The Slatest

The Rambling, Stumbling Case for Trump’s Acquittal

The ex-president’s lawyers present a bizarre and shapeless opening impeachment defense.

Castor holds his hands on a podium, stares glumly.
Bruce Castor Jr., defense lawyer for former President Donald Trump, speaks on the first day of Trump’s second impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Handout/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial opened with a devastating presentation from the House managers showing why the former president’s actions were worthy of conviction and demonstrating the immediate danger of failing to condemn Trump and ban him from future office. It was a tough act to follow.

How did Trump’s legal team—culled from the bottom of the barrel following a falling out with his first team and the refusal of major firms and conservative legal advocates to represent him—do in response?

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Bruce Castor, the former Pennsylvania district attorney who is most famous for having declined to prosecute Bill Cosby for rape, opened up the defense arguments and let’s just say it did not go well.

Here’s a sampling of the Twitter responses:

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Before the defense presentation was done, “My Cousin Vinny” was trending on Twitter.

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What was so bad about Castor’s performance? For one, in what was supposed to be the opening of a specific procedural and jurisdictional defense, it was hard to identify a consistent narrative thread or particular legal argument he was trying to make. Castor basically conceded this at the end, saying that he had produced his rambling presentation on the fly in response to how well the House managers made their case.

“I’ll be quite frank with you, we changed what we were going to do on account that we thought the House managers’ presentation was well done,” Castor said.

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He went on to say that the legal team did have answers to the merit case made by the House managers at the start of the trial, and they would get to those … eventually. But because the managers had presented the meat of the alleged crime right up front, rather than simply debating the Senate’s jurisdiction, he said the Trump team was unprepared. “I thought that what the first part of the case was, which was the equivalent of a motion to dismiss, was going to be about jurisdiction alone,” Castor said. “We have counterarguments to everything that they raised, and you will hear them later on in the case.”

From the perspective of pleasing his client, the dog-ate-my-homework routine wasn’t even the worst part. In an effort to convince the Senate that the impeachment trial was unnecessary, Castor repeatedly pointed out that the American people had already fairly voted Trump out of office—the opposite of what Trump said in his months of complaints about election theft, which had ultimately inspired his supporters to attack the Capitol.

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“The American people just spoke and they just changed administrations,” Castor said. Therefore, there’s no need to impeach Trump and bar him from future office because the electoral system—which Trump just spent two months trying to overturn, and which the mob on Jan. 6 sought to halt through violence—worked out in the end. “The people are smart enough … to pick a new administration if they don’t like the old one,” Castor said. “And they just did!”

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Inexplicably, Castor repeated the Trump lost the election so you don’t have to punish him for trying to steal it argument a couple more times before moving to ground the former president will surely appreciate even less: If the Senate determines it doesn’t have jurisdiction to try Trump, then he can always be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

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“After he’s out of office, you go and arrest him,” Castor said. “So there is no opportunity where the president of the United States can run rampant in January at the end of his term and just go away scot free. The Department of Justice does know what to do about such people and so far I haven’t seen any activity in that direction.”

And, again, these were Castor’s most—perhaps only—intelligible points. After he spoke, the defense team then moved on to David Schoen, who delivered a more impassioned and somewhat more cohesive case that the current impeachment is a “partisan witch hunt” against the president with no basis in fact.

Ultimately, perhaps there was some strategy to the double act. Schoen’s performance was an aggressive attack on the impeachment managers, one of whom had just spilled his soul about the devastating trauma that he and his family experienced the day of the Capitol attack. Castor’s bizarre and nonsensical ramblings may have served as a palate cleanser, so that Schoen’s cutting criticism of the House side didn’t follow directly on impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin’s powerful performance. All the president’s defenders need to do, in the end, is to keep 17 Republican Senators from joining the Democrats.

In the end, only six Republicans joined the Democrats in voting that a trial of a former president is constitutional and should go forward—Sens. Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Pat Toomey, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse—meaning it appears there are already more than enough votes for the Republicans to acquit Trump no matter what arguments they hear. Cassidy was the only Republican who initially signaled a desire to dismiss the case to change his vote this time around, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who had reportedly spoken positively of impeachment early on—voting again with the vast majority of the rest of his conference to let Trump off of the hook.

Castor and Schoen may have made it more embarrassing for them to stick with Trump, but if the last four years demonstrated anything, it was the limits of shame as a force in politics.

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