'Nonsense ... preposterous ... absurd': Critics lecture Dershowitz about trial remarks

Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard law professor, said in a tweetstorm that his argument in defense of the president was being willfully distorted.

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By Allan Smith

Alan Dershowitz, a member of President Donald Trump's legal team, faced intense backlash Thursday over his eye-opening argument against impeaching his client.

Dershowitz argued Wednesday that if presidents engage in quid pro quo arrangements for their own political benefit, it is not impeachable because all politicians believe their elections are in the public interest.

"If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," he said during the first day of the question-and-answer period of the Senate impeachment trial.

Dershowitz was responding to a question posed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, regarding quid pro quos. Democrats last month impeached Trump and charged him with abusing his power, alleging that he engaged in a corrupt quid pro quo by withholding military aid and a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Trump pushed him to announce investigations of Democrats.

The backlash to Dershowitz's legal analysis was furious, with critics calling the argument "outrageous," "totally preposterous" and "ridiculous," saying it would allow a president to take any action with his political interest in mind.

At a news conference Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the argument "a load of nonsense."

Full coverage of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial

"By Professor Dershowitz's logic, President [Richard] Nixon did nothing wrong in Watergate," Schumer said. Republicans using Dershowitz's argument "would unleash a monster" or "a monarch," he added.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Thursday that he was "still shocked" by Dershowitz's remarks, calling them "totally preposterous."

Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, pointed to Nixon's infamous remarks during the Watergate scandal.

"Richard Nixon once made this argument: 'When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,'" she tweeted. "He was forced to resign in disgrace. In America, no one is above the law."

Constitutional scholars slammed the idea, too.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley law school, said he thought Dershowitz's argument was "absurd and outrageous."

"It means that a president could break any law or abuse any power and say that it was for the public interest because the public interest would be served by his or her election," he said.

And Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas law professor, said Dershowitz's argument was, "on its face, preposterous."

Levinson said in an interview that while candidates for office "make a variety of deals that they would prefer not to in behalf of the good cause" of their election, "we rely on a certain moral compass that will stop at, say, outright bribery" and "suggesting assassinations."

Dershowitz pushed back Thursday morning, tweeting that his words were being "willfully distorted" by the media.

"They characterized my argument as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything," Dershowitz wrote. "I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest."

On Wednesday, Dershowitz said there were three possible motives for a quid pro quo in foreign policy: the public interest, personal political interest and personal financial interest.

He argued that only the money motive is corrupt.

"Every public official I know believes that his election is in the public interest," Dershowitz added.

Dershowitz later claimed that scholars who disagreed with his assessment were "influenced by their own bias." He also said: "The president is the executive branch. He is irreplaceable."

Dershowitz posted a slew of tweets Thursday defending his argument.

"I did not say or imply that a candidate could do anything to reassure his reelection, only that seeking help in an election is not necessarily corrupt," Dershowitz wrote, adding that critics "have an obligation to respond to what I said, not to create straw men to attack."

But his attempt to offer clarity by claiming that his words were being misconstrued drew pushback, too.

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"You said as long as the President doesn't commit a crime, he can abuse his power in any way he likes in service of his re-election," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted Thursday in response. "He can trade taxpayer aid for foreign interference. He can sick law enforcement on his political rivals. I was there. That's what you said."

On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal editorial board endorsed Dershowitz's argument, while Republicans praised him for his performance.

"All I can tell you — as we've gone on with the trial, the talk [Democrats] dislike the most is what comes from Professor Dershowitz," Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said Thursday on "Fox and Friends." "The whole dynamic changed where it got more defensive on the prosecution side."