If future generations of law professors want to teach a class in what never to do, the belligerent and self-indulgent performance of Michael van der Veen, one of Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers, could provide a lot of the video content. Deep into his defense of the former president today, van der Veen broke into a highly personal complaint. More than 140 law professors—including President Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general and a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society—had signed a letter condemning the Trump team’s arguments as “frivolous.” This letter badly hurt van der Veen’s feelings. The letter, he said, represented, a “direct threat to my law license, my career, and my family’s financial well-being.”
A few hours later, van der Veen erupted in the well of the Senate about the day he was having. “We aren’t having fun here,” he said. “This is about the most miserable experience I’ve had down here in Washington, D.C.”
I watched this self-pity party from my own house, only a few miles north and west from the Capitol attacked by a Trumpist mob on January 6. And I thought: How on earth could a former president of the United States possibly have hired a team of boobs this bad at law?
Trump advertises himself as a billionaire. Certainly he has raised tens of millions of dollars for his legal-defense fund. Why did he not have good lawyers at his second impeachment trial? Yes, he is an unattractive defendant in many ways. But good lawyers regularly accept unattractive defendants.
The problem seems to be that Trump affirmatively prefers bad lawyering. Or rather, that he values good lawyering less than he values aggressive and truculent lawyering. And after all, Trump did not particularly need good lawyering at his impeachment trial. He can count on sufficient Republican votes in the Senate to acquit him almost regardless of what his lawyers do or say. So it probably will not matter much to Trump that his lawyers often seemed baffled or ignorant or untruthful or incompetent. The former president is focused on the result, and that result was fixed in his favor before any proceeding began.
But the bad conduct and poor quality of the Trump legal defense does matter in another way. This second Trump trial, like the first, is a mighty constitutional and political moment. The trial has riveted the attention of millions of people this week and will surely hold that attention for decades to come. It has presented the country with images of the contending sides in this dispute. One of those sides—the House impeachment managers—is composed of men and women of different backgrounds, ages, and experience, yet all of the highest ability and professionalism. They conducted themselves with dignity and decorum. They had prepared meticulously. They studied the issues and the law; they and their staffs curated a sprawling mass of material into a clear, coherent, and powerful narrative of events.
On the other side were three older men, ill-prepared and ill-informed, unable to answer such basic questions—posed by Republican senator Bill Cassidy and then again by Senator Mitt Romney—as, When did President Trump learn that the life of his loyal vice president was in danger? One of those lawyers, van der Veen, often seemed to lose control of his emotions and his train of thought.
Over more than 20 hours, the trial offered a sharp contrast between people who excelled at their jobs and people who floundered in their jobs. In that, the trial aptly symbolized so much that has occurred over four Trump years. Along with the corruption and the authoritarianism, the brutality and the bigotry, the Trump presidency was characterized by a persistent drip, drip, drip of slovenliness and carelessness: matters as minor as the frequent spelling errors in White House press releases and as deadly as the horrifying mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trump administration was staffed from top to bottom by people who were bad at stuff: the Scott Pruitts at the Environmental Protection Agency; the Richard Grenells and John Ratcliffes at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; the Matthew Whitakers at the Department of Justice; the Michael Flynns at the National Security Council; the Sebastian Gorkas, Jared Kushners, and Ivanka Trumps on the White House staff.
The administration’s incompetence frequently arose from its malice. That was the coronavirus story: Trump interpreted the pandemic as a criticism of himself, and dealt with the pandemic the way he habitually dealt with criticism: by refusing to acknowledge its existence. But as often as not, the incompetence was just and only that, the blundering that resulted from people in over their heads holding positions they should never have held.
The Trump administration and its supporters endlessly railed against the disdain and condescension of their political opponents. In a June 2020 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump interpreted the basic precaution of mask wearing during a pandemic as a slight against him and his supporters.
In a column back in 1991, the commentator Chris Matthews memorably described the Democratic Party as the “mommy” party and the Republican Party as the “daddy” party. “‘Daddy’ locks the doors at night and brings home the bacon,” Matthews wrote. “‘Mommy’ worries when the kids are sick and makes sure each one gets treated fairly.” In this scheme, Daddy might be gruff and harsh—but at least he knew what he was doing.
What happens, though, when Daddy is manifestly clueless? When he bellows and bullies to compensate for his own inadequacies? That’s where America often seemed to be during the Trump years. That’s how it was during the Trump trial.
Candidate Trump and President Trump regularly grumbled that the world was laughing at America. They think we are so stupid, he would say, with all the bitterness of a man who imagined that an unnamed “they” was thinking those negative thoughts about him too. The first few weeks of the Biden administration have begun to correct the dismal national self-image that Trump promoted. Suddenly American science, technology, and management seem again to be leading the way. Yesterday, President Joe Biden announced that the United States had secured enough vaccine doses for 300 million Americans. Today, the U.S. administered 2 million doses in a single day. Good-at-stuff America is back, after a long hiatus.
So something is fitting about the fact that the same day, February 12, Trump’s team put, once again, on national display a farewell image of bad-at-stuff America. President Trump associated his political party with all of his personal faults, including his trademark snarling mismanagement. He hired lawyers who shared those faults. Tomorrow, Republicans will have their last, best chance to separate themselves from Trump. But whatever Trump’s party does, the country is separating from him. The ugly and inept performance of the Trump legal team broadcast to the world a final, spectacular view of what and whom a dynamic America is putting behind itself—let’s hope forever, but at least for now.