born U.S. citizen and associate of the president’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, that Trump’s pursuit of investigations by Ukraine and his withholding of military aid was “all about the Bidens” and that “everyone knew” about the quid pro quo.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump said nine times in two minutes that he “didn’t know” Parnas, despite multiple now-public photos showing them together.
Another close ally of the president, Fox News host Sean Hannity, previewed an argument Thursday night that might serve as a last-ditch defense for wavering senators.
“Sometimes the best defense is the ‘so what’ defense,” Hannity said. “If everything the Democrats said is true, it’s still not impeachable. If everything Lev Parnas said is true, it’s still not impeachable.”
The Senate trial will begin in earnest Tuesday with an expected contentious debate over the rules to govern the proceedings.
Democrats want the Senate to agree in advance to subpoena documents and witnesses that the House could not access, probably including former national security advisor John Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Republicans say the Senate should first hear arguments from both sides and then determine whether more witness testimony is needed.
The Senate will vote on the GOP plan Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he has the votes for it to pass. Democrats plan to force votes on hearing from various witnesses, but none are expected to win approval.
House Democrats are then expected to present their case, followed by the president’s defense team, a process that could take two weeks. Democrats hope to get another chance to call witnesses at that point.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) indicated she is “likely” to join Democrats to demand witnesses, but she won’t support them next week. Assuming all 47 Democrats stick together, and absent a tie-breaking vote by the chief justice, they would need to flip four Republicans to win that demand.
Ultimately, a two-thirds majority of the 100 senators would be required to convict the president and force his removal, meaning 20 Republicans would have to switch sides. So far, none has signaled willingness to do so.
Trump’s impeachment overshadowed a week that included two major political wins for the White House: the Senate’s overwhelming passage Thursday of a revamped free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and an elaborate ceremony Wednesday to sign a “phase one” trade agreement between the U.S. and China.
During that 74-minute event, Trump struggled to focus as he delivered a long, meandering monologue, lavishing praise on donors and several Republican senators who are about to sit in judgment of him.
On Friday, impeachment remained on Trump’s mind as he welcomed Louisiana State’s national championship football team to the White House and concluded by sprinkling self-pity and triumphalism into an invitation to show the players the Oval Office.
“We’ll take pictures behind the Resolute Desk. It’s been there a long time. A lot of presidents — some good, some not so good,” Trump riffed. “But you got a good one now, even though they’re trying to impeach the son of a bitch. Can you believe that? Can you believe that?”
Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.