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Inside Trump’s Philly impeachment team: Confusion, conflict amid ‘out-and-out partisan war’

Michael van der Veen, lawyer for former President Donald Trump, looks into the Senate Reception room on the fourth day of Trump's second impeachment trial on Feb. 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

JABIN BOTSFORD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By JEREMY ROEBUCK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: February 20, 2021

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — The warning to Bruce L. Castor Jr. was stark.

The former Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, district attorney, opening Donald Trump’s defense in his second impeachment trial, had complimented Democrats prosecuting the former president. It was the type of collegial gesture common among opposing counsel in the Pennsylvania courtrooms where Castor had practiced for years.

But in Washington, a senior Republican aide cautioned: “You get no points for being polite. This is out-and-out partisan war.”

Trump’s team of Philadelphia attorneys would learn that lesson repeatedly during the five-day trial, which ended with the former president being acquitted of inciting the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

They came to Washington expecting a trial like the dozens they handled throughout their decadeslong careers. Instead they got a brutal education in the fractious divisions plaguing the country while defending a client whose presidency was built on tearing at those differences.

In interviews this week, Trump’s lawyers described a hastily assembled, sometimes messy and pressure-filled effort that left them disillusioned with the nation’s intractable partisanship and Washington’s cutthroat ways. While proud of the defense they mounted, they were pilloried by pundits and satirized on social media under the brightest spotlight of their careers.

Those external tensions occasionally boiled over internally.

After Castor’s widely panned opening, a shouting match erupted between him and a top Trump adviser who had been sent with the message that the former president didn’t want to see Castor on TV again, according to two people who witnessed the encounter. The clash prompted the team’s other Philadelphia lawyers to threaten to quit — a previously unreported detail — and required a phone call with Trump himself to resolve.

A day later, Alabama attorney David L. Schoen, who had tussled with Castor over who was leading the team, did quit briefly just hours before the defense was set to present its case, leaving the others scrambling to improvise new plans — even as late as their car ride to the Capitol the next morning.

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney William J. Brennan, who played a largely behind-the-scenes role on the defense team, downplayed the effect of those altercations, pointing instead to the final result.

“You could watch a lot of Super Bowls where [Bill] Belichick and [Tom] Brady are screaming at each other in the third quarter, then at the end, they’re taking a Gatorade bath,” he said. “This team worked well together and got the job done.”

Trump had struggled to find attorneys willing to represent him. None of the lawyers who spearheaded his first impeachment defense would sign on again. Others worried about the backlash it would invite.

Castor was hired with just eight days to go. When he first mentioned the opportunity to Michael T. van der Veen, the head of the Philadelphia law firm Castor had joined only two months earlier, his new boss said he didn’t hesitate.

“We’re lawyers,” van der Veen said. “That’s what we do.”

Like Brennan, van der Veen originally signed on only in a supporting role to Castor and Schoen. That he emerged as the fiery face of the team — the lawyer who most effectively channeled Trump’s sense of grievance and bare-knuckle brio — came as a surprise.

Just months before, van der Veen had marched with Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia, demonstrations Trump villainized. And in the run-up to the election, he marketed his firm as a bulwark against GOP voter-suppression efforts and even sued the Trump administration.

While van der Veen, a registered Republican, described his own politics this week as the “opposite” of Trump’s, he likened his representation of him to John Adams defending British soldiers at trial after the Boston Massacre.

“My views are really unimportant,” he said. “Everybody under the Constitution deserves a zealous, competent defense, and that’s what we provided.”

Still, van der Veen and his colleagues had conditions before taking the job: No Rudy Giuliani. No false election claims. And no telling them how best to argue their case.

They drove down to Washington during a snowstorm on Super Bowl Sunday and, for security reasons, checked into the Trump International under pseudonyms. Brennan adopted the name “Frank Galvin,” a nod to the drunken, down-on-his-luck lawyer played by Paul Newman in the 1982 movie "The Verdict."

But it wasn’t until Trump’s political advisers led them to the hotel’s private “townhouse” suite, outfitted as a war room for the defense, the lawyers realized nothing in their decades of experience had prepared them for what would come next.

Castor, van der Veen, Brennan and Schoen all spent years toiling in criminal and civil courts. And while Castor previously held elected office, none of them arrived with significant experience in national politics or the Washington media that chronicles it.

The team’s base of operation came staffed with political strategists who, along with a group of social media gurus, advised the attorneys on optics, media strategy and the ways of the Senate.

“The whole thing was for the media,” van der Veen said. “They are driven on 15-minute media cycles and arranging schedules around prime-time events.”

Even the clothes they wore were up for debate. After the first day of trial, an aide instructed Castor that the pinstripe suits he’d made his trademark on Philadelphia TV had to go — setting off a scramble to rush-order a set of solid-colored Brioni replacements.

The roundly critical reaction Castor received for his meandering, largely improvised 50-minute opening was an even harsher reminder that this wasn’t like the trials they were used to.

Castor, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has said he hadn’t intended to speak the first day of the trial. But after an emotional presentation by the House impeachment managers, he made a last-minute call to try to “bring down the temperature” in the room before the more pugilistic Schoen took the lectern.

Van der Veen described Castor’s speech — filled with flattery for senators, references to his time as DA and reminisces about his childhood — as the type of opening argument each of the other lawyers had delivered dozens of times before to endear themselves to juries.

But Brennan, who was watching both the speech and the reaction to it from a conference room off the Senate floor, was horrified as Twitter turned Castor into a punchline and TV pundits on the right and the left turned against him.

“I guess folksy doesn’t play down in D.C.,” he said.

More important, their client was also displeased with Castor’s performance. Trump instructed his staff that he didn’t want to see Castor on his television again — an order that led to the screaming match Wednesday evening, which was first reported by The New York Times.

The rest of the Philadelphia team threatened to quit, two advisers to the defense told The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Trump was persuaded to allow Castor to remain. But the former president insisted on limiting his time at the lectern.

The lawyers declined to discuss the incident or any conversations they had with Trump. But van der Veen, Brennan and Schoen all said Castor had been unfairly pilloried.

“The next day he walked back in cool as a cucumber,” Brennan said. “It took tremendous guts to come back to that room and that chamber, and I have tremendous respect for him for that.”

Castor’s performance wasn’t the only source of tension. Both Castor and Schoen had joined Trump’s defense assuming they were its leader. And after the stumble on the first day, that conflict spilled into public view.

As the House managers put on their case, Castor and Schoen separately told reporters they were thinking about what role they would let the other play going forward.

“He never seemed to quite understand that I was supposed to be leading the case,” Schoen told Jewish Insider this week.

He later claimed to have been mischaracterized, saying in an email to The Inquirer: “To the extent I offended any of the Philly folks, I really feel terrible about it. … We had a very nice relationship.”

Still, the night before they were set to present their defense, Trump’s lawyers returned to their hotel war room only to be informed Schoen had abruptly quit in a dispute over how video clips would be used, two people familiar with the situation said.

The rest of the team scrambled to reorganize. Castor, now back in a larger role, stayed up all night redrafting his speech to hit the arguments Schoen was supposed to make.

The plan was upset again Friday morning as staffers informed them as they left for the Capitol that Schoen wanted back in.

Schoen disputed that account, maintaining that he never quit. But both van der Veen and Brennan, describing the fallout for the first time, said that up until the moment they walked into the Senate, it was still unclear who would present which parts of the defense, who would handle questions from senators, and who would deliver closing arguments.

Much of that fell to van der Veen, now thrust from his sideline role into the spotlight. Of all of the attorneys, he delivered the defense that best channeled Trump’s bellicose style.

“On Day One we were treating it like a trial,” he said. “By the end we were treating it like the brawl it was.”

He railed against the Democrats’ case that blamed Trump for the attack. He hectored House managers, arguing that their re-creation of some tweets in their presentation amounted to “manufacturing evidence.” And he sparred with senators, urging them and America to reject what he described as “constitutional cancel culture.”

On Saturday, when House managers surprised the Senate with their request to call witnesses to testify to Trump’s state of mind during the insurrection, van der Veen threatened to up the ante. If witnesses were allowed, he vowed, the defense attorneys would insist on 300 depositions of their own.

“We went from ‘We’re packing our bags, we’re out of here,’” Brennan said, “to suddenly, ‘See you in September.’”

Still, a compromise was reached. Witnesses were avoided. And within hours, the Senate — as expected from the start — had acquitted their client, by a vote of 57-43, short of the 67 votes needed to convict.

But despite their victory, Trump’s lawyers returned home to a backlash.

Van der Veen said he has received death threats and vandals struck his suburban Philadelphia home last Friday night, prompting him to hire private security to protect his family. Police installed cameras outside his office and had a cruiser stationed there Tuesday.

He has faced professional consequences, too. He said this week he was asked to resign from the board of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association — an assertion the organization denies.

Castor, meanwhile, said in a radio interview that he also has been threatened.

To some extent, all of the attorneys have struggled to reconcile their pride in successfully defending their client — as deeply divisive as he may be — with the blowback for agreeing to take on the job.

“We put on an ethical case,” van der Veen said. “We worked hard. We were zealous. We stayed within the rules.”

But, he added, he wouldn’t do it again.

“I have no desire to be involved in the politics of this country again as perverted as it’s become,” he said. “Down there, it felt like Rome at the end to me.”

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