For President Trump, defections and gaffes hamper 2020 election court challenges

A longtime Trump ally calls his legal effort "a national embarrassment."

November 24, 2020, 5:11 AM

When a federal judge rendered his opinion in President Donald Trump's effort to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election by alleging fraud in Pennsylvania, the ruling not only dismissed the case, it was dismissive of the president's legal team.

Judge Matthew Brann, a Republican, described the legal case Saturday as a "Frankenstein's monster" that was "haphazardly stitched together."

Some longtime Trump allies were even less charitable. On Sunday, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney, did not mince words when describing the legal bid: "Quite frankly, the conduct of the president's legal team has been a national embarrassment," Christie said on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

On Monday, even as Trump accepted steps be taken to begin cooperating with the transition process, he tweeted that the legal effort "STRONGLY continues" and that "I believe we will prevail!"

The last time a presidential campaign became embroiled in a protracted legal battle, in 2000, some of the nation's most prestigious lawyers signed on with then-Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. The case catapulted many of them to greater heights in the legal world. Three of the attorneys on that Bush legal team -- John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett -- now sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coming into this Election Day, Democrat Joe Biden had built a high-powered legal team that included former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former White House Counsel Bob Bauer. But as the election approached, Trump struggled to assemble a core group of legal advisers.

Over the three weeks since the election, the president's legal bid has unfolded in unpredictable ways, with a revolving cast of characters. To date, the Trump campaign and its allies have lost a succession of legal challenges totaling at least 30 adverse rulings. Of the 19 lawsuits the Trump legal team has brought across five states, 17 of the cases have been denied, dismissed or withdrawn, leaving both his supporters and critics to question whether the post-election legal effort has been worthwhile.

"There is a certain amount of tolerance for going to the courts to handle good-faith election disputes, and that's part of our system," said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Voting Rights and Elections Program at the NYU School of Law. However, she said, "the president and his sympathizers have abused the presumption of good faith to the point of where the courts are responding swiftly and clearly and the lawyers don't want to be involved anymore."

The core team opts out

Through much of his presidency, Trump has kept a close circle of lawyers that first emerged during Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump's lead attorney, Jay Sekulow, has been a fixture throughout the Mueller investigation, the impeachment inquiry and trial against the president, and the two cases seeking the president's financial records brought by House Democrats and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

PHOTO: President Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow arrives for the impeachment trial of the president on Capitol Hill, January 31, 2020 in Washington.
President Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow arrives for the impeachment trial of the president on Capitol Hill, Jan. 31, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Along with Sekulow, Trump has relied on Marty and Jane Raskin, two longtime federal prosecutors who assisted Sekulow with each of these probes. But neither Sekulow nor the Raskins have been involved in the 2020 election dispute. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, another close ally, has also stayed away. Sources close to that veteran team say all of them assessed early on that the effort to challenge the election lacked legal merit.

"What we said was, it would be a Herculean effort and every domino would have to line up and fall in place," said one source familiar with those early discussions. "Not a likely result."

In the hours after polls closed, Trump turned to longtime adviser David Bossie to organize the campaign's legal challenges. But Bossie was sidelined when he contracted COVID-19. Other Trump loyalists also stepped up, including Corey Lewandowski and son Eric Trump, to begin public efforts to sow doubts about the outcome.

PHOTO: Citizens United President David Bossie speaks during an Arizona Republican Party news conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Phoenix.
Citizens United President David Bossie speaks during an Arizona Republican Party news conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Phoenix.
Matt York/AP

For legal guidance, though, Trump turned to one of his most loyal backers, his personal lawyer and longtime friend, Rudy Giuliani. This would not be the first time Giuliani would step up to defend Trump at a time of need. In 2016, when a videotape surfaced of Trump making disparaging comments about women to Billy Bush of "Access Hollywood," Giuliani was the only one willing to go on the five Sunday TV shows to defend Trump, as others either remained silent or called on Trump to step aside as the Republican nominee.

On Nov. 7, Giuliani announced his elevated role in an odd setting -- in front of a Philadelphia landscaping warehouse. In rambling remarks, he described Philadelphia as a hotbed of fraud, and he promised to go public with dozens of witnesses to support his claims.

"This'll be a very, very strong case," Giuliani vowed.

To some, the press conference was an indication that the legal effort was less about legal maneuvering than it was about marketing the baseless claim to Trump's base of supporters that the election was stolen.

"I don't see any real legal strategy here," said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program. "They look more like public relation stunts meant to create a false impression that the election is filled with improprieties and fraud."

In an interview with ProPublica, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, likened one Trump case to "a tweet with a filing fee."

A 'tortured procedural history'

In court, though, the Trump team continued to stumble.

Under Giuliani, the Trump campaign had assembled teams of local attorneys in five states who were asked to handle localized challenges, each leveling slightly different allegations of fraud or misconduct.

After one of the first lawsuits the campaign filed in Michigan had a setback in a lower court, the legal team filed an appeal. But the Michigan Court of Appeals declined to accept it, calling it "defective" because it lacked key documents. John Nevin, the communications director for the Michigan Supreme Court, previously told ABC News the appeal will not be considered by the court until the missing documents are filed.

"It's missing the most important part," Nevin said.

The filing has remained in limbo. The lawyer on the case, Mark Thor Hearne, has not returned multiple requests for comment from ABC News, and most recently, his assistant referred comment back to the White House.

In Pennsylvania, attorneys from the firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur brought the Trump campaign's initial complaint into federal court on Nov. 9. But three days later, the firm asked to withdrawal. The firm did not offer a reason, but the request came as it faced a growing public backlash. That included a $500,000 ad blitz financed by the Lincoln Project, a Republican anti-Trump group, which tweeted that Porter Wright Morris employees should "resign in protest" of their firm's work.

Four days later, on the eve of oral arguments in the case, lead Philadelphia-based Trump campaign attorney Linda Kerns also filed to withdraw. Not only was Kerns handling the federal case, but she had helped draft several of the campaign's state lawsuits. Shortly before requesting off the team, Kerns had complained of harassment -- both from the general public, and from a lawyer in the firm handling the case for the Pennsylvania secretary of state. Giuliani cited this as the reason for his legal team's disarray.

"We've lost lawyers in this case because they have been threatened. We've had lawyers that need protection," Giuliani complained during a Thursday press conference.

Last week, Giuliani began to work directly on the filings in the Pennsylvania case. That did not appear to help. At one point, he and a local attorney filed amendments to the complaint prematurely and had to rescind it. They said they had neglected to proofread all the documents, so the filing contained typos and other minor errors. The gaffes and confusion did not go unnoticed.

"Although this case was initiated less than two weeks ago, it has already developed its own tortured procedural history," Brann wrote in his Nov. 21 opinion. "Plaintiffs have made multiple attempts at amending the pleadings, and have had attorneys both appear and withdraw in a matter of seventy-two hours."

But Brann reserved his harshest judgment for the arguments Giuliani had brought into court to justify his request that the judge invalidate thousands of mail-in ballots.

"One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption," Brann wrote. "That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence."

'Elite strike force'

In the late stages of the president's bid to challenge the election in court, Giuliani held a press conference with new faces beside him. Among them at the Nov. 19 appearance in Washington was Jenna Ellis, a campaign attorney who would describe the gathered group as an "elite strike force team."

By her side was Sidney Powell, an appellate lawyer from Texas who has a history of promoting QAnon conspiracies on social media, and who quickly made headlines for announcing outlandish claims of a vast voter fraud conspiracy involving a voting machine manufacturer, the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the Clinton Foundation, the billionaire George Soros, antifa, and members of both political parties. She alleged, with no evidence, that both the Republican governor and the Republican secretary of state in Georgia had been induced to flip millions of votes.

PHOTO: Sidney Powell, right, speaks next to former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, as members of President Donald Trump's legal team, during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters, Thursday Nov. 19.
Sidney Powell, right, speaks next to former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, as members of President Donald Trump's legal team, during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters, Thursday Nov. 19, 2020.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Despite being promoted by the Republican Party, some allies of the president privately and publicly criticized Powell's fantastical claims. Tucker Carlson aired a critical segment on his popular and influential Fox News show, calling out Powell for not providing any evidence.

Among those underwhelmed by the legal effort was conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh, a staunch supporter of the president who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump earlier this year.

"You call a gigantic press conference like that, one that lasts an hour, and you announce massive bombshells, then you better have some bombshells," Limbaugh said. "They promised blockbuster stuff, and then nothing happened. And that's just not good."

Just eight days after the president fully endorsed Powell as a part of his legal team on Twitter, and only three days after she was introduced as a member of the "elite strike force," the Trump campaign issued a statement trying to distance itself from Powell.

"Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own," the Trump campaign said in a statement Sunday night from Giuliani and Ellis. "She is not a member of the Trump legal team. She is also not a lawyer for the president in his personal capacity."

Powell said in a statement that she agreed with the campaign that she "never signed a retainer agreement or sent the President or the campaign a bill for my expenses or fees" -- then added that "we are proceeding to prepare our lawsuit and plan to file it this week."

"It will be epic," Powell said.

ABC News' Katherine Faulders and Will Steakin contributed to this report.

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