The lawyers who pushed and defended the actions that got Donald Trump impeached are now tasked with keeping the president in office.
It was the White House counsel’s team that provided the legal justification for the president’s decision to stonewall congressional subpoenas — a move that led to an article of impeachment. And it was Trump’s TV bulldog and ostensible personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who nudged on the president’s attempts to lean on Ukraine to open politically advantageous investigations — a pressure campaign that led to another article of impeachment.
Now, they all have a role to play as they plot their strategy to get Trump acquitted in his upcoming impeachment trial — both within the ornate Senate chamber and on the all-important conservative media circuit. It’s a well-worn Trump strategy: Act first, lawyer up later. And it has often made his attorneys part of the story when they inevitably get questions about Trump’s behavior. The upcoming Senate trial will be no different.
In the Senate, White House counsel Pat Cipollone will deliver opening arguments and take the lead. He’ll be flanked by two of his deputies, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, who will be stationed at the president’s defense table ready to parse the Democratic prosecution’s arguments and cross examine any witnesses. Then there’s Jay Sekulow, the longest-serving member of the president’s personal legal team, who is expected to make his own trial presentation delving into the Ukraine scandal and denouncing any attempts by Democrats to link the president’s behavior to Robert Mueller’s election interference investigation.
Outside the chamber, Giuliani will remain his omnipresent self, whether Trump’s in-house legal team likes it or not. Even though the former New York mayor has been sidelined from the actual trial, that’s hardly stopped him from brashly defending the president on TV — or stopped Trump from giving his personal lawyer kudos for doing so.
Embracing their client’s always-confident style, the president’s lawyers are likewise predicting total victory.
“I’m completely convinced, based on the facts and law, we will succeed,” Sekulow said in an interview.
Not all the details of the strategy are set in stone. Although the trial could begin as soon as the end of this week, Senate leaders have yet to agree on a final structure for the trial, including critical aspects like whether there will be witnesses. As a result, Trump’s lawyers are staying flexible.
“You’ve got to be prepared for any contingency,” Sekulow said.
They do have several items already in motion. A trial brief picking apart the House’s case could be formally entered into the record later this week, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi transmits the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Trump’s lawyers aren’t saying exactly what will go into the document, but they are pledging during the trial to go point by point in response to the allegations and evidence that House Democrats produced during last year’s impeachment probe.
“Our defense will address each of the issues and the appropriate facts,” Sekulow said.
Logistically, the Trump legal team plans to be constantly on the move — shuffling back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House, where the president will monitor the proceedings and live tweeting his own commentary while in town. Trump does plan to travel during the trial, too, including next week to a global economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, and to campaign rallies later this month in New Jersey and Iowa.
Cipollone, Purpura and Sekulow all are also preparing to take part in any cross examinations, even though Republican leaders have punted a vote on this issue until further along in the process. Each of Trump’s attorneys has extensive experience in court hearings and trials, and people who know them warn not to underestimate their effectiveness.
“If there are witnesses, he’s going to crush some people,” said a former senior Trump adviser about Cipollone, who handled a range of commercial and corporate litigation cases while in private practice.
Ringers also remain in the mix to back up the president. Retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is a potential late add to the Trump team for a presentation on the constitutional issues central to the impeachment probe. And a handful of House Republicans who played the role of Trump attack dogs during the impeachment hearings — namely Reps. Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe — could be tapped to make Senate appearances.
As for Giuliani, Trump’s most famous lawyer, the former New York mayor isn’t expected to be a physical presence in the Capitol. Sources close to the president’s legal team said last fall that Giuliani would be sidelined during a Trump impeachment trial if it focuses on Ukraine. That’s the exact scenario that has played out.
But Giuliani hasn’t been sidelined in the media — he’s just kept playing the role that he assumed the moment he became a member of the president’s legal entourage in April 2018. In the last couple of days, Giuliani published an op-ed in the Daily Caller arguing that the Supreme Court could toss out the House-passed impeachment articles as unconstitutional. He then explained his reasoning in a Fox News appearance Saturday night with Jeannie Pirro that earned a “Thank you Rudy!” tweet from Trump himself about 75 minutes after the show aired.
Just like in his earlier business career, lawyers have been a central part of the Trump era. Often, they’ve become part of the story itself.
After serving as Donald Trump’s all-purpose legal fixer during the 2016 election, Michael Cohen ended up in the legal crosshairs himself. His work for Trump ultimately led to a guilty plea and a three-year prison sentence for tax fraud and lying about hush money payments to a porn star — crimes that implicated the president.
The work that Trump’s first White House counsel, Don McGahn, did for the president later made him a witness for Mueller’s team as it investigated whether the president illegally tried to thwart the Russia probe. McGahn ended up spending 30 hours meeting with Mueller’s investigators.
Giuliani, meantime, has hired his own criminal defense attorneys amid federal scrutiny of his business dealings in Ukraine that occurred in parallel with his efforts to gather information for Trump as his lawyer.
The key members of the Trump legal team that will be in the spotlight during the impeachment trial represent a blend of the old and new.
Sekulow, 63, became a personal attorney for the president in the summer of 2017, not long after Mueller’s appointment. A well-known conservative attorney and head of the nonprofit American Center for Law & Justice, Sekulow outlasted many of his contemporaries on the Trump legal team by serving as a prominent public defender of the president on TV and on his own daily radio show.
Alongside Giuliani, Sekulow helped lead negotiations with the special counsel’s lawyers over an interview with Trump. The duo ultimately secured an obligation to only respond to written questions, while averting a legal fight over a subpoena. Sekulow has also argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court. He’ll fight another round in front of the high court in March, when the Trump attorney will help defend the president against subpoenas for his financial and tax records.
“That’s really valuable experience,” said Paul McNulty, a former George W. Bush Justice Department deputy attorney general who served as a key GOP aide to the House Judiciary Committee during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.
Trump’s current crop of White House lawyers were also brought on specifically to deal with issues like impeachment.
Cipollone, 53, replaced McGahn in late 2018, making a return to government for the first time since the George H.W. Bush administration. He was no stranger to Trump’s world. Cipollone first met Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign via an introduction from conservative commentator and longtime friend Laura Ingraham. He later helped prep the GOP nominee for his debates with Hillary Clinton.
As White House counsel, Cipollone restocked the president’s official legal team with about 20 attorneys specifically assigned to the kinds of oversight issues that Democrats ultimately used to launch impeachment proceedings.
That group included Philbin, a former colleague at Kirkland and Ellis who served in senior positions at the George W. Bush Justice Department, at one point even working as a top aide to then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey.
Purpura, a former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York and George W. Bush White House aide, had been on the shortlist early on in the Trump administration for a lifetime judicial appointment based in Hawaii. But that nomination never came, and Purpura ultimately left a high-paying, private-equity job in real estate to come work in the Trump White House.
John Hueston, a former federal prosecutor and close friend of Purpura, called Purpura “truly a master strategist and a rare one because he has that skill at both the trial level and also behind the scenes in investigations.”
“In fact, much of his best work is unknown because of his extremely good work at terminating investigations before they become public,” said Hueston, who has served as an outside adviser to California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris on judicial nominations.
The Cipollone-led Trump legal team has blocked House Democrats from the start.
It has rejected a request for documents related to private discussions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump. It has blocked former Trump White House communications director Hope Hicks from responding to any substantive questions connected to the Mueller probe during a closed-door deposition with House investigators.
And after the Ukraine scandal broke, the team rejected any pretense of participating in the Democratic investigation and instead urged House Democrats in December to impeach the president “fast” so that the Senate could move quick to acquit him. That stance led to the second article of impeachment against Trump for obstruction of Congress.
No matter their résumés, Democrats argue that the president’s attorneys should expect to face complications during the Senate trial that could cost them Republican votes. That includes working for a president who has shown little in the way of impulse control, despite the counsel of his lawyers.
“The best lawyers can only do so much with a difficult client and a difficult case,” said Ted Kalo, a Democratic strategist who briefly worked for Pelosi and the House Judiciary Committee on messaging during their December impeachment effort.
“That challenge is further exacerbated,” he added, “by a difficult client who appears to be set on a defense strategy that’s appealing to Fox News prime-time hosts but not necessarily moderates of the Senate.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.