As Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial began Tuesday in Washington, his lawyer, former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, had two other big-name Philadelphia attorneys backing him up.
But Michael T. van der Veen and William J. Brennan don’t exactly have lengthy records supporting Republican causes in court or offering full-throated public defenses of the former president.
As recently as two years ago, according to a former client, van der Veen described Trump as a “f—ing crook” — a statement the lawyer has since denied making.
But in marketing emails for his firm last year, van der Veen railed about what he described as a campaign by Pennsylvania Republicans to “unfairly and illegally intimidate voters.” And in the run-up to the 2020 election, he represented a client suing Trump, arguing that the administration was suppressing mail voting with last-minute changes at the U.S. Postal Service.
“Donald Trump doesn’t want you to be able to vote,” read one Aug. 20 email the firm obtained by The Inquirer. “It’s time to stand up for what’s right.”
Justin Hiemstra, the 24-year-old former client who recalled van der Veen making the crude remark about Trump in an interview Tuesday, said it came while the lawyer was defending him against charges that he tried to illegally hack into a government database to steal the president’s tax returns.
“I’m not sure if [those comments] were made to make me feel more comfortable, or if they were his actual opinions,” Hiemstra said. But “he definitely came off as fairly anti-Trump in the context that I knew him.”
Van der Veen, 57, of Exton, didn’t respond to multiple texts and phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday seeking to verify Hiemstra’s recollections. But a day after this story was first published, a Trump surrogate emailed a letter, signed by van der Veen and addressed to another news outlet. “The comments about President Donald J. Trump being attributed to me by a former client in your story yesterday are false,” van der Veen said.
In an earlier joint interview Tuesday, just hours before the start of the impeachment trial, both van der Veen and Brennan, 63, of Jenkintown, said their decision to join Trump’s defense had nothing to do with partisanship or their personal views about the former president.
“I’m approaching this just like any other case,” van der Veen said. “I have a client who is in need of and who deserves the best representation he can get, and that’s what we’re giving.”
Brennan — a prolific defense lawyer and fixture in Philadelphia courtrooms — has built a reputation over decades as an attorney not afraid to take on tough cases. A member of the elite American College of Trial Lawyers, he’s defended judges accused of corruption and priests charged with sexually abusing children.
“Neither of us have any personal or political agenda here,” he said. “We’re trial lawyers and this is what we do.”
Still, he expressed reservations last month when it surfaced that one of his clients — Joshua Macias, the Virginia-based founder of Vets for Trump — had attended the Jan. 6 Trump rally that led to the Capitol attack that Trump was impeached for inciting.
“What I saw inside the Capitol building was a disgrace,” Brennan said at the time, adding that his continued representation of Macias would depend on whether investigators uncovered evidence that he was involved in the insurrection.
Brennan said Tuesday that he anticipates he and van der Veen will play more of a supporting role during the trial, letting defense team leads Castor and Alabama lawyer David Schoen do most of the speaking.
It was only in December that Castor joined van der Veen’s firm, which is focused on personal injury, pro bono, and criminal defense. Neither man could have imagined at the time that within roughly a month, the new partner would land the law office’s highest-profile client ever.
Less than two weeks ago, Trump turned to Castor to lead his Senate defense, upon a recommendation from his cousin, Stephen Castor, the lead House Republican lawyer during Trump’s first impeachment.
Since then, van der Veen, Brennan, and Julianne Bateman — a younger associate at the firm — have spent hours huddled in conference rooms in Philadelphia and Washington with Castor and Schoen, working out strategy and drafting briefs.
“For the last eight days, we’ve thrown everything we have got at this,” van der Veen said.
Some of the earliest results of their work emerged Monday, in a brief Castor, Schoen, and van der Veen filed with the Senate, laying out a preview of their case. It centered on questions about the constitutionality of trying a president after he has left office and whether Trump’s remarks, which Democratic House impeachment managers have said incited the Jan. 6 attack, are protected by the First Amendment.
Missing was any reference to Trump’s baseless yet relentless claims that the election was stolen from him by widespread fraud — sentiments that had been included in an earlier defense brief that falsely stated there was “insufficient evidence” to disprove them.
Van der Veen had not added his signature to that legal filing.
In fact, just three months earlier, he had argued the opposite in his case against the Postal Service, lambasting Trump efforts to paint voting by mail as rife with fraud “despite having no evidence to support those claims.”
Castor has since said he doesn’t anticipate relitigating the election as part of Trump’s impeachment defense. And van der Veen maintains he sees no conflict between his position in the Postal Service case and his representation now of one of its named defendants.
Nor does he see a problem with his prior representation of Hiemstra, the former Haverford College student charged in 2019 with using the school’s computer lab in an attempt to steal Trump’s tax returns.
Brennan represented Hiemstra’s codefendant and fellow student Andrew J. Harris in the case, which he described as a college prank.
Both men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two years’ probation, after admitting they came close to illegally obtaining the documents by faking a student loan application for Tiffany Trump — who had recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
The plan failed. But in defending Hiemstra in federal court in Philadelphia, van der Veen noted that Trump had yet to release his returns despite vague assurances during the 2016 campaign that he would do so once his legal team gave him the “all clear.”
“My client,” van der Veen told reporters at the time, “thought that he could get the tax returns that were promised to him by the candidate.”
Now, in the midst of what could be the biggest case of his career, van der Veen said he’s ready to give the same level of defense to Trump.
“My firm treats all of its clients the same,” he said. “Whether they’re in a trial on a national stage, or whether they’re in the Court of Common Pleas. They all get our best representation.”