Trump’s circus of defense lawyers

Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

Before today, I didn’t think it was possible to feel sorry for White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Remember he’s quarterbacked the unprecedented stonewalling of the Congressional impeachment process by refusing to turn over documents despite legitimate subpoenas. He has enforced the President’s edict to deny Congress witnesses, again despite congressional subpoenas.

But today I do feel a little sorry for Cipollone. To make a mockery of the impeachment process, Trump has in turn, made a mockery of his own legal team by announcing the additions of Kenneth Starr, Alan Dershowitz and Pam Bondi before the Senate impeachment trial is slated to resume next week. Cipollone will now have to stand with a group of discredited lawyers who will contribute to the spectacle that will play out on the Senate floor because the President thinks they do a great job on Fox News.

Let’s start with Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton for more than four years. Appointed to investigate a failed land deal in Arkansas, Starr used the power of his office to build a case for removing the President based on an inappropriate relationship between President Clinton and a White House intern.

Many of us remember the grand jury leaks, the driveway press conferences, and Starr’s pretentious preaching. And, of course, the treatment of Monica Lewinsky, who was held for hours at a Virginia hotel, where she was questioned without a lawyer while FBI agents and members of Starr’s team tried to persuade her to cooperate. Starr defended the conduct of his investigators and said there was nothing inappropriate in their interactions with Lewinsky. And who can forget the Starr report that seemed to delight in detailing the sordid affair. Even Starr’s own ethics adviser, Sam Dash, resigned in protest over how he handled the investigation.

But Starr didn’t just ride into the sunset after the Clinton impeachment. He went to Baylor University, where he was later removed as president after an investigation found that that the university mishandled allegations of sexual assault against members of the football team.

But that’s not all. Starr’s storied resume includes defending Jeffrey Epstein, perhaps America’s best known and most notorious sex offender. Starr was part of the team that got Epstein a notoriously lenient plea deal in 2008, even though a federal investigation had identified 36 alleged underage victims. Epstein, who was granted federal immunity as part of the deal, went on to allegedly sexually abuse and traffic underage girls until as recently as 2018, according to a new lawsuit filed this week.

Starr crossed paths with Alan Dershowitz while they were both on Epstein’s defense team. Dershowitz, who became known for defending O.J. Simpson, became famous because he seemed to love pontificating on any legal point wherever there was a camera.

Two women who have come forward as Epstein’s victims said the financier directed them to have sex with Dershowitz. He has strongly denied the allegations.

Dershowitz, who used to talk about his liberal credentials, has since become a favorite on Fox News, defending Trump and reveling in the attention it brought him. One can only imagine the stories Dershowitz and Starr might share sitting in the Fox News green room.

Then there is former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. In 2013, Bondi announced her office would not launch an investigation into alleged fraud in the marketing of Trump University after the Trump Foundation contributed $25,000 to a political action committee to support her reelection. She has denied that there is any connection between the donation and her office’s decision.

I don’t believe Trump set out to put a subpar legal team on the floor of the Senate, although that is what he’s doing. He set out to make the impeachment trial the latest episode in his reality show presidency. The President is deliberately creating a circus show bringing back some of the best acts from the last three decades. It seems he hopes to entertain his supporters, rather than defend his conduct. And the 40% of the country that still approve of Trump will be undoubtedly entertained.

But the rest of the country will get a real window into the character of our President. Rather than mount a defense of his conduct with the best legal team, he’s choosing a group mired in controversies including scandal, alleged corruption and misogyny. The majority of America in my view will be repulsed. But they won’t be surprised. The President let us know who he was when he stepped off that Access Hollywood bus. And now he’s picked a legal team that has no problem at all with it.

Poor Pat Cipollone. You may deserve this, but it won’t be pretty to watch.

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