Trump’s legal team notably does not include House Republicans who have sat through hours of depositions and vociferously defended the president during the House inquiry and impeachment vote. Instead, fan out across media outlets and make the case for Trump there.
The team’s plan is to explain why Trump’s actions on Ukraine are within his broad executive power and don’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. To that end, they will try to block Trump’s former top aides from having to testify. They will also seek to undercut testimony from one of House Democrats’ star witnesses, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who said there was a quid pro quo on Ukraine that he believed was directed by Trump himself. It’s not clear, though, how they’ll handle new documents and texts that bolster the notion there was a politically motivated pressure campaign against Ukraine’s government.
Pat Cipollone, White House counsel
His background defending Trump: He advised the president in an outside role during the 2016 debates and, later, during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. He became White House counsel in December 2018. Now that he’s in a more central role during impeachment, Republican lawmakers have described Cipollone as the “quarterback” for Trump’s legal strategy.
In October, Cipollone wrote a fiery letter to House Democrats calling their inquiry unconstitutional and blocking current and former aides from testifying. His dubious legal reasoning and expansive view of presidential power earned a rebuke from nearly two dozen of his classmates from the University of Chicago Law School, who signed a letter accusing him of distorting the law and flouting intellectual honesty. He’s also earned criticism for defending the president as if he were his personal lawyer, when he’s really a government official with a mandate to represent the White House’s legal interests.
As Congress tried to investigate how the White House legal team handled national security staff complaints about Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine, Cipollone recommended National Security Counsel legal adviser John Eisenberg — whom House Democrats wanted to question on his role in moving the transcript of the July call with Ukraine’s president to a highly classified server — to refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: He’s a corporate lawyer by trade, which means more boardroom, less courtroom. As such, some administration officials are watching to see whether he can summon a flair for drama that Trump appreciates. In terms of political experience, he worked for Attorney General William P. Barr when Barr held that job in the George H.W. Bush administration. But he also has a close relationship to Trump. After being introduced to Trump during the campaign by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, he has become one of the president’s trusted advisers. Trump has publicly praised him as “the strong silent type,” a counterbalance to himself.
Jay Sekulow, personal Trump lawyer
His background defending Trump: It’s extensive. He’s one of Trump’s personal lawyers. He represented Trump during the special counsel investigation. Most recently, he’s defending Trump from congressional subpoenas and from federal prosecutors in New York who are requesting the president’s financial records. Sekulow has argued that Congress is trying to get Trump’s financial records for political purposes rather than for actual legislation and that obtaining these records would be a distraction from the president’s duties. Both are arguments lower courts rejected. The Supreme Court will hear that case in March, which Sekulow could argue for the president.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: He’s used to high-pressure trials. He’s argued before the Supreme Court 12 times, often arguing for Christian groups to have more freedom in public schools and facilities and parks, sometimes successfully. As host of his own weekly radio show and a frequent television commentator, he has a telegenic presence and is able to communicate clearly and concisely, which may play to his benefit when Trump is watching.
Kenneth W. Starr, former independent counsel
His background defending Trump: Well, none other than having voted for Trump. But of all the lawyers in America, Starr is among the most familiar with impeachment — from prosecuting a president.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: Starr spent five years leading a federal investigation into then-President Bill Clinton that started as an investigation into a land deal and culminated with an explicit, detailed telling of the president’s sexual affair with intern Monica Lewinsky and allegations he lied to a grand jury and committed perjury. It was a controversial report, but it led to Clinton’s impeachment by the Republican-controlled House and his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Alan Dershowitz, Harvard law professor
His background defending Trump: Dershowitz has said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and expressed support for former vice president Joe Biden in 2020. But since Trump got elected, he has been one of the most prominent legal voices defending the president, especially from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference and obstruction of justice. He has met with the president several times, and in 2018, before the Ukraine allegations, he published a book, “The Case Against Impeaching Trump,” that has been criticized as being more focused on self-promotion than making an actual legal argument that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe was overreaching.
The Post’s John Wagner and Josh Dawsey report that Trump admires Dershowitz’s performances on TV and so wanted him on his defense. Dershowitz told The Post he plans to argue that the two articles of impeachment against Trump, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, don’t meet the constitutional standard of impeachment.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: Before he was a fixture on Fox News, Dershowitz was already a high-profile criminal attorney defending celebrities, including O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein.
His life outside the legal profession is not without controversy. He is defending himself against a sexual assault allegation from a woman who says she was being sex trafficked by Epstein.
Robert Ray, former independent counsel
His background defending Trump: None, but like Starr, the New York prosecutor has experience with impeachment.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: He led the independent counsel’s office toward the end of the investigation into Clinton, issuing the final reports alleging the president’s wrongdoing.
Pam Bondi, former Florida attorney general
Her background defending Trump: Of all the lawyers on the president’s team, Bondi perhaps has the most experience in actual politics. She was the attorney general in Florida for eight years and has a number of ties to Trump. She faced criticism for campaign donations she received from the Donald J. Trump Foundation and her decision not to join a lawsuit against Trump University. She now works for the Trump White House, helping guide Republicans in Congress’s response to impeachment.
Her most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: She was a former federal prosecutor. But her strength, from Trump’s perspective, comes from her telegenic appearances on TV defending him, report Wagner and Dawsey.
Pat Philbin, deputy counsel to the president
His background defending Trump: He is Cipollone’s right-hand man, his most senior deputy in the White House’s legal office. Since House Democrats took control of the chamber last January, he’s been part of the legal team blocking information from coming out; the Atlantic reports he was one of the lawyers following Hope Hicks’s every word when the former White House communications director testified to the House Judiciary Committee this summer, objecting to questions that he claimed might reveal privileged information, like where her office was located in the West Wing.
His most relevant experience for an impeachment trial: Philbin has plenty of experience working in sticky situations for Republican presidents. He also served as associate deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, where he helped the Justice Department decide that a domestic spying program in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was illegal. He was part of a small group of Justice lawyers in the hospital room of ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft during a dramatic 2004 showdown between the Bush White House lawyers and Justice over whether to reauthorize the program. The program did not get reauthorized as the Bush White House wanted, and subsequent testimony about that meeting suggested Vice President Richard B. Cheney blocked Philbin from a high-profile job in apparent retaliation.
He was a partner in a major D.C. law firm before joining the Trump White House — and got a waiver from a law that prevents government lawyers from making decisions that could affect their old firm.
Mike Purpura, deputy White House counsel
His background defending Trump: Purpura came to the White House shortly after Democrats took over the House of Representatives, taking the lead on doing battle to prevent White House grand jury testimony with Mueller from being made public. (So far, lower courts have ruled against the White House in the Mueller case, but a federal appeals court is now considering that case, and it could go all the way to the Supreme Court.) Purpura had previously written that the president requires expansive protection from investigations from Congress, reports The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig: “Executive privilege is not a partisan issue. It’s important to protect the principle of allowing the president to receive candid, full, frank advice from his top advisers without fear that those deliberations and communications will become public.”
His background in high-profile trials: Like Trump’s other defenders, this is not the first time Purpura has defended a Republican president. He also worked in the same legal office under President George W. Bush, where he defended Bush from congressional inquiries, and was a top Justice Department official. In terms of trial work, he was a federal prosecutor in Manhattan — known for its rough-and-tumble criminal cases — and Hawaii.
Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.