Updated: Dershowitz, Starr on Trump impeachment legal team
WASHINGTON - The team of lawyers expected to guide President Donald Trump toward an election-year acquittal in the Senate expanded suddenly Friday to include Kenneth Starr and Alan Dershowitz, two of the biggest legal celebrities of the 1990s, who have drawn attention with their television appearances and involvement in Jeffrey Epstein's defense against charges of child prostitution in the mid-2000s.
Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, and Dershowitz, the Harvard Law emeritus professor who advised the defense team in football star O.J. Simpson's murder trial, were announced as the newest members of Trump's defense. The group will also include former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and former independent counsel Robert Ray, according to Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's personal attorneys, who will lead the defense with the White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
The four new lawyers were selected personally by Trump for their political-legal celebrity and vocal defenses of the president in the media - and despite the significant professional baggage that several of them bring to the impeachment saga.
Trump faces possible removal from office after the House impeached him last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He is expected to survive the trial, thanks to the Senate's Republican majority, though a weeks-long spectacle laying out allegations about his conduct toward Ukraine could be an embarrassing ordeal for the president.
Starr, 73, became a national figure in 1994 when he was named independent counsel to lead the investigation of the Whitewater scandal. That probe eventually focused on Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and produced a hefty report that described their encounters in lurid detail. By the time the House impeached Clinton in December 1998, Starr had become a lightning rod and a symbol of what Clinton supporters viewed as the puritanical mania of Republicans bent on driving the president from office.
Trump sees the presence of Starr, a former solicitor general who was once considered for a nomination to the Supreme Court, as a way to shore up his credibility during the Senate trial. He repeatedly tweeted praise for Starr's friendly commentary during the House impeachment proceedings.
The president's attitude was quite different in 1999.
To MSNBC, Trump said: "I think Ken Starr is a lunatic. I really think that Ken Starr is a disaster. ... I really think that Ken Starr was terrible."
To columnist Maureen Dowd, he said: "Starr's a freak. I bet he's got something in his closet."
To CNBC, he said: "I mean, can you imagine those evenings when [Clinton's] just being lambasted by this crazy Ken Starr, who is a total wacko? ... I mean, he is totally off his rocker."
After returning to private practice in 1999, Starr became the dean of Pepperdine University's law school and then the president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in 2010.
In 2016, he was ousted from Baylor amid an unfolding scandal over the school's handling of sexual assault allegations involving members of the football team. An investigation found that Baylor had "failed to consistently support" victims of sexual assault and "failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potentially hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects."
Starr has claimed he did not know about the allegations, telling NPR in 2018: "Unfortunately - and this is going to sound like an apologia, but it is the absolute truth - never was it brought to my attention that there were these issues."
In the mid-2000s, Starr and Dershowitz were part of Epstein's legal team when the wealthy investor was under investigation on suspicion of child prostitution. Epstein, a convicted sex offender, was found dead in his jail cell last year in an apparent suicide. A plea deal that Epstein's accusers have criticized as overly lenient was struck with Alex Acosta, a U.S. attorney in Florida during that period.
After renewed criticism of the deal led to Acosta's resignation as labor secretary last year, Starr described his own role in the case, saying he was enlisted to make a constitutional argument that the crimes Epstein was accused of were state, not federal, offenses.
"I was making a federalism argument," Starr told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in July 2019. "Don't federally criminalize this area of the law that really does belong to the states. ... There were no allegations of crossing state lines in the Florida situation."
In the interview, Starr called the accusations against Epstein "serious ... obviously."
Dershowitz's friendship with Epstein has produced a war of lawsuits and countersuits.
After Virginia Roberts Giuffre claimed she had sex with Dershowitz at Epstein's behest in the early 2000s, when she was underage, Dershowitz issued a torrent of denials, calling her a "certified, complete, total liar" who invented the accusation to sell her story. Giuffre is suing him for defamation, and Dershowitz has countersued her for defamation.
Some White House officials hoped Trump would not pick Dershowitz, to avoid references to his entanglement with Epstein.
In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Dershowitz declined to say whether he would join the team. "Just ask me if I've had sex with any underage girls, that I'm happy to answer. And the answer is no," he said.
The legal drama surrounding Dershowitz's involvement with Epstein has, at times, overshadowed the 81-year-old's legacy as one of America's best-known courtroom stars. He was a constant presence in American living rooms as part of the defense team during Simpson's trial, which was televised live. But by then, he was already a household name, immortalized on the big screen in the film "Reversal of Fortune," which documented his successful appeal of socialite Claus von Bulow's conviction for the attempted murder of his wealthy wife.
In Trump, Dershowitz has found a client with a similar appetite for bombast - though his embrace of the president came as a surprise to some. He opposed Trump in the 2016 campaign and has described himself as a "loyal liberal" who has supported Democratic presidential candidates since the 1950s.
But when Trump's legal problems were mounting, Dershowitz proved to be a headline-grabbing advocate for the embattled president. On television, he made his position clear: "A sitting president cannot be charged with a crime." In 2018, he published a book titled "The Case Against Impeaching Trump."
Dershowitz told The Post on Friday that he would present arguments at the Senate trial that obstruction of Congress and abuse of power do not meet the constitutional standard to impeach a president for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Dershowitz said he was participating on Trump's legal team "to defend the integrity of the Constitution and to prevent the creation of a dangerous constitutional precedent."
"The president asked me to present my independent constitutional arguments in my books and my articles to the Senate. My argument is going to be directed at the constitutional criteria and why they haven't been met in this case," he said.
Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's personal attorneys, called Dershowitz a "great choice" for the defense team. Giuliani said he was kept out of the group because of his involvement in the Ukraine saga as a "potential witness."
Trump has been accused of withholding military aid and an Oval Office meeting with the president of Ukraine to pressure the country's leaders into announcing investigations into the Biden family and a debunked theory about the 2016 election.
The trial is set to begin in earnest on Tuesday, though it is possible that Trump's lawyers won't speak at length until early the following week after the Democratic impeachment managers from the House present their case. Cipollone is expected to be the lead speaker for the team and to avoid the media, while Dershowitz and Starr may do television appearances throughout the trial, according to a White House official familiar with the planning.
Cipollone has negotiated trial strategy with Trump and Eric Ueland, the White House head of legislative affairs, according to the official. In one example, he argued against showing video footage during the trial, believing it would not be helpful to the president's case, the official said.
Trump is also expected to enlist several House members, including Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to help advise the legal team, but they are unlikely to speak on the Senate floor, according to a senior administration official.
Trump wanted Dershowitz and Bondi, 54, on his team because he sees them as convincing and talented on television, a White House official familiar with the selections said.
Bondi, whom Trump has called a "great woman," helped the White House with its messaging during the impeachment proceedings. Previously, she represented a bevy of clients - including General Motors, the government of Qatar and a Kuwaiti firm - as a lobbyist. She stepped down as Florida attorney general in January.
Bondi has been involved in at least one controversial episode involving Trump.
In 2013, Trump made a $25,000 donation to a pro-Bondi political committee called And Justice For All at Bondi's request. The donation did not come from Trump personally but from a charity he controlled, the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Under federal law, charities such as the Trump Foundation are prohibited from making political gifts.
In 2016, after The Post reported on this gift, Trump reimbursed his charity and paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty tax. Trump blamed unrelated errors by clerks and accountants working at the Trump Organization - who, he said, not only mistakenly used the charity's money, but also made another error that concealed the violation from the IRS.
Around the time of the donation, Bondi's office was reviewing whether to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University, a real-estate-seminar business.
Bondi never took action against Trump University. After he was elected, Trump settled lawsuits against the operation by agreeing to pay $25 million.
Ray, 59, replaced Starr as independent counsel in October 1999 and oversaw the agreement with Clinton that averted a possible criminal trial. His final report on the Whitewater investigation stated that there was insufficient evidence to show that Bill or Hillary Clinton had committed any crimes related to the Arkansas land venture that was the subject of the case.
He resigned from the position in March 2002 before making a failed bid that year for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey as a Republican. Since then, according to his LinkedIn profile, Ray has served as a partner at six law firms, including a firm he joined this month, Zeichner Ellman & Krause.
Ray had given a number of television interviews about impeachment that were friendly to Trump before Friday's announcement.
"I think you can look for summary proceedings in the United States Senate - without witnesses - to resolve this, and I believe Mitch McConnell has the votes to do that," he said on Fox Business Network this week.
Asked about the possibility of Trump's removal, Ray said: "It's not going to happen."
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The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold, Carol D. Leonnig and John Wagner contributed to this report.
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