This broke last night and instantly had me feeling nostalgic for an era in which getting some crazy-ass Trump news on a weekend evening wasn’t just normal but expected.
The thing to understand here is that it’s extremely bad form for lawyers to leave a client in the lurch by parachuting out on the eve of a trial unless an issue’s come up that would make it unethical for them to proceed. Trump’s answer to the article of impeachment is due on Tuesday and his pre-trial brief is due a week from tomorrow. For his *entire defense team* to bail with those deadlines impending, forfeiting national fame and a place in the history books, almost certainly means they were being asked to do something egregious and couldn’t comply in good conscience.
And we can all guess what that something is.
Butch Bowers and Deborah Barbier, who were expected to be two of the lead attorneys, are no longer on the team. A source familiar with the changes said it was a mutual decision for both to leave the legal team. As the lead attorney, Bowers assembled the team.
Josh Howard, a North Carolina attorney who was recently added to the team, has also left, according to another source familiar with the changes. Johnny Gasser and Greg Harris, from South Carolina, are no longer involved with the case, either…
A person familiar with the departures told CNN that Trump wanted the attorneys to argue there was mass election fraud and that the election was stolen from him rather than focus on the legality of convicting a president after he’s left office. Trump was not receptive to the discussions about how they should proceed in that regard.
The AP is also hearing that his lawyers quit because Trump wanted to double down on the “stop the steal”: “According to a different person with knowledge of the legal hires, Bowers and Barbier left the team because Trump wanted them to use a defense that relied on allegations of election fraud, and the lawyers were not willing to do so.” Any attorney who walked into the Senate and repeated his claims of massive election fraud wouldn’t merely be lying about why he lost, implicitly they’d be in a position of defending the assault on the Capitol.
By insisting that his lawyers argue to the Senate that the election really *was* “stolen,” Trump isn’t just refusing to contest the *actual* ground on which he was impeached (that he incited the violence on January 6); he’s effectively arguing that the violence was *justified.*
— Steve Vladeck (@steve_vladeck) January 31, 2021
Even Rudy Giuliani wouldn’t repeat election-fraud claims inside a courtroom for fear of being sanctioned for deceiving the judge, a fact that caught the attention of Dominion’s libel lawyers. If Rudy wouldn’t do it, Bowers and Barbier ain’t doing it either.
The Times’s account of the dispute also claims that Trump wants a “stop the steal” defense but adds extra dimensions:
Mr. Trump had pushed for his defense team to focus on his baseless claim that the election was stolen from him, one person familiar with the situation said. A person close to Mr. Trump disputed that that was the case but acknowledged that there were differences in opinion about the defense strategy. However, Mr. Trump has insisted that the case is “simple” and has told advisers he could argue it himself and save the money on lawyers. (Aides contend he is not seriously contemplating doing so.)
The decision for Mr. Bowers to leave was “mutual,” another person familiar with the situation said, adding that Mr. Trump and Mr. Bowers had no chemistry, a quality the former president generally prizes in his relationships. Mr. Trump prefers lawyers who are eager to appear on television to say that he never did anything wrong; Mr. Bowers has been noticeably absent in the news media since his hiring was announced.
Trump processes reality through television. If you’re not on Fox News saying “cry more, libs” about his chances of acquittal then you’re not performing what he views as your prime duty as his attorney. (Rudy Giuliani has always understood how Trump conceptualizes a lawyer’s job.) As for the trial, of course he’s right that he doesn’t need Bowers or anyone else to plead his case for him in order to prevail. The jury has been rigged in his favor by partisan politics; the fact that 45 Senate Republicans supported a motion to dismiss last week on bogus jurisdictional grounds is as close to a guarantee that he’ll be acquitted as he could hope for. And it hasn’t been lost on him:
The actual statement is that he could do it himself and save the money.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 31, 2021
His defense is “I dare you p*ssies to convict me and see how your voters like it.” It’s a strong defense! And he doesn’t need a lawyer to make it.
The fact that he’s entertaining the idea of using the Senate trial as a forum for conspiracy theories is important, though, and fits nicely with yesterday’s post about his support for Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s not just a reminder that he’s a crank at heart, it’s a reminder that he doesn’t care about the party. At all. The least he could do for congressional Republicans after the “stop the steal” fiasco that’s now put them in a position of having to take another impossibly hard vote on impeachment is to play it safe at the trial. Per Newsweek, one camp of advisors including Jared, Ivanka, and Lindsey Graham is urging him to do just that by focusing his defense on “whether the Senate can in fact try a president who has already left office. And then he should simply fight the the impeachment count in the Senate, arguing that at no point did he incite his supporters to violence.” That’s the “respectable” approach.
Another, less respectable camp of advisors is naturally egging him on to indulge his worst tendencies:
Bannon, who was talking to Trump ahead of his departure from DC and the day Trump went back and forth on pardoning him, is encouraging him to go to the senate himself. “He’s the only one who can sell it.”
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 31, 2021
According to Newsweek, Bannon is encouraging Trump to show the Senate “the receipts” of widespread cheating in the election, something no Trump lawyer has been able to do for the simple reason that they don’t exist. Graham, meanwhile, is reportedly counseling Trump to stay away from election-related conspiracy theories at trial (“You just don’t want to go there”), knowing that a “stop the steal” circus on national television would be another gruesome black eye for the party and would make the eventual vote to acquit even more humiliating for Senate Republicans.
Which is why I love the idea, frankly. If the GOP’s going to corruptly rubber-stamp his exoneration after a months-long coup attempt that ended with a mob attack on the Capitol and a cop being murdered, let’s make the corruption as plain and embarrassing as possible. Have Trump go all-in on the theory that the election was stolen and force people like Tom Cotton and Rob Portman to stammer, “N-n-n-not guilty, sir!”
As for who ends up representing him now, I’d say there are three possibilities each with about an equal chance of happening. One is that he recruits some lawyer who’s been sympathetic to his more outlandish claims to do it for him. Maybe he’ll go and get John Eastman, who reportedly thought that Mike Pence *did* have the constitutional authority to block certification of Biden’s win on January 6. Maybe he’ll get Jeffrey Clark, the now disgraced DOJ lawyer who allegedly conspired with Trump to stage a mini-coup at the DOJ to aid the larger coup plot. Maybe he’ll get Rudy, although Rudy’s a potential witness since he spoke at the rally on January 6 before the insurrection. Or maybe he’ll get a somewhat more respectable sympathizer like Alan Dershowitz or Jonathan Turley, assuming that either would be willing to argue before the Senate that election fraud occurred. Which I doubt.
The second option is to ask some crony in the Senate to argue the case on his behalf. Ted Cruz was so eager to kiss MAGA ass during the coup attempt that he offered to argue the Texas lawsuit that sought to disenfranchise millions of swing-state voters before SCOTUS flushed it. Josh Hawley would probably represent Trump too, again in order to earn MAGA brownie points ahead of the 2024 primary. And of course Graham himself would likely do it if asked. Granted, all three of them are supposed to be jurors at the trial, not counsel for the defense, but presumably they could just recuse themselves from the jury to act as attorneys. (Their votes wouldn’t be needed to ensure acquittal.) What’s a little extra corruption at this point considering how thoroughly the process has already been corrupted by partisanship? The wrinkle for all three, though, and especially for Cruz and Hawley is that they’ve already been damaged politically for their roles in supporting Trump’s previous attempts to overturn the election. Wading even deeper into that will alienate more big donors and swing voters in future elections.
The third option is that Trump simply doesn’t present a defense during the trial. He can retain someone to write his pleadings but otherwise not put on a case, a common enough move in criminal trials when the defense believes the prosecution’s case is weak and acquittal is likely. We know already that Senate Republicans will find him not guilty for the BS reason that he’s become a private citizen since the House impeached him. All he needs to do is sit back and let them do it. My guess is that’s what he’ll do. Stay tuned.