For almost an hour, Bruce Castor, a little-known lawyer from Pennsylvania, had his moment on the national stage. Castor had been a late addition to Donald Trump’s legal team.
Trump has faced difficulties in attracting legal personnel since his impeachment last month. The lawyers who represented him in his first impeachment trial were not interested in a reprise.
Having retained a new defence team, led by South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers, last month, the two sides parted ways abruptly two weeks ago. According to some reports it was over Trump’s insistence that they argue that November’s presidential election was rigged; others claim it came down to money, with Trump refusing to sign a letter of intent guaranteeing they would get paid. As a result, Trump assembled his impeachment trial defence lawyers just days before they were required to file the first briefs last week.
Judging by their performance on the opening day, the lack of preparation was hard to overcome.
After three of the Democrats’ nine House impeachment managers delivered their opening arguments, Castor took to the floor. Donning rimmed glasses and speaking at a slow, deliberate pace, it seemed possible that the former prosecutor was a country lawyer ready to take command at the most important chamber in the land.
But Castor was no Atticus Finch, the famed fictional lawyer of To Kill A Mockingbird. Instead, he embarked on a meandering 50-minute speech with little legal substance.
So well done
Republican senators fidgeted, some talked among themselves. As he approached his conclusion he said what few lawyers would admit publicly – that he and his colleague had changed course after hearing the prosecution case because it was so well done.
His partner, David Schoen, was more effective, taking a confrontational approach from the outset. Describing the trial as unconstitutional, he argued that due process had been ignored in the rush to judge the former president. But the damage was done.
There were disparaging words from Republicans after the session. John Cornyn of Texas said Castor had “rambled on and on and on and didn’t really address the constitutional argument”.
The subpar performance even persuaded one Republican senator to change his mind from the procedural vote last week and he voted with Democrats on the constitutionality of the process.
“They were unfocused, they attempted to avoid the issue and they talked about everything but the issue at hand,” Bill Cassidy said of the lawyers, though his own local Republican party in Louisiana later rebuked him – a reminder of the grip Trump still holds at grassroots level.
Castor’s poor performance was all the more apparent in light of the skilful prosecution arguments that went before.
The three Democratic congressmen who spoke on the trial’s opening day – Jamie Raskin, Joe Neguse and David Cicilline – are all former lawyers. Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, was a professor of constitutional law for 26 years, before moving into politics.
Lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Their experience showed as they shredded the Trump argument that a president cannot be tried after leaving office. As if straight from a courtroom drama, they married reasoned logic with a clever use of video and first-person testimony, gripping the 100 senators in the chamber and the millions more at home watching live.
Trump was reportedly furious as he watched the trial at home in Florida, though it seems unlikely that he can dismiss either attorney at this point in the proceedings.
Still, he can take comfort from the fact that the performance of his legal team will probably be irrelevant. However his lawyers conduct themselves in the coming days, most Republican senators are unlikely to change their minds. The former president looks set to be acquitted.