For former President Donald Trump, the opening day of his second impeachment trial did not go as planned or to his liking.
Cocooned at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump watched as his defense attorneys responded to an emotional presentation by House impeachment managers with a series of dry, technical and at times meandering arguments about due process and the constitutionality of the proceedings. As they droned on, he grew increasingly frustrated with the sharp contrast between their muted response and the prosecution’s opening salvo, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
"President Trump was not happy with the performance of his legal team in action,” said one of the people familiar with his thinking.
It didn’t help that his lead attorney, former Pennsylvania prosecutor Bruce Castor, name-checked Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who just days ago slammed his state party for their “weird worship” of Trump. Castor also referred to Trump as the “former president,” conceding that he had in fact lost the 2020 election when he was removed by “smart” voters last November.
Trump, according to those familiar with his thinking, saw his legal team’s performance as a missed opportunity and also was annoyed by the public criticism of his attorneys. And he wasn’t the only one.
Some people close to the president’s defense team said they quit watching the proceedings out of sheer frustration with Castor’s presentation and were confused by his refusal to use graphics or a video––tools his TV-obsessed client had hoped to deploy.
At one point during Castor’s remarks, the right-wing network Newsmax––which Trump had been watching throughout the day, according to a person familiar with his viewing habits––cut away to a segment featuring the ex-president’s former impeachment attorney Alan Dershowitz.
“I have no idea what he is doing,” Dershowitz said of Castor, shaking his head dismissively. “The American people are entitled to an argument… but this, just, after all kinds of very strong presentations on the part of the House managers… it does not appear to me to be effective advocacy.”
Dershowitz’s assessment was later shared on Twitter by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.), a steadfast Trump ally who offered to resign from Congress last week to represent Trump himself.
“Explosive interview,” Gaetz said of the clip.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who met with GOP senators ahead of the trial to brief them on theories about its constitutionality, suggested Castor spent too much time focusing on extraneous arguments before arriving at the core of Trump’s defense.
“I am surprised by the exhaustion of so much time before addressing the concrete and compelling constitutional arguments,” Turley said in a text message. “They have a finite amount of time but you could not tell that this long opening.”
The decidedly frosty reaction from Trump and his allies mirrored the reviews that some GOP Senators offered upon leaving the chamber. And it raised a variety of questions: would the ex-president demand an adjustment of strategy? Was he regretting not appearing himself? And, most intriguing, what would his offerings be if he still had a Twitter account?
Trump’s own attorneys seemed to concede that their presentation wasn’t quite on par with the one offered by the House impeachment managers, who used their time on the floor to remind Senators of the harrowing scenes that took place on Capitol grounds with a dramatic video that juxtaposed Trump’s speech on Jan. 6 with his supporters violently breaking through security barriers and clashing with bloodied police officers.
“I'll be quite frank with you,” Castor said at one point, “we changed what we were going to do on account that we thought that the House managers' presentation was well-done. And I wanted you to know that we have responses to those things.”
According to initial plans for the trial, Trump attorney David Schoen was expected to begin arguments. But an aide to Trump said that, at the last minute, they decided to let Castor go first as part of a “very clear, deliberative strategy.”
“This is about lowering the temperature from the Democrats’ emotionally charged opening argument before dropping the hammer on the unconstitutional nature of this impeachment witch hunt,” the aide said.
Despite the rockiness of the presentation and the bad reviews for it, only one Republican Senator seemed swayed by the proceedings. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who initially voted that the trial was unconstitutional because it involved a former president, changed his mind on Tuesday, joining only five other Republicans to affirm the constitutionality of the impeachment trial. The Senate will move ahead with the trial on Wednesday afternoon.