Trump's team is what happens 'when you don't pay your legal bills'

Ahead of his impeachment trial, Trump's legal team is not exactly a powerhouse roster. There may be a good explanation for this.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which celebrated its official opening on Monday Jan. 14, 2013, in Denver.Brennan Linsley / AP
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By Steve Benen

It wasn't until late last week that Donald Trump's legal team expanded in preparation for the Senate's impeachment trial, and as the Center for a New American Security's Carrie Cordero noted, it's not exactly a powerhouse roster.

"Contrary to tone of some coverage, I'm struck by the *lack* of conservative legal star power on Trump's impeachment team," Cordero wrote, adding that there's "no credible constitutional superstar."

George Conway appeared to be thinking along the same lines, arguing in a Washington Post op-ed, "This is what happens when you don't pay your legal bills."

President Trump, whose businesses and now campaign have left a long trail of unpaid bills behind them, has never discriminated when it comes to stiffing people who work for him. That includes lawyers -- which is part of the reason he found the need to make some curious last-minute tweaks to his team, announcing the addition of the legal odd couple of Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth W. Starr.

The president has consistently encountered difficulty in hiring good lawyers to defend him. In 2017, after Robert S. Mueller III became special counsel, Trump couldn't find a high-end law firm that would take him as a client. His reputation for nonpayment preceded him: One major Manhattan firm I know had once been forced to eat bills for millions in bond work it once did for Trump. No doubt other members of the legal community knew of other examples.

Of course, being cheap wasn't the only reason Trump struck out among the nation's legal elite. There was the fact that he would be an erratic client who'd never take reasonable direction -- direction as in shut up and stop tweeting.

There was a point a couple of years ago, as the president's Russia scandal was intensifying, when he needed sound legal representation and bragged that the "top" law firms were eager to take him on as a client. That was very hard to believe: I put together a list in April 2018 of the lawyers who'd turned Trump down, and it wasn't an especially short list.

There's been no comparable reporting of late about specific, high-profile lawyers rejecting the president's overtures ahead of his impeachment trial, but it seems as if Trump has ended up with a group of attorneys he chose because he saw them on television.

In fact, he could hardly avoid them. Media Matters noted:

On January 17, CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Pamela Brown reported that attorneys Ken Starr, Alan Dershowitz, and Robert Ray are all expected to join President Donald Trump's legal team for his impeachment trial in the United States Senate. The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey reported that former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi will also be joining the team. Combined, Starr, Dershowitz, Bondi, and Ray have made at least 365 weekday Fox News appearances since January 2019.

After Team Trump confirmed the legal line-up, the Washington Post reported that the president wanted Dershowitz and Pam Bondi representing him in the impeachment case at least in part "because he thinks they are talented on TV." Politico added that Trump liked Ken Starr because his work on the Clinton impeachment saga helped create "the type of juicy storyline Trump the executive producer wants to orchestrate."

I'd just add that Jay Sekulow is helping lead Trump's team, despite his own controversies, and despite having the entirely wrong kind of professional background, and it's likely because the president learned of him by way of his media appearances.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog