June 23, 2024


Equality opinion

Trial ahead, Trump turns to ethics lawyer for his defense

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Butch Bowers is used to defending public officials in ethics cases. But he’s never faced anything quite like this.

It’s up to Bowers, a South Carolina elections and ethics lawyer, to rise and defend Donald Trump as the Senate soon plunges into an impeachment trial unlike any other, centered on accusations that the former president incited the mob that rampaged through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. For Trump, the first president twice impeached, the stakes are enormous: If convicted, he could be barred from holding public office again, ending any hopes of mounting another White House bid in 2024.

Trump turned to Bowers, a familiar figure in Republican legal circles, after other legal allies passed on the case. That’s a notable departure from his first impeachment trial in 2020, when he had a stable of prominent attorneys — including Alan Dershowitz, Jay Sekulow, who represented him in the Russia investigation, and Kenneth Starr — standing in his corner.

The first impeachment trial turned on charges that Trump improperly solicited Ukraine’s help for his reelection campaign. The Senate acquitted him of those charges. The new trial could hinge on broader issues of law, including “whether the Constitution even allows a post-impeachment action in the Senate,” said Sekulow, who is not participating in Trump’s legal defense.

Sekulow said he did not expect Bowers, who has years of experience representing elected officials and political candidates — including former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford against a failed impeachment effort that morphed into an ethics probe — to be hindered by having never defended a current or former president in a Senate trial.

“He’s an excellent lawyer with a tremendous reputation who understands the law and politics,” Sekulow said Friday.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recommended Bowers to Trump and told Fox News he sees him as the “anchor tenant” of Trump’s team. Trump adviser Jason Miller, who also ran Sanford’s gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, said Bowers “will do an excellent job defending President Trump.”

Bowers did not respond to a message seeking comment.

His strategy for Trump’s defense is unclear, though questioning the validity of the trial is a clear option. Many Republicans in the Senate — the jurors he’ll need to persuade — have said they harbor doubts about whether an impeachment trial for an ex-official is constitutional, even though it has happened before.

The nine House managers prosecuting the case, meanwhile, will almost certainly focus on linking Trump’s remarks to supporters at a rally before the riot — including encouraging them to “fight like hell” — to the chaos that soon followed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate on Monday, triggering the first phase of the trial.

Opening arguments will begin the week of Feb. 8. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the schedule Friday evening after reaching an agreement with Republicans, who had pushed to delay the trial to give Trump a chance to organize his legal team and prepare a defense.

Though perhaps nothing compares to the legal and political swirl of a Senate impeachment trial, Bowers does have experience both in Washington and in steering elected leaders through the fray.

He has served as counsel to Sanford and another former governor, Nikki Haley, guiding her through an investigation into whether she had violated state ethics law.

An ethics panel ultimately cleared Haley. Rob Godfrey, a longtime Haley adviser who worked closely with Bowers during his representation of the governor, said the lawyer “works hard, has an eye for detail and knows the law.”

Bowers worked for Sanford when state lawmakers mulled impeaching him after revelations Sanford had disappeared from the state, leaving no chain of command for five days, to see his lover in Argentina in 2009. The effort never made it out of committee.

Ensuing investigations by The Associated Press into Sanford’s other trips showed he had traveled on commercial airlines in high-priced seats despite the state’s low-cost travel rules and had used state planes for personal and political trips.

At the time, Bowers predicted that the governor would be cleared, saying the charges were non-criminal and “limited to minor, technical matters.” Sanford went on to pay the largest ethics fine in state history — $74,000 — as well as nearly $37,000 to cover the costs of the investigation.

Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s longtime spokesman, said Bowers’ strengths lie in his calm demeanor and determination to examine legal arguments without concern for pomp and politics.

“If Donald Trump lets Butch be Butch and doesn’t try to make him be someone he’s not, in terms of making nutty legal arguments and seeking out television cameras, this will be a great fit for Butch,” Sawyer said. “If Trump wants him to be Rudy Giuliani or Sidney Powell 2.0, that’s not going to turn out well for anyone.”

Bowers represented Gov. Henry McMaster — a close ally of Trump — in a fight over excessive contributions, a 2016 case that ended with the then-lieutenant governor agreeing to pay more than $70,000 in fines and reimbursements. Bowers and McMaster, a longtime fixture in South Carolina’s GOP politics, also at one time shared office space.

Bowers was also a lawyer for former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the South Carolina Election Commission in litigation over voter ID laws, as well as a former South Carolina sheriff who pleaded guilty to embezzlement and misconduct in office. In 2018, he was attorney for University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley in her successful defamation suit against Missouri’s athletics director.

Bowers served as a special counsel on voting matters at the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, was Florida legal counsel for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and chaired the South Carolina Election Commission from 2004 to 2007. With degrees from the University of South Carolina and College of Charleston, Bowers graduated from Tulane University School of Law in 1998.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and longtime friend of President Joe Biden who has several times faced Bowers in court, said he expected the “understated” Bowers — also a colonel in the South Carolina Air National Guard — to make decisions in the case based not on personality, what Harpootlian said was in contrast to Trump’s past lawyers.

“Trump won’t be able to make Butch someone that he’s not,” Harpootlian said.


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.