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Dershowitz’s Opening Statements in Trump Impeachment Trial Draw Mixed Reactions

The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress.
The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress. By Caroline S. Engelmayer
By Michelle G. Kurilla and Ruoqi Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz’s defense of President Donald J. Trump in the impeachment trial has sparked mixed reactions from legal experts across the country.

Launching his opening statement on the Senate floor Sunday night by declaring his “love” for the United States, Dershowitz – a renowned criminal defense lawyer — proceeded to argue that impeachment on the grounds of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress was “unconstitutional.”

“I will argue that our constitution and its terms high crimes and misdemeanors do not encompass the two articles, charging abuse of power and obstruction of Congress,” Dershowitz said.

Dershowitz has vocally defended Trump throughout his presidency, taking to media outlets to support the president and some of his policies.

Legal experts from across the country met Dershowitz’s opening statements with a flurry of praise and criticism.

Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Dershowitz was “dead wrong” in his argument. In December, Gerhardt testified in front of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as part of a four-person panel discussing the constitutional grounds of impeachment.

“The central point he’s really sending out is that a President can abuse his power all the time. There’s no constitutional check on that,” Gerhardt said. The argument that abuse of power, standing alone, is not an impeachable offense and therefore may not be accountable to Congress is “just startling,” according to Gerdhardt.

“His defense fits neatly in the President’s efforts and the President’s lawyer’s efforts to misdirect people’s attention, essentially trying to confuse people and distract people by misstatement,” Gerhardt added.

Nikolas Bowie, an assistant professor at the Law School, opined in the New York Times that he recognized the argument Dershowitz used in Trump’s defense but disagreed with the assessment that the president did not commit any crimes.

In his opening statement, Dershowitz referenced Bowie’s previous arguments regarding impeachment. Bowie wrote a December 2018 article in the Harvard Law Review titled “High Crimes Without Law” that crimes must occur for an impeachment to take place.

“Watching CNN last week, I learned that I’m partly responsible for President Trump’s legal defense,” Bowie wrote in his opinion piece. “As an academic, my first reaction was to be grateful that someone had actually read one of my articles. But as a legal academic, my second reaction was confusion. Even if you think impeachment requires a crime, as I do, that belief hardly supports the president’s defense or Mr. Dershowitz’s position.”

George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley offered a defense of Dereshowitz’s opening statements in a piece published to his personal website.

Turley — who testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee and did not recommend impeachment — wrote on his website that he thought Dershowitz’s presentation was “outstanding,” though he disagreed with some aspects of Dershowitz’s theory.

“Alan Dershowitz is hardly someone in need of the defense of others. However, there is a disturbing level of acrimony and personal attacks directed at the retired Harvard professor after he agreed to speak in defense of President Donald Trump,” Turley wrote.

Turley wrote that he is concerned about the commentary surrounding Dershowitz, particularly attacks on his character. He noted that other professors at the Law School did not receive the same criticism for taking high profile cases.

“Commentators attack him for taking famous, high-profile cases and portray him as only motivated by the press,” Turley wrote. “They do not make the same objections to liberal professors and commentators who routinely take such cases and make media appearances from Laurence Tribe to Neil Katyal to Noah Feldman.”

“They agree with their opinions so their motivations are not questioned,” he added. “The fact is that none of their motivations should be questioned. They are all insightful and influential thinkers.”

Law School Lecturer Nancy Gertner denounced Dershowitz’s defense of Trump in a piece she wrote for WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog.

In her blog post, she wrote that Dershowitz used to be an “icon for civil libertarians,” but his support for the president compromised that distinction.

“It was not remotely the position of a civil libertarian to claim that a president is more powerful than a king,” Gertner wrote.

Gertner wrote in her post that no one should combine Dershowitz’s views with the dangerous positions of his client and said Dershowitz rejected bipartisan consensus of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as impeachable offenses.

“By the end of his presentation on Monday, he was in full-throated defense of the White House on all fronts, summing up his version of the facts, no fancy civil libertarian disclaimer there,” Gertner wrote.

Dershowitz did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.

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