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Is Alan Dershowitz defending Trump? Not quite, he says

Alan Dershowitz Alan Dershowitz, American lawyer, speaking at the Oxford Union against Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, in a debate entitled "Is the BDS Movement against Israel wrong?" - 1 November 2015 (Rex Features via AP Images)
Associated Press
Alan Dershowitz spoke at Oxford University on Nov. 1, 2015.

“This always happens to me,” Alan Dershowitz says.

When he defended the free speech rights of a Nazi group, his mother called him up and asked whose side he was on. “Even with O.J.,” Dershowitz says, “I got it from Jews.”

Now, the famed defense lawyer and self-described liberal who voted for Hillary Clinton — “proudly,” he said — seems to be defending President Trump. His public utterances are repeated breathlessly on conservative news sites (sample headline: “Alan Dershowitz pulverizes liberal anti-Trump Russia theories”). He’s ridiculed by Democrats who accuse him of angling for a seat on a hypothetical Trump defense team. His own relatives tell him he’s embarrassing them.

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“I’m not standing up for Trump,” Dershowitz said Wednesday, sounding slightly frustrated. He was in Cambridge for his grandson’s graduation from Harvard, where Dershowitz is a professor emeritus of law. He taught at Harvard Law School for 50 years, becoming one of America’s best-known defense lawyers, before retiring at the end of 2013. “If this were the lock-em-up Hillary crowd trying to go after President Hillary Clinton, I’d be doing the same thing.”

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But you can see how some on the left might have gotten the impression that Dershowitz is cozying up to a man they regard as history’s latest monster.

On Fox News, Dershowitz told Tucker Carlson that the special counsel investigating Trump would “find no crime.” He told British television’s Channel 4 that no current administration officials would be indicted. And in another Fox appearance, he praised Trump’s recent trip to Israel, where, Dershowitz said, Trump was “saying and doing all the right things.” And that was just in the last few days.

In Dershowitz’s telling, he’s standing up for civil liberties over politics — something he says nobody else appears interested in doing in a deeply polarized time. He’s criticized Trump, too, calling Trump’s alleged disclosure of classified information to Russia “the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president.”

But all of that gets lost in the chaos surrounding the president, the ongoing investigation into the administration’s ties to Russia, and alleged attempts to scuttle that investigation by firing the director of the FBI.

New York Times
Alan Dershowitz in New York.

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“I think people have a somewhat misleading impression of what Alan is doing,” said Jeffrey Toobin, a friend and former Dershowitz student who is an author, a New Yorker magazine writer, and a legal analyst for CNN. “I don’t think he has fallen in love with Donald Trump.”

Toobin disagrees with his old professor on Trump’s predicament almost entirely. After reports that Trump tried to get the FBI to drop its investigation, Toobin tweeted: “Three words. Obstruction. Of. Justice.” But, he said, “Alan’s civil liberties beliefs lead him to be skeptical of criminal prosecutions generally. . . . He doesn’t want to see people investigated and prosecuted in what he regards as improper ways.”

And though he welcomes publicity — “I would describe Alan as ‘media enthusiastic,’” Toobin said — it’s not in Dershowitz’s constitution to say something he doesn’t believe just to get attention.

“I think he plays to his beliefs,” Toobin said. “I don’t think he cares whether people agree with him, particularly.”

A close reading of Dershowitz’s various comments in print and on television suggest he’s mostly pushing back against the notion that what Trump is accused of doing amounts to criminal activity. He’s not saying what Trump is accused of doing isn’t wrong; he’s saying it doesn’t necessarily appear to be illegal. When asked in a recent television interview whether Trump was indeed the subject of history’s greatest political witch hunt, he scoffed and rated it a 4 on a 1-to-10 scale of witch hunts.

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“The country right now seems to be in a partisan frenzy,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge-based criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who studied under Dershowitz at Harvard. The two remain friendly. “People are mistaking what they would like to happen for what can, will, or should happen under the law.”

Silverglate said he agrees with Dershowitz’s analysis of Trump’s legal situation; some, like Toobin, very much do not.

“I think he’s bemused,” said Silverglate, that some conservatives “suddenly think he’s a genius even though previously they didn’t want to be in the same room with him.”

The notion of Dershowitz defending The Donald has a certain serendipity. His legal stylings — more than a little blustery, publicity-friendly, to put it mildly — in some ways resemble Trump’s pre-presidential businessman persona.

And Toobin said he’d be surprised if Trump, should he ever face serious legal jeopardy, didn’t reach out to Dershowitz.

“Trump in particular is someone . . . who hires people he sees on TV,” Toobin said.

Dershowitz said he’s got his eye on a different role.

“I’m very anxious to be involved in the Israeli peace process,” said Dershowitz, who in March spent about 30 minutes in Trump’s company at Mar-a-Lago, where both men were having dinner separately.

Trump, Dershowitz said, asked him to convey a message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel and a Dershowitz friend. Dershowitz did, but declined to detail what he’d told Netanyahu.

“If I can facilitate a movement toward a two-state solution,” Dershowitz said, “that’s a role I want to play.”

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.