For the impeachment trial, Trump's legal defense team takes shape

Picking the most controversial member of Donald Trump's expanding legal defense team is surprisingly difficult.
The White House On Election Day
The White HouseZach Gibson / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

In November 2018, Donald Trump explained that when choosing lawyers for key governmental roles, he's influenced by those he sees on television. With this in mind, some of the president's choices for his impeachment defense team make sense, because they're familiar figures from his screen. NBC News reported this morning:

President Donald Trump's defense team for the Senate trial includes include former independent counsel Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, and famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, sources familiar with the White House's plans and the president's legal strategy told NBC News Friday.

The legal team will be led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow.

Also joining the team is Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as Clinton special counsel, the sources said. Pam Bondi, former Florida attorney general, and Jane Raskin, a Miami-based criminal defense lawyer who along with her husband was already a part of Trump's personal legal team, are also expected to be part of the president's impeachment defense, said one source familiar with the White House's plans.

In a statement this morning, Sekulow confirmed that Bondi, Dershowitz, Starr, and Ray "will be part of our team."

One of the noticeable things about this list is who isn't on it. As of last week, the president reportedly "loved the idea" of adding a group of far-right House congressmen -- Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.), and Doug Collins (Ga.) were in the mix -- to the legal team, at least in part because of their "bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances."

Senate GOP leaders went out of their way to discourage Trump from pursuing such a course, and it appears those lobbying efforts were effective.

But to think the president went with uncontroversial choices is to overlook the names on the list and their backgrounds.

Bondi, for example, was caught up in an unfortunate ethics mess after she derailed a Trump University probe after receiving financial support from the future president. Dershowitz, a recent staple of Fox News broadcasts and Trump tweets, was tarnished by his legal work on the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. Ken Starr has been dogged by a number of controversies, including his cringe-worthy efforts during the Clinton impeachment saga, and more recently, a 2016 scandal at Baylor University during his tenure as the school's president.

But let's not brush too quickly past the lawyer who confirmed the latest additions.

Jay Sekulow, previously known for heading a far-right legal group created by radical televangelist Pat Robertson, has received highly unflattering scrutiny for his role in a highly dubious fundraising scheme that benefited several members of his immediate family.

More to the point, however, Rachel this week interviewed Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate integrally involved with Trump's Ukraine scheme, and in a segment that aired last night, Parnas spoke about the "several conversations" he had with Sekulow while developments were unfolding in Ukraine.

Parnas added that Giuliani had told him that Sekulow "was aware of everything," though he disapproved of the scheme. When Rachel asked if Sekulow was part of the effort to get Ukraine to announce Biden-related investigations, Parnas replied, "Oh, absolutely."

Giuliani's former associate, in the same interview, said Sekulow was also involved in advising Parnas not to cooperate with the investigation into the Ukraine scheme. Parnas also turned over to Congress a letter from Sekulow in which he said he received permission from Donald Trump to allow Parnas to be represented by John Dowd, who served on the president's legal defense team.

All of which is to say, picking the most controversial member of Donald Trump's expanding legal defense team is surprisingly difficult.

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