If Donald Trump’s team of Philadelphia lawyers thought they’d get a reputational bump from defending a former president on the biggest stage of their careers, it hasn’t turned out that way.
They won his acquittal Saturday at his second impeachment trial. But the backlash could end up following them for years.
Members of the team described the five-day trial as a trying experience, from infighting between attorneys and second-guessing by Republican advisers in Washington, to derision hurled their way online and at their homes and offices.
Michael van der Veen hired 24-hour private security for his family after vandals smashed windows and spray-painted “TRAITOR” on the driveway of his suburban Philadelphia home Friday night. He told reporters Saturday he received more than 100 death threats.
And they acknowledged being caught off guard by the level of rancor from Trump’s critics and supporters alike — even given the country’s fiercely divided politics and how other lawyers in his orbit have fared.
“I’ve been representing controversial clients for 30 years, and I’ve never experienced this type of vitriol,” said William J. Brennan, another local member of the team whose past clients include priests accused of sexual abuse and judges facing corruption charges. “We had no political agenda here. We are not partisan warriors. We are criminal defense lawyers who represented a client.”
Bruce L. Castor Jr., the former Montgomery County commissioner and district attorney, entered the week as the nominal leader of Trump’s team — a high-profile job that had some back home wondering if it could bolster a future run for statewide office.
Conservative TV hosts, like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, called him “terrible.” Sean Hannity responded: “You’re way too charitable.”
Everything from his verbose delivery to his pin-striped suit became targets for social media mockery. Some used his performance to question the aptness of the term Philadelphia lawyer — a phrase inspired by Colonial-era attorney Andrew Hamilton that has long characterized an exceptionally shrewd attorney.
Van der Veen — the head of Castor’s law firm, who took over the defense presentation Friday after Castor was sidelined — fared little better.
He delivered a more combative, incendiary performance, attacking Democrats for “hypocrisy” and what he described as “constitutional cancel culture.” His style was reportedly more to his client’s liking. But his testy, hectoring demeanor at the lectern turned him into a target, too.
On Saturday, a small group of protesters gathered outside his Center City law firm. They left “VAN DER VEEN = LIAR” scrawled in chalk on the street.
On Facebook, the firm’s page turned into a toxic stew of invective.
“Michael van der Veen is ranting on my television screen — the new shame of Philadelphia,” one commenter wrote, as another added: “This entire firm should be shut down and every single one of you should lose your license.”
Even firms the attorneys left long ago weren’t spared. One of Castor’s old employers said his office was inundated with emails and phone calls for days from people around the country looking to roast Castor for either defending Trump in the first place — or for delivering a defense that Trump supporters deemed subpar.
The employer, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of further backlash, said he had to assure some clients that Castor is long gone to persuade them not to withdraw their business.
The overwhelming reaction might explain van der Veen’s puzzling comment on the Senate floor Friday night, when he bemoaned to a room full of lawmakers — who had been forced to flee for their lives from an angry mob on Jan. 6 — that the trial had been “the most miserable experience I’ve had here down in Washington, D.C.”
Or the ire with which he responded Saturday to debate over whether to call witnesses, demanding that if Democrats were going to depose key figures, he wanted to question at least 100 people — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris — at his office in “Philly-delphia.”
That suggestion — along with his singular pronunciation of the city from which he hails — drew bipartisan guffaws.
“I don’t know why you’re laughing,” van der Veen shouted at senators. “This is civil process. That is the way lawyers do it.”
The belief that this case — which is as much a political proceeding as a legal one — should play out like a bigger version of the criminal and civil trials they’ve handled in Philadelphia courtrooms for years may explain their apparent unpreparedness for the magnitude of the reaction.
None of them came to Trump’s trial with significant political experience in Washington or a deep background in constitutional scholarship. Castor and van der Veen’s firm is primarily focused on personal injury and criminal defense cases.
In the courts where those cases are tried, clients come and go. Trial lawyers endorse positions often abandoned as soon as the final banging of the gavel.
Van der Veen, for instance, sued Trump on behalf of a client last year and argued he was seeking to suppress Democratic votes, before taking on the former president’s impeachment case.
“We would have put the same effort into this trial whether the client’s name was Donald Trump or Donald Duck,” said Brennan. “This was about constitutionally guaranteed representation for a defendant who has a right to counsel and nothing more.”
But impeachment is not like any other trial. Trump was not just any other client. And this was not just any other case.
The question now facing his attorneys is will the rest of the world allow them to forget it?
Van der Veen appeared ready to push those thoughts off to the future as he basked in his victory Saturday while boarding a subway cart in the basement of the Capitol with the rest of the team.
He fist-bumped a colleague with a wide smile and quipped: “We’re going to Disney World!”
Staff writers Julie Shaw and Jonathan Tamari and photojournalist Tyger Williams contributed to this article.