WASHINGTON – Donald Trump spent much of his career deploying high-powered lawyers to do his bidding. Now he is having trouble finding top-tier help when he might need it most.
Since losing the November election to President Joe Biden, Trump has been hemorrhaging attorneys. Established firms backed away from his baseless claims of election fraud. Those he did retain made elementary errors in cases that were quickly rejected as meritless. His personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was ridiculed for his performance before a federal judge during one election-related case.
His legal options contesting the election exhausted, Trump still needed a team to represent him in his historic second impeachment trial on a charge that he incited the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. A team of South Carolina lawyers was retained, then backed out, so Trump was left with a lawyer from Pennsylvania and another from Alabama, giving them only days to prepare.
High-profile clients are typically strong pulls for ambitious lawyers, but Trump’s rocky relationships with his attorneys show the limits of taking on cases with dubious merits. His allegations of fraud were rejected by courts, his attorney general and other prominent Republicans.
Trump's impeachment lawyers started off their defense by misspelling the words “United States” in their brief. And their initial presentation during the trial was panned by even some of Trump's most ardent supporters.
Trump fumed from his perch in Mar-a-Lago, and some in his circle said he should fire his lawyers. But he may not have many more options. And his legal peril is growing, most recently with a new criminal investigation into his election conduct in Georgia.
Trump has often used litigation as a weapon. He and his namesake company have been involved in scores of lawsuits, from million-dollar real estate conflicts to personal defamation lawsuits and fights with casino patrons. He also threatens legal action regularly.
But aside from a few loyal lawyers like Giuliani and a small, high-powered team representing him for New York-related probes, it's not clear what heavy hitters are left to represent him.
His impeachment team, David Schoen, a frequent television legal commentator, and Bruce Castor, a former district attorney in Pennsylvania, had just over a week to prepare after Trump and his previous defense team parted ways because they refused to offer Trump’s claim of election fraud as a defense.
Castor, who has faced criticism for his decision as district attorney to not charge actor Bill Cosby in a sex crimes case, started off with a rambling presentation. Unlike the Democrats, who relied on a carefully structured and planned presentation to argue the constitutionality of the proceeding, Castor had only a yellow legal pad with handwritten notes on it in front of him and appeared to be speaking off the cuff.
As Trump watched on TV, he complained privately that his defense looked weak compared to that of the Democrats, who showed an emotional video of the mayhem on Jan. 6 that has left Capitol Hill reeling. Former Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro, who remains in close touch with the former president, called on him to fire his legal team and embrace a new approach centered on Trump’s unfounded claims of massive election fraud.
Navarro told The Associated Press that he “warned the president that his legal team was going to fail him."
Trump's first impeachment team was fronted by noted defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz, as well as then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and Jay Sekulow, who has argued cases before the Supreme Court.
Dershowitz was baffled by Castor's performance, saying on Newsmax: “I have no idea what he's doing." Several Republican senators were equally stunned. Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said Trump’s team did a “terrible job."
When asked Wednesday about the criticism, Castor told reporters, “Only one person's opinion matters.” Castor was asked whether Trump expressed any disapproval and replied: "Far from it.”
Trump was hardly pleased with the outcome in his election fights in court, regardless of who the lawyers were. Some of them made outlandish claims that courts quickly dispatched.
Attorney Sidney Powell, who Trump had said was part of his team of "wonderful lawyers and representatives," falsely suggested a vendor of vote-counting equipment had been created in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. Trump's campaign subsequently distanced itself from Powell, saying she was practicing law on her own. The vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, sued Powell for defamation last month and is seeking $1.3 billion.
The day after the riot, a lawyer who was representing Trump's campaign in a Philadelphia election case asked to withdraw from the matter, filing a stunning motion in federal court that said Trump “used the lawyer's services to perpetrate a crime” and “insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant.”
Dozens of judges rejected Trump’s election claims, sometimes with scathing criticism. But the power of those false claims endured with Trump’s die-hard supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
While Trump’s remarks at a rally before the riot have drawn attention for his calls to “fight,” his lawyers for nearly two months pushed false and unsubstantiated claims of election rigging in several states, promoted widely by conservative outlets and on social media.
But after impeachment, Trump's legal needs will likely accelerate, with the investigations in New York, Georgia and possibly Washington, D.C., where prosecutors will have the power of subpoena.
“You don’t want to have the last person in America standing who's a member of the bar and willing to take your case as your representative,” said Jessica Levinson, director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute.
Richer reported from Boston and Merchant reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Eric Tucker in Washington, Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.