There’s a saying: “You get what you pay for.” Usually it refers to the quality of a product relative to its price, but in the context of the team assembled to defend former President Trump in his second impeachment trial, it could also be a broader comment on the properties of karma — if you believe in that stuff. Trump, infamous for stiffing almost anyone whose services he agrees to pay for — most recently, his personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani — was left with few options when it came time to pick lawyers to represent him in his Senate trial.
Attorneys at Washington’s top law firms reportedly passed on the opportunity — perhaps recognizing that, unlike last time, the government likely won’t be footing the bill. In the end, Trump brought a mismatched pair: David Schoen, known for defending the First Amendment rights of the Klu Klux Klan, and Bruce Castor, a Pennsylvania prosecutor who, up until Tuesday, was best known as the District Attorney who refused to prosecute Bill Cosby. (Cosby, accused of sexual assault by 60 women, was later convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.)
After yesterday’s utterly incomprehensible 49-minute word cloud, delivered to senators and watched by millions of Americans, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will remember Castor for anything else. He’d barely opened his mouth when he made his first, and in retrospect Freudian, fuck-up, declaring himself not the head of Trump’s defense, but rather the chief prosecutor. “I was an assistant D.A. for so long I keep saying prosecutor, but I do know the difference,” he said, chuckling.
…But, does he know the difference? Because the speech he proceeded to give, heavy on flattery directed at the senators, was very thin on defense of the president. The sycophantic speech was full of compliments for the “gallant” men and women of the Senate: “Patriots first. They love their country, they love their families, they love the states that they represent.” Gazing out at a chamber that is 89 percent white and 76 percent male, Castor marveled, “Boy, this is a diverse group!” He continued: “There isn’t a single one of you that a) doesn’t consider yourself a patriot and 2) there isn’t a single one of you who doesn’t consider the other 99 to be patriots of the United States.”
Castor’s attempts to butter the senators up didn’t seem to go over as well as he hoped. A sampling of Republican reactions to his performance:
“I ain’t no lawyer, but I know enough to know that was some bad stuff” – Sen. Richard Burr
“I couldn’t figure out where he was going,” – Sen. Lisa Murkowski
“Just rambled on and on and on and didn’t really address the constitutional argument” – Sen. John Cornyn
“I thought I knew where it was going, and I really didn’t know where it was going” – Sen. Lindsey Graham
“I don’t think the lawyers did the most effective job” – Sen. Ted Cruz
All of those people, though, still voted exactly as they’d telegraphed they would on the procedural question of whether or not the trial was constitutional. The lone Senator to change his vote was Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who offered this blistering review: “President Trump’s team were disorganized, they did everything they could but talk about the question at hand, and when they talked about it, they kind of glided over it, as if they were embarrassed of their arguments.” When pressed for further explanation by a reporter, a disbelieving Cassidy asked, “Did you listen to it?!”
In Bruce Castor’s defense, he had a tough job: the house managers made a compelling argument. Castor himself called their argument not just “outstanding,” but “brilliant” no fewer than three times. It included a 13-minute video showing President Trump literally ordering his supporters to walk to the Capitol and disrupt the official electoral college count.
Confronted with the overwhelming, persuasive argument of his client’s guilt, Castor decided to call an audible. “I’ll be quite frank with you: We changed what we were going to do on account of we thought the house managers presentation was well-done,” Castor said. He added, hastily, “We have counter arguments to everything that they raised and you will hear them later on.” But instead of offering the counter arguments, Castor took the senators, and the rest of us, on an almost hour-long discursive journey full of detours to reflect on everything from his childhood — spent listening to records of former Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen (“the most commanding, gravely voice that just oozes belief and sincerity”) — to the things he saw on TV or read in the newspaper in the last few days.
It was like watching the live performance of a writer trying to meet his word count. Castor didn’t limit his compliments just to senators. He labeled former attorney Eric Holder “articulate,” (yikes, I know), adding he is “somebody that some Republican somewhere might be worried about.” His long, rambling speech included digressions about the state of Nebraska (“quite a judicial-thinking place”) and it’s current senator, Ben Sasse, who he described as a man “whose Supreme Court history is ever-present in his mind — and rightfully so: he faces the whirlwind even as he knows what the judiciary in his state thinks.” (Don’t bother trying to make sense of that string of words, you’ll only exhaust yourself. The whirlwind, you see, is a biblical reference. Castor wanted to use the reference in his speech, but then he learned “that that particular phrase has already been taken” — By who? He didn’t say. Instead, he was forced substitute a second-choice phrase, “open the floodgates,” when referring to the political implications Trump’s conviction might have.)
Castor wandered off for several minutes in the direction of an anecdote about an unnamed, but presumably Democratic congresswoman, a story seemingly meant to illustrate his commitment to defending free speech. “I saw a headline: Representative So-and-So Seeks to walk back comments about — I forget what it was, something that bothered her — I was devastated when I saw she felt it was necessary to go on television yesterday, or the day before, and say that she has to walk back her comments,” Castor said. “She should be able to comment as much as she wants … That’s what we broke away from Great Britain in order to be able to do — to be able to say what we thought in the most robust political debate!”
He seemed similarly confused about the House managers’ reference to English Common Law, the literal basis of the U.S. legal system. “We left the British system!” Castor declared. “If we’re really going to use pre-revolutionary history in Great Britain then the precedent is: we have a parliament and we have a king! Is that the precedent that we are heading for?”
Toward the end of his speech Castor finally approached the issue at hand, implying that the proceedings weren’t really about finding Trump’s guilt or innocence, but about barring him from future office. “Let’s understand why we are really here: We are really here because the majority in the House of Representatives does not want to face Donald Trump in the political future. And that’s why they have to get over a jurisdictional hurdle, that they can’t get over, but that’s why they have to get over it to get to the part in the Constitution that allows removal,” Castor said.
In essence: Democrats are afraid of the voters. There’s a small problem with the argument — also favored by Republicans in Donald Trump’s first impeachment — that none of this is necessary because we have a democracy in this country, and in a democracy voters make their displeasure known at the ballot box. The logic is slightly undermined by the fact the only reason this trial is taking place at all is because, after losing at the ballot box, Trump refused to accept the results and directed his supporters to disrupt the proceedings that would officially ratify Joe Biden’s victory.
“Nobody says it that plainly, but unfortunately, I have a way of speaking that way,” Castor went on. “And the reason I am having trouble with the argument is that the American people just spoke. And they just changed administrations…. They’re smart enough to pick a new administration if they don’t like the old one — and they just did.”
As you might imagine, all that didn’t go over great with his client. Trump was described as “borderline screaming” over Castor’s performance.
Castor, for his part, told a pool reporter, “I think we had a good day.”