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President Adds To White House Legal Team For Impeachment

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 7:10 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to send the articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate this week. That will set in motion a Senate trial. Now, Trump and his lawyers did not participate in the House process, but they will mount a full defense in the Senate. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith looks at how the president's legal team is shaping up.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The makeup of President Trump's impeachment defense team has been tightly held and is still at least partially in flux. White House counsel Pat Cipollone has taken the lead in the White House response to the Ukraine scandal since the start, sending sharply worded letters to Congress and blocking testimony from aides. He'll take the lead in the Senate trial, too.

TY COBB: I know that he's held in high esteem by the president.

KEITH: Ty Cobb served as assistant to the president and special counsel dealing with the Russia investigation.

COBB: And he's the one on trial. So he should be able to go with who he likes.

KEITH: For a while, there was a question of whether the president would even have a private attorney involved or whether Cipollone and the White House counsel's office would handle impeachment entirely on its own. But that is no longer a question. Jay Sekulow, who led Trump's private defense team for the Russia probe, has been at the White House a lot in recent days, as preparations ramped up for the impeachment trial, so much so that last week, he missed band practice with his rock group, the Jay Sekulow Band.

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KEITH: Sekulow plays drums and guitar in the band and told me there will be no rock 'n' roll for a few weeks, as the Senate trial consumes everything. But keeping good rhythm isn't why Trump has asked Sekulow to represent him before the Senate. Again, former White House lawyer Ty Cobb.

COBB: He's been there since the beginning and knows the facts. He is a very effective advocate, who I think would be a good communicator with Chief Justice Roberts, given Jay's extensive Supreme Court background.

KEITH: John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, will preside over the Senate trial. Sekulow specializes in religious liberty and has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court over the course of his career. But the other thing he's done that has special currency in the Trump White House is argue the president's case on TV, going to combat, as he did with CNN's Chris Cuomo last fall.

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JAY SEKULOW: In this transcript of the president, which you read and I have read line by line, you're telling me that that was an - a violation of the law or violation of a statute or violation of...

CHRIS CUOMO: I'm saying it doesn't...

KEITH: In choosing to be represented by both the White House counsel and at least one private attorney, President Trump is following a precedent set by President Clinton during his impeachment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now David Kendall, the president's personal counsel, is at the lectern. And it looks as if the...

KEITH: Kendall was one of several lawyers to speak to senators during Clinton's trial.

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DAVID KENDALL: The evidence plainly shows that the president did not obstruct justice in any way, and there is nothing in this article which would warrant his removal from office.

KEITH: There's an important technical reason why Clinton and now Trump have chosen to have private counsel working alongside the White House counsel, says Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at The George Washington University Law School. The White House counsel represents the White House and the office of the President, not the president himself. Private counsel is there to represent the president's personal interests. But there's another reason, Saltzburg says.

STEPHEN SALTZBURG: Whether we like it or not, once we start an impeachment trial, it's a show.

KEITH: A show that calls for a different cast and skills than the usual legal matters handled by the White House counsel.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.