Meet Trump's legal team for the impeachment trial

Trump's legal team has some high-profile members, including Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr.

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By Hallie Jackson, Hans Nichols and Sally Bronston

WASHINGTON — The legal team for President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate includes some high-profile names, according to sources familiar with the president's legal strategy.

Here's who's on the team so far, according to the sources:

Alan Dershowitz speaks at a press conference in Kiev on April 11, 2011.Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images file

Alan Dershowitz

Current job: professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and frequent cable news commentator.

Background: Dershowitz, a graduate of Yale Law School, has defended or advised on such high-profile cases as those of O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein.

Analysis note: Dershowitz is expected to address the constitutional arguments against impeachment and removal of the president at the trial. He or someone with access to his Twitter account posted a three-part message on Friday that said, “While Professor Dershowitz is non-partisan when it comes to the Constitution — he opposed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and voted for Hillary Clinton — he believes the issues at stake go to the heart of our enduring Constitution. He is participating in this impeachment trial to defend the integrity of the Constitution and to prevent the creation of a dangerous constitutional precedent.”

Dershowitz appeared to try to distance himself late Friday on SiriusXM radio's "The Dan Abrams Show," saying "it overstates it to say I’m a member of the Trump team. I was asked to present the constitutional argument that I would have presented had Hillary Clinton been elected and had she been impeached."

Dershowitz pointed out in the interview that he has been a critic of and written about "the overuse of impeachment" for years and had been critical of the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

"And I was asked to present my constitutional argument against impeachment," he continued. "I will be there for one hour, basically, presenting my argument. But I’m not a full-fledged member of the defense team in any realistic sense of that term.”

  • Dershowitz often defended Trump on cable news over former special counsel Robert Mueller's now-concluded investigation. But he also has described himself as a "loyal liberal who has supported every Democratic candidate for president since I campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1952"; and he has said he didn't agree with some of the president's policies, like the travel ban and ending protections for so-called "dreamers" who entered the country illegally as children.
  • As noted above, Dershowitz’s connections with Epstein could prove problematic. He remained friends with the now-deceased convicted sex offender after he was released from prison in 2009.
  • Dershowitz was sued last year by one of Epstein’s accusers: Virginia Giuffre, previously known as Virginia Roberts, said Dershowitz falsely claimed she had fabricated the accusations. The lawsuit alleges that Dershowitz "was also a participant in sex trafficking, including as one of the men to whom Epstein lent out plaintiff for sex." Dershowitz has adamantly denied the allegations and told NBC News last spring that he looks forward to proving in court "that this woman made up whole story. I will prove that she committed perjury. I never met her."
  • Dershowitz attended the Hanukkah reception at the White House last month.
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Impeachment Inquiry in Washington on Nov. 19, 1998.Luke Frazza / AFP - Getty Images file

Kenneth Starr

Current job: Until Friday, he was a Fox News contributor.

Background: Ex-Baylor president, ex-Pepperdine law professor, ex-independent counsel, ex-solicitor general.

Analysis note: Starr comes to this role with relevant experience and a reputation for zealotry. As independent counsel, he led the investigation into the Clintons and the Whitewater real estate deal, which led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The addition of Starr to the legal team will invariably invite comparisons to Clinton’s impeachment trial and Starr’s role in it. (Monica Lewinsky had a snap analysis on Twitter.)

  • Trump's attitude toward Starr has evolved. On NBC's "Today" show in 1999, he called Starr, at various points, “terrible,” “a lunatic” and “a disaster.”
  • During his investigation of Clinton, Starr argued that hearing from witnesses was crucial (watch for Democrats to seize on this). "We cannot responsibly determine whether she [Lewinsky] is telling the truth without speaking directly to her," Starr said. He added: “We have found that there is no substitute for looking a witness in the eye, asking detailed questions, matching the answers against verifiable facts, and if appropriate, giving a polygraph test."
  • In 2016, Starr was removed as president of Baylor University after an outside investigation found the university mishandled sexual assault charges against members of the men’s football team. After being dismissed as president, he eventually resigned as a professor at the university's law school. He also apologized to the victims, who he said "were not treated with the care, concern, and support they deserve.”
  • Additionally, Starr told Fox News host Laura Ingraham last year that he was “in the room” when the sweetheart plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein was cut more than a decade ago with Alex Acosta, the prosecutor in the case at the time, who was forced to resign as Trump’s labor secretary last summer for his role in the case.
  • Starr has said political partisanship in America has actually improved since the Clinton era, telling MSNBC host Joe Scarborough in 2018: “I’ll tell you, it was nasty back then, and we were under continual and unrelenting assault by the Clinton White House.“
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone exits the Capitol after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Dec. 12, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Pat Cipollone

Current job: He took over from Don McGahn as White House counsel in October of 2018.

Background: After undergrad at Fordham, Cipollone graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and spent part of his career as an assistant to Bill Barr in his first stint as attorney general in the early '90s.

Analysis note: This would be by far the biggest and brightest spotlight into which Cipollone, who is notoriously low-profile, has ever stepped. By most accounts, he has won over the president with his low-key and deferential style.

  • “A well-known figure in Washington’s community of Catholic conservatives and anti-abortion activists, Mr. Cipollone came to the White House late last year after earlier having helped prepare Mr. Trump for the presidential debates in 2016 and advised his legal team during the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the campaign. … He drives a pickup truck and a Honda Pilot, into which he loaded a beloved desk chair for the move to the White House after his appointment last December,” a New York Times profile reported.
  • Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham reportedly connected Cipollone with the Trump campaign: He is the godfather to one of her children, and she has praised him on her show as “wildly talented,” Politico reported.
  • Further reading: profiles in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.
Jay Sekulow speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., on Oct. 23, 2015.Steve Helber / AP file

Jay Sekulow

Current job: Personal attorney to Trump and chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice.

Background: After graduating from Atlanta Baptist College (now Mercer) with a law degree in 1980, Sekulow converted from Judaism after engagement with “Jews for Jesus;” he has now become one of the leading attorneys on the evangelical right involving religious liberties cases. (He writes about his conversion here.) He was key in helping the president navigate the special counsel investigation.

Analysis note: in contrast to Cipollone, Sekulow is not only accustomed to the spotlight, he seeks it. As a radio and TV host, he’s also used to interacting with the media. He will likely take a more forward-facing role in the defense team.

  • Sekulow has argued in front of the Supreme Court (successfully, in the majority of instances) about a dozen times. He has also been described as a “zealot,” per one of his '90’s-era frequent opponents, but “you can’t quibble with the fact that he’s won the cases.”
  • He’s created a kind of mini-media empire that includes a daily radio show, "Jay Sekulow Live!," hosted most recently by his son Jordan.
  • For further reading, see this NYT profile.
Newly appointed independent counsel Robert Ray poses for photographers in Washington on Oct. 25, 1999.Joyce Naltchayan / AFP - Getty Images file

Robert Ray

Current job: New York-based private practice attorney.

Background: Ray succeeded Starr as independent counsel during the investigations of Clinton and issued the final reports. Prior to that, he served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Analysis note: Ray is no shrinking violet. He “built a reputation in New York as an aggressive prosecutor with an enviable rate of success," according to a New York Times profile in 1999. "But he was also on occasion scolded by federal judges who warned him that he had come close to the line in his eagerness to put people in prison.”

  • The son of an Army colonel, Ray likely caught Trump’s eye with his appearances on Fox News: the president has tweeted five times since last spring about Ray’s comments defending him.
  • In the 1990s, Ray commuted from New Jersey — where his family lived — to Washington, D.C., staying at his boyhood bedroom in his parents’ home in suburban Virginia during the week, according to the Times.
Pam Bondi, Florida's attorney general, in Washington in February. On Thursday, she called on victims across the country who may have been sexually abused by a priest in Florida to use a tip line to contact her office.Zach Gibson / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Pam Bondi

Current job: member of the White House impeachment communications team.

Background: Until last year, Bondi was attorney general of Florida, an office she had held since 2011.

Analysis note: Bondi, a friend of the president’s, has his ear; she also knows how to handle a national audience after many appearances on TV defending Trump. In turn, he has called her a “truly wonderful woman” (March 2016) and “highly respected” (March 2017), among other plaudits.

  • Bondi was involved in a Trump Foundation controversy after the charity was forced to pay a penalty for donating to a campaign group connected to Bondi. Bondi decided not to pursue fraud allegations against Trump University following the $25,000 donation, which was later deemed improper. (Refresh your memory with this 2016 Washington Post piece.) Bondi said in response to the news reports, "I never, nor was my office, investigating him. Never. I would never lie. I would never take money. I've been obviously devastated over this," according to the Tampa Bay Times.
  • Bondi spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention in support of then-candidate Trump, saying she was “proud to know Donald.”

Jane Raskin

Current job: partner at Raskin & Raskin.

Background: Along with her husband, Raskin joined Trump’s legal team in April of 2018, where the duo interacted with Mueller’s team and resisted the special counsel's effort to interview the president.

Raskin is a veteran attorney, with stints in public and private practice.

Analysis note: Raskin is known as a hard-nosed litigator but may take a less public-facing role on the impeachment defense team.

  • At the DOJ in the early '80s, she went after Boston mobsters as a member of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section’s Boston Strike Force.

Patrick Philbin

Current job: deputy White House counsel.

Background: Undergrad at Yale (two years behind Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) and Harvard Law School. After a brief stint in the DOJ under President George W. Bush, Philbin spent more than at decade Kirkland & Ellis before joining the White House Counsel’s Office in December 2018.

Analysis note: Philbin has experience at the DOJ handling high-profile cases.

  • Philbin had high praise for former FBI Director James Comey, per this Wall Street Journal profile from 2007: “If there’s a crisis, and you want someone in your foxhole, Jim is the guy you want in your foxhole. …”
  • Why was he so close with Comey? At Justice, he was a deputy to Comey, who was then deputy attorney general. Philbin was involved in the infamous hospital showdown between then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, Comey and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez and chief of staff Andy Card, in which Gonzalez tried to get a very ill Ashcroft to certify that the domestic surveillance program was legal (Ashcroft resisted).

Mike Purpura

Current job: deputy White House counsel.

Background: This is Purpura’s second stint in the White House Counsel’s Office. He was an associate at the end of the Bush administration and then spent most of the Obama years in private practice in Hawaii. He graduated from West Point in 1991, where he lettered in tennis and received academic honors.

Analysis note: Similar to Philbin, he has DOJ experience and more recently has worked on the White House response to various congressional subpoenas during the impeachment inquiry.

  • Purpura grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father ran the shoe department at a clothing store after graduating from Wheeling Central High School, according to the local newspaper.
  • To get a sense of his style, read the letter he wrote to ex-White House Russia expert Fiona Hill’s team about her congressional testimony.
Hallie Jackson

Hallie Jackson is the chief White House correspondent for NBC News.

Hans Nichols

Hans Nichols is an NBC News correspondent. 

Sally Bronston