The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With impeachment trial looming, Trump taps new lawyers who drew spotlight in past work

Former president Donald Trump greets supporters en route to his Mar-a-Lago estate on Jan. 20. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

One lawyer has touted the number of accused mobsters who dot his client list and described his jailhouse visit with accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein during a spot on Fox News.

The other built a reputation as an imposing county prosecutor who put murderers behind bars — only to come under the spotlight after he declined to prosecute comedian Bill Cosby on charges that he drugged and sexually assaulted a Temple University athletics official.

Now, the duo of Atlanta-based attorney David Schoen and Pennsylvania lawyer Bruce L. Castor Jr. are taking over former president Donald Trump’s legal effort, just a week before his Senate trial for allegedly inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

They replace a group of low-key, respected South Carolina practitioners, who bowed out of representing the former president just before their first filing on Trump’s behalf is due Tuesday.

In announcing Schoen and Castor’s hiring on Sunday, Trump’s office said the two men were chosen because of their “national profiles and significant trial experience in high-profile cases.”

With Schoen and Castor, Trump — who has long been more consumed with his lawyers’ television appearances than their legal bona fides — gains two solo practitioners who are not shy about public attention, even if they are not leading constitutional scholars.

Castor is the cousin of Steve Castor, the House minority counsel who gained prominence during Trump’s first impeachment trial, and Steve Castor played a role in his cousin’s hiring, according to a person familiar with the decision, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.

Trump’s legal team had been impressed with Steve Castor’s performance during the televised impeachment hearings, and “he was part of the discussions” to find new counsel after the previous team parted ways with the president, the person said.

Schoen told The Washington Post that he was asked by Trump to join the team about two weeks ago — he believes at the recommendation of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom he briefly represented. He said he had talked with Trump once before, when he called Trump to thank him for commuting the sentence for Stone. When Trump called, he “recognized his voice right away.”

The two lawyers took over Trump’s defense after the former president had pressed his former team, led by South Carolina attorney Karl S. “Butch” Bowers Jr., to argue that the election had been stolen from him through extensive fraud, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Bowers team had planned to argue that the Constitution does not allow for the conviction of a president after he has left office — an argument designed to appeal to Senate Republicans who do not wish to convict Trump, but also do not want to appear to condone his baseless claims about the election.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller disputed that the former president wanted to focus on election fraud in the Senate trial and said that his split with his former lawyers was “mutual.”

Trump’s legal team exited after he insisted impeachment defense focus on false claims of election fraud

Schoen told The Post on Monday that he does not plan to make election fraud a part of his defense and also denied that the South Carolina lawyers left the case over the issue.

Castor did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has had trouble attracting top-flight legal talent to his personal defense through the multiple rounds of criminal and congressional investigations that marked his four years in office.

Although it is traditionally considered an honor to represent a U.S. president — particularly in a fight with Congress that poses novel constitutional questions — lawyers who have turned down the opportunity to work for Trump have said he makes for an unappealing client. He has trouble following legal advice, he is most concerned with how his lawyers perform on television, and he is known for not paying his bills, they have said.

Schoen told The Post that he believes the impeachment trial raises “important constitutional questions” and that he feels “honored to represent the [former] president of the United States and the Constitution.”

An Atlanta-based civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Schoen previously represented Stone when he appealed his 2019 conviction for obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress in its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Schoen told the Atlanta Jewish Times in September that he took on Stone’s case because he believed it was “very unfair and politicized.”

Trump pardoned Stone in December before he began serving his 40-month prison sentence.

In a text message Monday, Stone called Schoen “one of the most brilliant attorneys I have ever met,” saying that he “understands both the law and politics and why both are important in a matter like impeachment.”

Schoen also appeared in a docudrama on the Discovery Channel, as well as on Fox News, to describe meeting with Epstein in jail nine days before Epstein was found dead in his cell while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

In interviews, Schoen has said that he and Epstein met for five hours and that he found Epstein upbeat, causing him to question authorities’ conclusion that he died by suicide. In one interview, Schoen said Epstein asked him to take over and “quarterback” his legal team during the meeting.

Epstein’s longtime lawyer, Martin Weinberg, said Epstein met with Schoen shortly before his death and discussed having him handle some legal matters, but he was not aware that Schoen was under consideration to join Epstein’s trial team.

Schoen disputed that Monday, saying he had been meeting with Epstein for a long time. “I was being hired not just to join the team but to take over the team,” he said.

Schoen considers himself primarily a civil rights attorney — he has sought new trials for people convicted of the death penalty, sued over police misconduct and represented emotionally troubled children in a case arguing their rights were violated by Alabama’s foster care system.

Among his past clientele, Schoen has said, have been “all sorts of reputed mobster figures.”

One former client, according to court documents, is Boris Nayfeld, a former Belrusian-Russian mob boss who served three stints in prison for various crimes, including laundering drug money as part of an international heroin ring.

Nayfeld, who is currently living in Russia and publishing a book about his experiences, said via text message Monday that Schoen was a “young guy trying to make a name for himself” when he handled his case, but that he found Schoen to be a “good negotiator” with “lots of ties to judges and influential people.”

Schoen said Monday that Nayfield overstated his reach, adding, “I didn’t have those connections.”

Schoen also represented Michael Sessa, a captain in the Colombo crime family, after he was convicted of racketeering and murder in 1992. One of the prosecutors who won the conviction was Andrew Weissmann, who nearly 30 years later would serve as a member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team investigating Trump. Schoen said Monday that he objected to how Weissmann handled the Sessa case.

The pick of Castor came as a surprise to many in Pennsylvania’s legal and political circles, who said the longtime prosecutor and politician has a history of fraught relationships, even with those in the Republican Party.

Castor made a 2004 run against Tom Corbett for the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania attorney general, despite Corbett’s strong backing from state party leaders — a move that alienated many state Republicans. Corbett defeated Castor soundly and went on to win the office.

Castor went on to serve as the No. 2 for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who was forced to resign in 2016 after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. At the time, Republicans who controlled the state legislature backed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s pick to replace her, rather than Castor.

“That’s honestly one of the first things that came to mind for me: Who the hell vouched for Bruce Castor?” said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based election lawyer for Democrats.

Republicans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly offered similar bewilderment. “Many of us were curious how Bruce was selected,” said a GOP lawyer from Philadelphia.

In 2005, Castor declined to prosecute Cosby on charges that he sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, a former Temple University athletics official, at his Pennsylvania mansion.

According to news reports, Castor said he made an agreement to grant Cosby immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony in a civil suit. The current district attorney, Kevin Steele, ran and won against Castor in 2015 in part by criticizing his handling of the case; Steele went on to successfully prosecute Cosby.

In 2017, Castor unsuccessfully sued Constand for defamation, arguing that her comments about the Cosby case smeared his reputation and caused him to lose the race. Constand declined to comment.

More recently, Castor has worked in private practice. He announced in December that he was switching law firms, departing Rogers Castor to join van der Veen O’Neill in Philadelphia. Castor told the legal publication Law360 that money woes brought on by courtroom closures related to the coronavirus pandemic made the move necessary.

Bruce Marks, a GOP lawyer who has done work for the Trump campaign and has known Castor for decades, said Castor, with an imposing, 6-foot-3-inch frame, was widely seen as an excellent prosecutor with the exception of the fallout from the Cosby case. He was celebrated for successfully prosecuting several high-profile murder cases, including one in which the owner of the General Wayne Inn in Lower Merion, Pa., killed his partner to collect on an insurance policy.

“Bruce was an excellent district attorney,” Marks said. “Not everybody likes everybody else. ”

Josh Dawsey, Alice Crites and Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.