Washington: President Donald Trump enlisted former independent counsel Ken Starr and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz to join his defence team on Friday, turning to two veterans of politically charged legal cases to secure his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial that gets underway in earnest next week.
Starr, whose investigation into President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998, will be joined by Robert W. Ray, his successor as independent counsel, who negotiated a settlement with Clinton as he left the White House that included a fine and the suspension of his law license.
Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus who became famous as a defence counsel for high-profile defendants like O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow and Mike Tyson, will have a more limited role, presenting oral arguments at the Senate trial “to address the constitutional arguments against impeachment and removal,” the legal team said in a statement.
In choosing the three prominent lawyers, the president assembled what he regards as an all-star television legal team, enlisting some of his favourite defenders from Fox News. But each of them brings his own baggage. Dershowitz represented Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender. Starr was pushed out as a university president because of his handling of sexual misconduct by the football team. And Ray was once charged with stalking a former girlfriend.
Bringing in Starr will also invariably supercharge the discussion over Trump’s impeachment by reopening the long-running debate over Clinton’s case. Starr remains a polarising figure from that era and every point he makes in favour of Trump’s innocence will invite comparisons to the approach he took to Clinton.
But Trump evidently sees Starr as an important validating presence who could endorse the view that the president’s impeachment was illegitimate and unfair. The prosecutor whose investigation triggered the last presidential impeachment will now stand up on the floor of the Senate to declare that this impeachment is invalid. And he will explain why, in the view of someone who has been there, these charges do not add up to high crimes.
“President Trump has done nothing wrong and is confident that this team will defend him, the voters, and our democracy from this baseless, illegitimate impeachment,” the White House said in a statement on Friday night, confirming earlier news reports.
For some Republicans who admire Starr, his participation may carry weight. “I was encouraged by it,” Republican Senator Kevin Cramer said of the newly constituted legal team.
But Trump’s built-out team, which will be led by the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and the president’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, the House Democrats prosecuting the case will not be able to muster the two-thirds vote required for conviction. But just as important to the president is framing the debate in a way that he can take onto the campaign trail as he battles Democrats for a second term.
But this team may not provide the sort of defence the president’s most combative supporters feel he needs. Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist who has been hosting a daily radio show and podcast on impeachment with a group that often coordinates with the White House, said the addition of Dershowitz and Starr brought impressive legal power to Trump’s team.
But Bannon expressed concern that “there are no fire breathers,” as he put it. “It’s very conventional in its make-up and approach. But this is not playing on C-SPAN. The senators are not the jury; the American people are the jury. I strongly believe you need some of the fire breathers from the House, like Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and Lee Zeldin.”
Trump wanted some of those congressmen, among his most stalwart House Republican allies, to be on the defence team, but Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, rejected the idea. Those House members, who are familiar with the testimony provided by witnesses during the impeachment inquiry, are expected to help behind the scenes and to help defend the president on television, people familiar with the president’s legal defence plan said.
Trump’s team is also preparing for the possibility that witnesses will be called in the trial, despite McConnell’s hope to avoid it.
Other lawyers joining Trump’s trial team include Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general who has been a spokeswoman for the defence effort; Jane Serene Raskin, who defended Trump during the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller; and Eric D. Herschmann, a partner at the law firm of another of Trump’s longtime lawyers, Marc E. Kasowitz.
The president has wanted media-savvy defenders who could play the same vocal role that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, did during the Russia investigation by Mueller. Dershowitz has been a media figure for years, and Starr was a contributor to Fox News until parting ways with the network because of his new role with Trump.
But none of the choices was without controversy, and Republicans on Friday voiced private reservations about some of the lawyers.
Dershowitz has faced questions about his representation of Epstein, a financier who killed himself in a New York City jail in August. Dershowitz helped negotiate Epstein’s lenient sentence on sex charges in 2008. Dershowitz has also been accused of engaging in sex with an underage girl he met through Epstein; he has denied the claim.
Starr, who helped Dershowitz on the Epstein defence in 2007, was forced from his job as president of Baylor University in 2016 amid accusations he did not respond to allegations of sexual assault made by women against members of the school’s football team.
An outside investigation rebuked the university leadership, saying it had “created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.” As he left the university presidency, Starr expressed “heartfelt contrition for the tragedy and sadness that has unfolded” and said he was “profoundly sorry” to victims who were not treated with the care and support they deserved.
As for Ray, he turned himself into New York authorities in 2006 in response to a misdemeanour charge of stalking a woman he had previously been dating. Police said he sent emails and visited the woman against her wishes after she broke off their relationship. A law enforcement official said the case was sealed, suggesting it was most likely dismissed. Ray declined to comment.
Trump himself has previously questioned Starr’s zealous pursuit of Clinton. In 1999, after the House voted to impeach the president largely along party lines, Trump told interviewers that Starr was a “wacko” and a “lunatic.” But more recently, he is said to have enjoyed watching him on television. Starr declined to comment Friday.
Trump faces two articles of impeachment accusing him of abusing his office by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations of his Democratic rivals and obstructing Congress by refusing to provide documents or permit testimony during the House inquiry.
During his television appearances, Starr has argued that the articles of impeachment passed by the House largely along party lines were “woefully inadequate” to justify removing a president from office. He has contrasted that with his investigation into Clinton, where the president was accused of felonies for trying to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a one-time White House intern, during a sexual harassment lawsuit.
In a brief telephone interview, Dershowitz said he expected his sole role to be arguing on behalf of Trump before the Senate next Friday, making points he had made in writing and on television.
He said that he “worried about the precedent” set by the two articles of impeachment, which he described as “too vague and open-ended,” and absent “high crimes and misdemeanours.”
The statement announcing his appointment described Dershowitz as “non-partisan when it comes to the Constitution,” having opposed the impeachment of Clinton and voted for Hillary Clinton. “He is participating in this impeachment trial to defend the integrity of the Constitution and to prevent the creation of a dangerous constitutional precedent,” the statement said.
The return of Starr to the impeachment stage was a head-spinning development for many veterans of the battle two decades ago. Lewinsky expressed her disbelief on Twitter on Friday, writing, “this is definitely an ‘are you kidding me?’ kinda day” with an expletive before the word “kidding.”