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As impeachment trial nears, Trump loses, replaces his legal team

The circumstances surrounding Trump's legal defense are increasingly farcical, but with an eye toward the Senate, the farce soon turns to tragedy.
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In this image from video, White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)AP

A few weeks ago, as plans for Donald Trump's second impeachment trial took shape, Bloomberg Law reported that the Republican was "having trouble" finding lawyers willing to represent him -- a recurring problem for Trump. The report added, "Allies of the outgoing president have been canvassing Washington's legal landscape looking for representation but so far are coming up short."

Eventually, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) "arranged" for South Carolina lawyer Butch Bowers to help lead Trump's defense, and a team soon after took shape. That is, until Saturday, when Bowers and several other lawyers "abruptly" parted ways with the former president, with just a week remaining before the start of the impeachment trial.

The Washington Post fleshed out why Team Trump's legal operation fell apart.

Two people familiar with the discussions preceding the departure of the original legal team said that Trump wanted them to make the case during the trial that he actually won the election. To do so would require citing his false claims of election fraud — even as his allies and attorneys have said that he should instead focus on arguing that impeaching a president who has already left office is unconstitutional.

The reporting added that the legal defense had settled on a specific kind of strategy: they'd question the propriety of trying a former official who's now a private citizen, while targeting the specific definition of "incitement."

But for Trump, that wasn't nearly conspiratorial enough: the Republican wanted a legal defense built on discredited anti-election lies. When the lawyers said that wasn't a credible option, the relationship with their client proved untenable.

NBC News reported that two new attorneys — David Schoen and Bruce Castor Jr. — have replaced the departing lawyers, "just days before a pre-trial brief is due for the impeachment trail that is set to begin a week from Tuesday."

Castor is perhaps best known for declining to charge Bill Cosby with sexual assault several years ago, while Schoen used to represent Roger Stone.

Stepping back, it may be tempting for Trump detractors to laugh at his latest legal foibles. Indeed, the circumstances are increasingly farcical: a disgraced former president, who's struggled for years to hire and keep competent legal representation, couldn't even hold onto his impeachment defense team because he wanted them to peddle nonsense.

But the farce soon turns to tragedy when we realize that Trump could dispatch a student from a fringe law school to present a defense using finger puppets and Senate Republicans still wouldn't vote to convict.

Postscript: It's a largely trivial aside, but when Team Trump issued a written press statement last night announcing his new lawyers, the release's headline read, "45th President Donald J. Trump Announces Legal Team." The statement was four paragraphs long, and it kept repeating the same clumsy phrase.

The first line read, "45th President Donald J. Trump today announced...." It proceeded to quote Schoen saying, "It is an honor to represent the 45th President..." and Castor adding, "I consider it a privilege to represent the 45th President."

It eventually occurred to me what was going on: on Team Trump, it appears no one is allowed to use the phrase "former president."