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Pa. Republicans are stumped by Trump’s pick of Bruce Castor for his impeachment defense. Others see a ‘natural choice.’

Few in Castor’s circle said they had any idea that he was up for such a high-profile job or how he ended up on the former president’s radar.

Bruce Castor after speaking at a hearing in Harrisburg in 2016.
Bruce Castor after speaking at a hearing in Harrisburg in 2016.Read more / File Photograph

In introducing his new attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr., former President Donald Trump hailed his pick as a “highly respected trial lawyer” who brought a national profile to the team that will defend him at his Senate impeachment trial next week.

But in Castor’s home state of Pennsylvania on Monday, the choice left Trump allies, GOP officials, and even some of Castor’s closest colleagues scratching their heads in confusion and surprise.

Few said they had any idea that Castor — Montgomery County’s former limelight-loving, hard-charging district attorney, a man who harbored statewide political ambitions only to see them flame out as he burned bridges again and again within his own party — was up for such a high-profile job.

Fewer still had the any inkling of how he — a man who hasn’t been involved in state Republican politics in years, has cultivated no known links to Trump’s inner circle, and hasn’t publicly endorsed the baseless notion, popular in his party, that the election was stolen by fraud — had found his way onto the former president’s radar.

The New York Times reported Monday that the introduction came from Castor’s cousin, Stephen, a lawyer for the House Oversight Committee who served as counsel for the Republicans during Trump’s 2019 impeachment hearings.

» READ MORE: 5 things to know about Bruce Castor, the Montgomery County lawyer now repping Donald Trump

Castor, 59, of Lower Salford, uncharacteristically wasn’t saying anything. He did not return repeated calls seeking comment. But that hasn’t stopped his allies — or his political enemies — on both sides of Pennsylvania’s political divide from speculating in the meantime.

Brian Miles, a longtime friend, said he’s never discussed Trump with Castor beyond a passing conversation a few weeks ago in which he mentioned he was up for the job with the former president but dismissed it as a long shot. Still, the pick made sense to him.

“He’s a natural choice,” Miles said. “He’s an unparalleled attorney. He’s always been — what’s the word? — not a favorite of the political establishment. Someone who’s going to take this role on has to be someone who’s immune to the pressures of political influence.”

In some ways, it seems inevitable that Trump’s postelection impeachment drama would find its way back to Pennsylvania. The state’s votes were at the center of the former president’s attempts to overturn the election. And Montgomery County, where Castor served in elected office for 16 years, was key to delivering the votes that pushed President Joe Biden to victory. U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, who represents the county in Congress, will be one of the Democratic House impeachment managers against whom Castor will be facing off.

Democratic public affairs executive Larry Ceisler said he had no clue what Castor’s motivations were for agreeing to get involved. Castor told Ceisler in a brief communication Sunday that Trump had reached out to him.

“Listen, if you’ve been out of the limelight and you like the limelight and you’re asked to do this — even though some people say ‘My God, how could you do this?’ — it’s being a lawyer,” Ceisler surmised. “A lawyer takes on the case.”

Some, like former Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen, questioned whether Castor might be seeking to raise his profile before another run for statewide Pennsylvania office.

“He’s tried running for district attorney, he was trying to become attorney general, and he burned a lot of bridges along the way, mainly on his side of the aisle,” Groen said. “This is an opportunity to have a high-profile case and gives him an opportunity.”

However Castor landed his gig with Trump, the fact that the two Republican iconoclasts would one day find each other makes more sense than many might think on first blush.

Like Trump, Castor — known for his confident swagger around Montgomery County courthouse in his trademark pinstripe suits and cowboy boots — has a penchant for the flamboyant side of politics and what makes good TV.

Like Trump’s, Castor’s career in the Pennsylvania Republican Party has been consistently marked by battles with more establishment figures, whom he has forced at times to begrudgingly reckon with him by the sheer force of his popularity with voters.

And just like his new client, Castor has had his own brush with feeling that an election had been stolen from him.

After deciding to leave the DA’s Office in 2007 to test the waters for a seat on Montgomery County’s three-man commissioners’ board, Castor emerged as the candidate with the largest share of the votes by far and entered his new post feeling he had a mandate to lead.

But his Republican running mate, James R. Matthews — an acolyte of Pennsylvania GOP heavyweight Bob Asher, who was no fan of Castor’s — forged a power-sharing agreement with the third winning candidate, former U.S. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III, that effectively iced Castor out of power.

“What I am unhappy about,” Castor told The Inquirer at the time, “is that the will of the voters was overturned by Commissioner Matthews and his desire to deal with the Democrats.”

Four years of public feuding and acrimony followed, with Matthews, the brother of former MSNBC host Chris Matthews, often referring to his fellow Republican as a man with an ego so big it could “float the Titanic.” Castor trashed Matthews as “an abhorrence.” And Hoeffel was often left looking ready to toss up his hands at the constant name-calling and caterwauling.

Nearly a decade later, those resentments still run deep. Hoeffel said Monday that he was just as surprised as anyone to hear about Castor’s new role at Trump’s side but noted that the pairing made some sense.

“These two guys are a good fit for each other — two divisive politicians who really want to hurt their perceived enemies,” he said. “Bruce Castor was Montgomery County’s Donald Trump when Trump was still stiffing his subcontractors in Atlantic City.”

Castor, for his part, always defended his more outlandish behavior on the commissioner’s board, saying he was appalled to discover how much of the county’s business was conducted by backroom dealing — Montgomery County’s own version of the “deep state.”

And once Hoeffel and Matthews left office, Castor worked amicably with their successors, Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie S. Richards — so much so that the man once considered an outlier on the GOP stage suddenly had detractors in his own party, most notably his eventual successor Republican Commissioner Joe Gale, calling him an “establishment lapdog.”

“It is clear that Bruce Castor, a has-been politician from Montgomery County, is being resurrected to offset my growing popularity across the county and state,” Gale said Monday of Castor’s selection by Trump.

Castor opted not to run for reelection in 2015, seeking instead a return to the job that made him famous — district attorney — a campaign he lost in a fiercely fought battle with one of his former assistant district attorneys, Kevin R. Steele.

In defeat, he vowed to return to private practice, declaring afterward: “The Republican Party is dead in Pennsylvania, never to rise again.”

But like Trump, Castor has proved to be a master of second, third and even fourth acts. Despite his declarations of being done with public life, he has resurfaced over the years with a Zelig-like frequency.

In 2016, embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, appointed him to serve as her replacement as she resigned amid a scandal that resulted in criminal prosecution.

Castor’s stint as acting attorney general lasted two weeks before Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Senate rushed in their own interim pick to replace him. But, despite that short tenure, he still played his moment to the hilt.

Within hours of assuming the post, he had the office’s website revamped to prominently feature his photo and raised the possibility at an introductory news conference of prosecuting one of Kane’s political enemies who testified against her.

Months before, he had reemerged as a star witness in Bill Cosby’s defense — a role that allowed him both to publicly relive his glory days as district attorney and strike against a political enemy, Steele, who had defeated Castor, in part by campaigning against his decision not to charge the comedian when he had the chance a decade earlier.

Castor’s involvement centered on a deal he said he struck with Cosby’s attorney in 2005, after he had declined as DA to file charges based on accuser Andrea Constand’s claims that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted in Cosby’s Cheltenham home.

As Castor outlined it, he agreed that Cosby could never be prosecuted if he agreed to sit for a deposition in a civil suit Constand had filed against him. He insisted that the new charges Steele brought against Cosby in 2015 was therefore precluded from moving forward. Called to testify about that agreement, he sat tall in the witness stand, beginning with a 20-minute recitation of his career and the awards he had won.

“There would be so many,” he told the judge, it might be easier to submit a resume. And he declared himself, as district attorney, as “the sovereign of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” assuring the judge that his word to Cosby was ironclad.

Ultimately, Judge Steven T. O’Neill, found there was no evidence beyond Castor’s word to support that. The deal had never been memorialized in writing. And Castor, the judge ruled, was ultimately not a credible witness.

Since then, Castor has kept a lower profile, busying himself in private practice, most recently at the Center City firm Van der Veen, O’Neill, Hatshorn and Levin.

» READ MORE: Castor looks back at 30 years in government

But with his new gig for Trump, he now has his work cut out for him.

With less than a week to prepare, he will defend the president at a historic second impeachment trial, this time on charges of inciting the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and disrupting Congress as it moved to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Last time, Trump had nationally renowned lawyers to defend him against charges related to his pressure campaign to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and the Democrats.

This time, it will be primarily Castor and another attorney Trump chose Sunday evening, Alabama criminal defense lawyer David Schoen.

But those who know him best warned against counting Castor out just yet. After all, few other could have survived so many otherwise career-ending political losses, few others could amass a list of enemies as long as his and still find his way into the spotlight, and few others have a sense of courtroom and political dynamics sharply honed after decades in both arenas, they said.

“He is the eternal Cinderella,” said Miles. “He’s a man for whom incredible things happen. That’s one similarity he has to Trump.”

Inquirer staff writers Julia Terruso, Chris Brennan and Barbara Laker contributed to this article.