For a president keenly attuned to the bells and whistles of reality TV, the announcement Friday that attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr have joined his impeachment defense made sense for its embrace of celebrity star power.
But with Dershowitz and Starr, the strands of scandals past and present instantly became tangled in the drama of whether President Trump should be removed from office.
Adding to the spectacle, Trump’s trial in the Senate will now include two controversial lawyers with connections to pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, a sexual-assault scandal at Baylor University, and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which stemmed largely from his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Even by the turbulent standards of the Trump administration, the news was head-shaking. Lewinsky herself tweeted Friday, “This is definitely an ‘are you [expletive] kidding me?’ kinda day.”
But for the two attorneys, their presence at the trial will return them to a limelight that has waxed and waned for decades. Being frequent contributors to Fox News, a favorite of the president’s, undoubtedly hasn’t hurt in this case.
Dershowitz, for one, has made at least 110 appearances on Fox News since last January, according to Media Matters for America, a Web-based nonprofit organization.
Starr has withdrawn from his role as a Fox commentator while he works on the impeachment trial. He accepted the job even though Trump, in the late 1990s, told various media outlets during Clinton’s impeachment saga that Starr was “crazy . . . a total wacko . . . off his rocker . . . a disaster . . . a freak.”
In a telephone interview Friday, Dershowitz said he accepted Trump’s request to join the team out of love of country and the Constitution.
“I was very ambivalent about it for a long time. I decided that this was a historic moment,” said Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor.
Dershowitz said he would not challenge the facts or details of the House’s articles of impeachment, which allege that Trump abused his power and obstructed justice.
Rather, Dershowitz said that his focus — and the only reason he said yes — is that he believes the House is overreaching on impeachment and might create a dangerous precedent in which future presidents would be undermined by political enemies.
“I am a supporter of the Constitution. I would be doing the same thing if Hillary Clinton had been elected and she had been impeached," Dershowitz said. “I am kind of special counsel for the Constitution. I am going to limit myself to constitutional issues. I will not be making factual arguments."
Dershowitz has argued that the articles approved by the Democratic-controlled House on a nearly party-line vote violate the Constitution, which lists only four grounds for impeachment — treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors.
“Any president can be impeached over an allegation of abuse of power … by their political opponents,’’ Dershowitz said. “It’s the precisely open-ended criteria . . . that the framers were opposed to. It’s too broad and open-ended.”
Dershowitz outlined his argument in “The Case Against Impeaching Trump,” a book published in 2018.
But for all the legal celebrity that Dershowitz brings to Trump’s defense, he also brings baggage that is certain to hover on the periphery of the impeachment drama.
He and Starr represented Epstein more than a decade ago as the financier obtained a controversial, secretive plea deal in a federal investigation of the sexual abuse of underage girls in Florida.
After the Miami Herald years later disclosed details of the plea deal, federal prosecutors in New York opened their own investigation and charged Epstein with trafficking minors for sex.
Epstein committed suicide in his jail cell in August while awaiting trial.
One of Epstein’s victims has accused Dershowitz of sexual abuse. He has denied the allegation; both he and the alleged victim have filed defamation lawsuits against the other.
Dershowitz makes no apologies for his legal work for Epstein.
“I would do it again. And my job, when I take a case, is to try to get the best possible result I can,” Dershowitz told WBUR in July. “It’s the job of the prosecutor and the judge to make sure that the appropriate sentence is accorded.”
Dershowitz also helped represent Simpson, the former football star, in his sensational murder trial that ended in acquittal in 1995.
And in 1982, he represented Claus von Bulow, a Rhode Island socialite who had been convicted of trying to murder his wife.
Dershowitz won an appeal of that conviction and then an acquittal in a second trial.
Starr has his own checkered history as an attorney. As independent counsel in an investigation of Bill Clinton, Starr oversaw a wide-ranging probe that eventually led to articles of impeachment that included perjury charges against the president for lying about his affair with Lewinsky.
Two decades later, Starr was removed as president of Baylor University and subsequently resigned as chancellor following an investigation that found the university had mishandled or failed to act on sexual-assault allegations against football players.
The legal team will also include Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as independent counsel in the investigation of Clinton.
Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe said Trump’s selection of the attorneys appears driven by his desire to make the trial must-watch TV.
However, Tribe said that he does not think Dershowitz has deep expertise in constitutional law, and that his extremely narrow interpretation of impeachable offenses under the Constitution is “bonkers.”
“He’s never written any serious constitutional scholarship in his life, although he’s terrific as a criminal lawyer,” Tribe said. “He doesn’t bring any relevant knowledge, as far as I know.”
Former US district judge Nancy Gertner, who now teaches at Harvard Law School, praised Dershowitz’s intellect but added that “his academic credentials, his gravitas, has been seriously undermined by a three-year record as an apologist for the president.”
Longtime Boston civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate said Dershowitz would aid Trump’s defense.
“Donald Trump is very lucky to have Alan on his team. He will not have to rely heavily on the dubious skill of, for example, [Rudy] Giuliani, who probably was a much better mayor than he is a lawyer,” Silverglate said.
“He does not have much in common with Trump politically, although both probably share the ‘I must win’ mentality. But he will work very hard for his client Trump, and I have no doubt that, if Trump listens to Dershowitz, Trump will be better off for it.”
George Brown, a Boston College law professor, said he was not surprised by Dershowitz’s selection, based on his theories on impeachment.
“In a sense, he is an ideal person to make that argument — that whatever the House sent over doesn’t constitute an impeachable offense.”