Thursday, 2 Apr 2020

A look at Trump's impeachment defence team

WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump plans to add former independent counsel Ken Starr and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz to his defence team for the Senate impeachment trial that gets underway in earnest next week, turning to two veterans of politically charged legal cases to secure his acquittal.

The built-out team, which will be led by the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, faces the dual challenge of preserving the president’s support among Republican senators and presenting his case to the wider public watching on television during an election year.

As long as Senate Republicans stick with Trump as expected, his accusers will not be able to muster the two-thirds vote required for conviction.

Here’s a look at the members of Trump’s defence team:


Jay Sekulow, who will Trump’s impeachment defence team with Pat Cipollone, is one of Trump’s longest-serving personal lawyers – an achievement in itself, as the legal team’s revolving door spins wildly.

Sekulow, 63, coordinates the work of eight lawyers from a cooperative working space a few blocks from the White House, under the name Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group.

He is a conservative media personality with deep ties to the evangelical community, a critical part of Trump’s base. But Sekulow does not possess extensive experience in the proceedings that Trump will face in the Senate.

“Jay is not a criminal lawyer, and he’s not even a checks-and-balances constitutional lawyer,” said Paul Rosenzweig, who was senior counsel to Ken Starr for the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration.

“But he’s been at it for two years, so maybe he’s got more experience in defending this president than anybody.”

Sekulow is a frequent presence on Fox News and Christian television. He has his own daily radio show, “Jay Sekulow Live,” on which he and his son Jordan Sekulow, who works in his father’s legal firm, defend and flatter Trump and echo White House talking points on impeachment.

Jay Sekulow was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island and in Atlanta. His New York roots contribute to his rapport with Trump, who is said to view him as a no-nonsense sounding board.

Once an observant Jew, Sekulow embraced Christianity after exploring the Bible while attending Atlanta Baptist College, today known as Mercer University, where he also attended law school.

Sekulow opened a law firm in Atlanta with Mercer classmates and his brother Gary Sekulow. Soon after, he went into business renovating and flipping historic properties – at the time a popular tax shelter for the wealthy.

The venture imploded in 1986. Sued for fraud and securities violations, Sekulow, his brother, father, law partner and other associates declared bankruptcy and left a trail of unpaid debts.

Sekulow swiftly reinvented himself as a litigator for the Christian right, funded by televangelists and donations they solicited for him and his faith-based advocacy group, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, or CASE. In 1990, televangelist Pat Robertson hired Sekulow as chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, a group founded in opposition to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sekulow won a string of Supreme Court cases in the late 1980s and 1990s by arguing that bans on various forms of religious expression in public places violated the practitioners’ right to free speech.

After Trump was elected, the president’s then-adviser, Stephen Bannon, recommended the hiring of Sekulow to help guide Trump’s legal response to the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Sekulow works for the president while continuing to run his law firm and Christian advocacy group.


White House counsel Pat Cipollone during a medal ceremony at the White House, in Washington on May 22, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

When Trump needed to replace his first White House counsel, Donald McGahn, he was looking for someone different.

So when people recommended Pat Cipollone, a conservative lawyer who was well-liked by some of Trump’s aides, the president welcomed him to the role.

Where McGahn plays guitar in a band, Cipollone, 53, drives a pickup truck and stays almost entirely out of view of the news media. Where McGahn privately referred to Trump as “King Kong” and sought to curb some of his potentially self-destructive impulses, Cipollone has been described as more temperamentally agreeable to the president.

In discussions about his legal team, Trump has asked aides whether Cipollone can do well in the impeachment defence, given that it will be a televised spectacle. Still, most people close to the president said that during their year working together, Cipollone has earned the president’s trust.

Like Trump, Cipollone comes from New York City. He was born in the Bronx, the son of Italian immigrants, and graduated from Fordham University. When his father, a factory worker, was transferred to Kentucky, he attended Covington Catholic High School.

At Fordham, he was valedictorian of the class of 1988. After graduation, he clerked for a judge before taking a speechwriting job with William Barr, who was then attorney general under President George H.W. Bush – and is now back in the job under Trump.

Cipollone has worked in private practice since and has been involved in Catholic efforts such as helping found the National Prayer Breakfast. He has 10 children and is family friends with Laura Ingraham, the Fox News commentator who is supportive of Trump.

When the controversy over Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president on July 25 emerged, Cipollone and Barr advocated releasing a reconstructed transcript, believing it raised no legal issues for the president and that it did not match the speculation about what had been said during the call. Cipollone told associates he believed transparency made the most sense.

But that call – and the president’s order to withhold congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine – became the centre of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry that has made Trump only the third president to face a trial in the Senate and potential removal from office.

During the House inquiry, Cipollone signed his name to an eight-page letter that made a blistering political argument against cooperating with the inquiry in any way. The letter raised eyebrows among White House counsels from past administrations.

But it won Trump’s approval, and the White House’s adherence to that stance formed the basis for one of the two articles of impeachment against the president: obstruction of Congress.


Ken Starr speaks during an event at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Sept 18, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The last time a president was put on trial, few were more responsible for putting him in the dock than Ken Starr. Now the former independent counsel whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment 21 years ago will come to the defence of another president charged with high crimes and misdemeanors.

In adding Starr to his legal team Friday, Trump enlisted one of the best known and most polarising legal figures in the country, and someone who in recent months has become a regular defender of the president on Fox News.

For a time in the 1990s, Starr was a household name: the prosecutor pursuing Clinton first over the Whitewater land deal and then over the president’s efforts to thwart a sexual harassment lawsuit by covering up an affair with a White House intern.

To his admirers, Starr was an upright pursuer of a lying, philandering president who had dishonoured the Oval Office.

To his critics, Starr was a moralistic, sex-obsessed Inspector Javert persecuting a president out of ideological animus.

Starr’s investigation confirmed that Clinton had sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky despite the president’s denials under oath and efforts to coach other potential witnesses to hide his indiscretions during a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state worker who accused him of sexual harassment when he was governor.

Acting on Starr’s findings, the House impeached Clinton in December 1998, largely along party lines, but the Senate acquitted him in February 1999, concluding that the president’s wrongdoing did not justify removing him from office.

Clinton was separately found in contempt of court and fined by a federal judge. Clinton later struck a deal with Starr’s successor in which the president admitted not telling the truth under oath, paid a fine and surrendered his law license.

Starr, 73, was once a legal star among Republicans who served as a federal appeals court judge and then as President George Bush’s solicitor general, seen as a possible Supreme Court justice. But his time as independent counsel made him politically radioactive.

He went on to serve as dean of the Pepperdine University Law School and president of Baylor University but was demoted and later resigned from the Texas school after an investigation found the university mishandled accusations of sexual assault against members of the football team. The investigators rebuked university leadership, saying that it “created a perception that football was above the rules.”

In the last 18 months, Starr published a new memoir about his time as independent counsel called “Contempt” sharply criticising Bill and Hillary Clinton and has become a regular commentator defending Trump against House Democrats seeking to impeach him for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.

Starr has distinguished between Bill Clinton’s actions, which he called clear felonies, and Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to provide incriminating information about Democrats, which he called “woefully inadequate” justification for removal from office.

“That is abuse of power,” Starr said on Mark Levin’s Fox News show in December shortly after the House impeached Trump. “We are going to impeach him before he’s done anything. Excuse me, you are using your power in a very vicious way. Whatever you think of him – you don’t think well of him; you think ill of him – it is not your business to use power in such an unprincipled way. Again, shame on you.”

His defence contrasted with previous moments when he criticised Trump. After Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, testified to the House about Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign, Starr said it was “bombshell” testimony that would be cited by Democrats as evidence that “the president, in fact, committed the crime of bribery”.

But he later went on to condemn House Democrats for what he called an “anti-constitutional exercise of power” by impeaching Trump.


Alan Dershowitz, who prides himself on being a civil libertarian and a contrarian who is not afraid to defend the seemingly indefensible in New York on May 31, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

When Alan Dershowitz told Trump this week that he would join the legal team for the impeachment trial in the Senate, his transformation from a onetime liberal standard-bearer into a conservative provocateur appeared to be complete.

Dershowitz, 81, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, prides himself on being a civil libertarian and a contrarian who isn’t afraid to defend the seemingly indefensible, especially if that person has a high-profile, tabloid-friendly name.

His past clients include Claus von Bulow, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier who was accused of sex trafficking and killed himself last year in a Manhattan jail.

Earlier in his career, Dershowitz was also known as an advocate for the First Amendment who defended neo-Nazi speech and pornography and served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Back then, according to The New Yorker, he also worked pro bono to represent clients involved in challenges to censorship and the death penalty.

Dershowitz’s connections to Epstein, however, have proved the most complicating in recent years. In 2014, one of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Giuffre, said in a court filing that Dershowitz was one of the Epstein friends to whom she was offered for sex.

Dershowitz has vociferously denied the allegations. On Fox News, he noted that he had a “perfect, perfect sex life during the relevant period of time.”

The accusations even inspired him to write a book, “Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo”.

Since Trump took office, Dershowitz has frequently visited the West Wing, consulting with the president and his top aides on various issues, including the Middle East and the Mueller inquiry.

Dershowitz, who lives in New York, summers on Martha’s Vineyard and said his family of Democrats is deeply disturbed by his association with Trump. He has known the president as a casual acquaintance since the 1990s.

But Trump took a greater interest in him after his regular Fox News appearances, during which Dershowitz often attacked the legal grounds for the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and defended the president’s right to fire James Comey as FBI director.

Despite Trump’s frequent tweets praising him, Dershowitz has always maintained to reporters that he had no interest in formally joining Trump’s legal team. In a brief interview on Friday, Dershowitz said that had not changed and tried to play down his role.

“I’m presenting an independent argument as an independent academic against impeachment, which is a view I’ve held for a long time,” he said.

Dershowitz is expected to present oral arguments in the Senate trial next week, and he insisted that those arguments would be the extent of his involvement in the trial.

“I felt it was important for the Constitution and for precedent and the future of the impeachment,” he said.

His final conversation about joining the team took place on Wednesday night with Trump himself. “We discussed it and I agreed,” Dershowitz said.


Newly appointed independent counsel Robert Ray sits before photographers in Washington on Oct 25, 1999. PHOTO: AFP

One of the newest members of Trump’s defence team, Robert Ray, has had pointed words about the highest office in the country: “No person is above the law, even the president of the United States.”

But that was nearly 20 years ago, when he succeeded Ken Starr as the independent counsel investigating Clinton. Starr is also a late addition to the president’s legal team for the Senate trial, which starts on Tuesday.

At the time of those remarks in April 2000, Ray faced criticism for drawing out the Clinton investigation when many believed he should have been wrapping it up.

Ray was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York when he was called to replace Starr and had plans to indict Clinton when he left office for the same crimes considered during Clinton’s impeachment.

On his way out of the Oval Office, Clinton and Ray struck a deal that would prevent Clinton from being prosecuted in connection to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, an unpaid White House intern, in return for surrendering his law licence and paying a US$25,000 fine.

After leaving the federal government, Ray went into private practice and currently works at the New York-based firm Zeichner Ellman & Krause.

In 2006, Ray turned himself in to police in response to a low-level charge that he was stalking a former girlfriend. A law enforcement official said the case was sealed, suggesting it was most likely dismissed. Ray declined to comment.

In representing Trump, Ray will be working with a goal of a quick Senate trial; the White House has suggested it would last two weeks and “vindicate” the president of accusations that he pressured a foreign ally to personally benefit him.

Trump is charged with two articles of impeachment: one for abuse of office and the other for obstruction of Congress by preventing witnesses from testifying in defiance of subpoenas.

In November, Ray said there was not enough evidence to convict Trump of a crime, calling the Democratic-led House’s legal theory “flawed”. And he praised Trump’s decision not to send witnesses to the impeachment hearings during a December interview on Fox News.

“The president certainly doesn’t have to aid in the impeachment effort,” Ray told Fox News. “He’s made a judgment now, and I think that’s probably the right judgment.”

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