Trips, Showdowns and Egos: Behind the Scenes with Trump’s Legal Team

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump, Bruce Castor, left, and Michael van der Veen, arrive at the U.S. Capitol for the fourth day of Trump’s impeachment trial, in Washington, Feb. 12, 2021. The latest members of Trump’s rotating cast took center stage and delivered exactly what he always seems to want from his lawyers: not precise, learned legal arguments but public combat. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)

On the afternoon of February 10, when the legal team of former US President Donald Trump met in the conference room in a special suite of Trump’s hotel in Washington, one of his senior advisers, Justin Clark, made an announcement.

Clark told one of the lawyers, Bruce Castor, that after his criticized performance the day before, Trump did not want him to appear on television again during the impeachment trial.

Castor got up from his chair and started yelling angrily at Clark, arguing that Trump was wrong to demote him. The dimes and diretes got so heated that Castor stormed out of the conference room.

Castor subsequently apologized to Clark. However, the tense exchange is one example of how, after its hasty formation, Trump’s legal team – a jumble of political aides, a personal injury attorney, a former prosecutor and a defense attorney, most of whom did not agree. he liked or trusted the other — he collided, tripped, and regrouped throughout the impeachment process under the watchful and sometimes irate gaze of his client.

The result was a duct-taped plane attempting to land.

This article is based on interviews with half a dozen members of the legal team and others involved in the process that ultimately led to Trump’s exoneration.

“You must remember that we literally had a week and a day to prepare the defense and none of us knew each other before,” David Schoen, one of the attorneys, said in a statement after he was approached for comment for this article.

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In the days after the House of Representatives launched the impeachment trial of Trump for having participated in inciting the January 6 riots, the former president and his advisers tried to assemble a legal team. Several attorneys who had represented him in the last impeachment made it clear that they did not want to get involved this time. Other extraordinary white-collar defense attorneys feared working for him because of the negative political response and fear that Trump would refuse to pay his fees.

Two weeks before the Senate trial’s scheduled date, Trump announced that he had hired a team led by Butch Bowers, a South Carolina attorney who has defended many prominent state politicians. Soon after, Schoen, who lives in Atlanta, was called in to be, in Schoen’s own words, “field marshal” along with Bowers.

However, Bowers and four other attorneys who worked for Trump disassociated themselves from him ten days before the trial. Bowers and Trump had no chemistry, and some people familiar with the events commented that the former president would have wanted the team to bring up his false allegations about a stolen election, something Bowers did not want to do. Schoen denied that assumption, because, according to him, Trump never pressed him in that sense.

However, suddenly the team needed more lawyers. Stephen Castor, the top Republican congressional lawyer who stood up to Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment trial, recommended his cousin, Bruce Castor, a former Pennsylvania prosecutor.

Schoen believed that he would remain in charge of the political team. However, according to Schoen, when Bruce Castor and several other attorneys who had worked with him in Philadelphia appeared – including a personal injury lawyer named Michael van der Veen – they took up the defense.

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“Again, the president made it clear that I should be in the lead and do the majority of the presentation,” commented Schoen. “However, when Bruce arrived, he brought his partner Mike and several attorneys to help him. Bruce immediately began scheduling an agenda and assigning roles. Mine was marginalized ”.

Schoen said it was a mistake not to oppose Castor’s plan.

“I have a personality that just doesn’t allow me to feel comfortable asserting myself and I just accepted the agenda and thought I would just do my best in whatever was assigned,” Schoen commented. “That was my mistake and my failure.”

Schoen, who claimed to have been in contact with Trump on a regular basis, added that he made another mistake: He did not tell Trump that Castor was going to play such a prominent role in the public allegations.

Schoen was still scheduled to make an opening statement on the first day of the trial. Those in the House of Representatives began the process with a compelling presentation that included a chilling compilation of videos of the attack on the Capitol that occurred on January 6.

So, Castor told Schoen that he wanted to address the jurors.

“I admired his courage for going forward,” Schoen admitted. “Unfortunately, it received quite widespread criticism from the media and several people believed that perhaps the agenda should be reconsidered.”

In an interview, Van der Veen commented that Castor had made the decision to speak because he believed it would serve to calm the emotions in the place.

Nonetheless, Trump was enraged at Castor’s scattered and weak performance. That afternoon, the former president called Clark, among others, to vent his anger.

“Bruce is never on television again,” Trump said, referring to the televised presentations from the Senate floor. Trump also wanted Clark to join the legal team and present arguments in the chamber. Other advisers told the former president that reorganizing the defense in the middle of the trial was a bad idea.

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Castor did not return an email requesting comment. However, both Van der Veen and Schoen believed that Castor was unfairly ridiculed.

What happened next is up for debate.

Two people involved in the effort mentioned that Clark, as well as Alex Cannon, another lawyer who had worked in the Trump campaign and for the Trump Organization, was commissioned to write the scripts that the lawyers were going to use to present and ordered them to stick to them. . Jason Miller, a Trump political adviser, reviewed the finished scripts, according to these people. And Ory Rinat, a former White House adviser, helped develop the visuals.

Both Schoen and Van der Veen denied that Trump’s advisers drafted the submissions.

“I’m not taking credit for someone else’s work and neither should they take mine,” Van der Veen said.

Schoen, who had suffered the loss of his mother to COVID-19 a few weeks earlier and blew a kiss to the sky after his last presentation, noted that Trump was far from being an excessive controller.

“He literally called me a few times a day, some days, just to tell me everything he appreciated me, all the confidence he had in me and that I should have more confidence in myself,” commented Schoen, who was not involved in the processes of the Saturday in the Senate for the Jewish Sabbath.

However, Schoen added that he should have had better informed Trump about the person who was going to speak at the trial.

“I think I disappointed him,” he admitted.

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