Trump’s Legal Defense Team Was Defined by Stumbles, Clashes and Egos


Last Wednesday afternoon, when former President Donald J. Trump’s legal team gathered in a conference room in a special suite at the Trump hotel in Washington, a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump, Justin Clark, had an announcement to make.

Mr. Clark told one of the lawyers, Bruce L. Castor Jr., that after his widely panned performance a day earlier, Mr. Trump did not want him appearing on television any more during the impeachment trial.

Mr. Castor rose from his chair, and began angrily shouting at Mr. Clark, arguing that Mr. Trump was wrong to demote him. The back and forth became so heated that Mr. Castor left the conference room in a huff.

He later apologized to Mr. Clark. But the tense exchange was just one example of how Mr. Trump’s hastily assembled legal team — a mash-up of political hands, a personal-injury lawyer, a former prosecutor and a longtime defense lawyer, most of whom did not particularly like or trust one another — clashed, stumbled and regrouped throughout the impeachment proceeding under the watchful and sometimes wrathful eye of its client.

The result was an airplane held together with duct tape as it tried to land.

This article is based on interviews with a half-dozen members of the legal team and others involved in the process, which ultimately led to Mr. Trump’s acquittal.

“You have to remember that we had literally one week and one day to prepare the defense and we were all people who never had met each other before,” one of the lawyers, David I. Schoen, said in a statement after he was approached for this article.

In the days after the House impeached Mr. Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Trump and his aides tried to assemble a legal team. Several lawyers who had represented him in his past impeachment made clear they would not be involved this time. Other high-end white-collar defense lawyers were afraid to work for him because of the political backlash and fears that Mr. Trump would refuse to pay his legal bills.

Two weeks before the Senate trial was scheduled to begin, Mr. Trump announced he had hired a team led by Butch Bowers, a lawyer from South Carolina who had defended many of the state’s prominent politicians. Soon after, Mr. Schoen, who is based in Atlanta, was brought on to be, as Mr. Schoen said, “co-quarterbacks” with Mr. Bowers.

But Mr. Bowers and four other lawyers working for Mr. Trump abruptly parted ways with him about 10 days before the trial. Mr. Bowers and Mr. Trump had no chemistry, and some people familiar with the events said that Mr. Trump had wanted the team to push his false claims of a stolen election, something Mr. Bowers did not want to do. Mr. Schoen disputed that account, saying Mr. Trump never pressured him on the issue.

Nonetheless, the team suddenly needed more lawyers. Stephen R. Castor, the top Republican congressional lawyer who took on Democrats during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment, recommended his cousin, Bruce L. Castor Jr., a former prosecutor in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Schoen believed he was still going to be in charge of the legal team. But, by Mr. Schoen’s account, when Mr. Castor and several other lawyers he worked with in Philadelphia — including a personal-injury lawyer named Michael T. van der Veen — showed up, they took over the defense.

“Again, the president made clear that I was to take the lead and do most of the presenting,” Mr. Schoen said. “However, when Bruce came in, he brought his partner Mike and several other lawyers to help them. He immediately began setting an agenda and assigning roles. My role was marginalized.”

Mr. Schoen said that he mistakenly declined to push back on Mr. Castor’s plan.

“My personality is such that I simply was not comfortable asserting myself and I just accepted the agenda and figured I would just do the best job I could at whatever I was assigned,” Mr. Schoen said. “That was my mistake and my shortcoming.”

Mr. Schoen, who said he was in regular contact with Mr. Trump, added that he made another mistake: He did not tell Mr. Trump that Mr. Castor was going to have such a prominent role in the public arguments.

Mr. Schoen was still scheduled to make the opening argument on the first day of the trial. House managers began the proceeding with a compelling presentation that included a chilling compilation of video clips of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Mr. Castor then told Mr. Schoen that he wanted to address the jurors.

“I admired his courage for jumping right in,” Mr. Schoen said. “Unfortunately, he got panned by the media pretty soundly and a number of people thought perhaps the agenda should be reconsidered.”

Mr. van der Veen said in an interview that Mr. Castor had stepped up to speak because he believed it would be a way to reduce the emotion in the room.

But Mr. Trump became enraged by Mr. Castor’s meandering, low-energy performance. The former president called Mr. Clark, among others, to vent that afternoon.

“Bruce doesn’t go on TV again,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the televised presentations from the floor of the Senate. Mr. Trump also wanted Mr. Clark to join the legal team and present arguments in the chamber. Other advisers told the former president that shaking up the defense in the middle of the trial was a bad idea.

But Mr. Clark told Mr. van der Veen that he needed to inform Mr. Castor that he would not present anymore.

But on Wednesday afternoon, when Mr. Clark arrived at the Trump International Hotel and joined the group in the conference room of a private suite on the first floor called the “townhouse,” it was clear that Mr. van der Veen had not relayed the message.

So Mr. Clark did it, and Mr. Castor blew up.

Mr. Castor did not respond to an email seeking comment. But both Mr. van der Veen and Mr. Schoen said they believed that Mr. Castor was unfairly pilloried.

What happened next is the subject of debate.

Two people involved in the effort said that Mr. Clark, as well as Alex Cannon, another lawyer who had worked on the Trump campaign and for the Trump Organization, took over writing the scripts that the lawyers would use to present and told them not to deviate from them. Jason Miller, a political adviser to Mr. Trump, looked over the completed scripts, those people said. And Ory Rinat, a former White House aide, helped develop the visual presentations.

Both Mr. Schoen and Mr. van der Veen denied that the Trump aides scripted out the presentations.

“I’m not taking credit for anybody else’s work and they shouldn’t take it for mine, either,” Mr. van der Veen said.

On Thursday night, there was another snag: Mr. Schoen had a dispute with Mr. Miller over which video clips were going to be played when. He briefly quit, but then said he would not present the next day and would sit at the table in the Senate with the other lawyers. Mr. Trump’s advisers scrambled to figure out how to have Mr. Castor, whom the client did not want to see, take over a larger portion of the presentation on Friday.

Mr. Trump reached out to Mr. Schoen directly, and after they spoke, Mr. Schoen said he would give his presentation after all. While the former president had developed a rapport with Mr. Schoen, he also praised Mr. van der Veen’s performance on Friday to other members of the team.

Mr. Schoen, whose mother had died a few weeks earlier of the coronavirus and who blew a kiss toward the sky after his final presentation, said that Mr. Trump was far from a micromanager.

“He literally called me a few times a day some days just to tell me how much he appreciated me and had confidence in me and that I should have more confidence in myself,” said Mr. Schoen, who did not participate in the Senate proceedings on Saturday because of the Jewish Sabbath.

But Mr. Schoen added that he should have kept Mr. Trump more in the loop about who was going to speak at the trial.

“I think I let him down,” he said.