Two weeks ago, David Schoen – the lead lawyer for Donald Trump at his impeachment trial, and an Orthodox Jew – made headlines when he asked if the president’s trial could be suspended on Shabbos. Schoen’s observance became a hot topic again a few days later when he covered his head with his hand several times as took sips of water while speaking on the Senate floor.
The Jewish Press spoke to him yesterday about these and other topics.
The Jewish Press: Before discussing the trial, can you share some of your personal background? Where were you born?
Schoen: I was born in New York. My dad died when I was four, so we moved out of the city and I grew up in Virginia, outside Washington DC, in a place called McLean, VA.
Was there a Jewish community there?
No, not at all. I didn’t grow up religious. I had no religious background whatsoever until I was around 35.
What happened then?
As I got older, I became gradually more and more interested. I moved to the Upper West Side and the building was like a dormitory for Ohab Zedek, which is an Orthodox shul. I went to one of these “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos” programs and really fell in love with the place and the rabbi. I then took up Shabbos and kosher [and the rest is history].
Who was the rabbi?
There were two. There was an outreach rabbi by the name of Rabbi Brian Thau, but the main rabbi was Rabbi Allen Schwartz. The shul is Ohab Zedek.
Did you know Donald Trump before defending him at this trial?
No, not at all.
So how did you get the job?
His chief of staff called me about four weeks ago on a Sunday night out of the blue – I was eating dinner – and he asked, “Would you be interested in possibly representing Donald Trump in the impeachment case?”
I said, “I’d possibly be interested depending on who’s on the team.” We talked for a while, and then he said he would call me back the next day with the president. But instead, about two hours later, the president himself called and we talked for a long time. And then the next day he called me again.
Later in the week, I saw that they had hired a guy from South Carolina, so I wrote them back saying, “I guess you hired somebody, but thank you for considering me.” They said, “No, that was just one name. We’re still interested,” so they called me back again and asked me if I would kind of quarterback the thing….
Who recommended you to Trump?
A number of people have told me they recommended me, but they’re well-known so I don’t want to use their name. One guy who said I could use his name was Roger Stone.
How did he know about you?
I had represented him.
There’s a rumor that Trump likes Jewish lawyers – that he thinks they’re smarter than other people. Do you think he picked you for that reason?
I don’t know. I’ve never heard that although I do know that he’s had plenty of Jewish lawyers in the past.
You initially asked the Senate to suspend the trial on Shabbos. Later, however, you withdrew your request and said other lawyers would be able to cover for you. What happened?
I made it clear from the start of the case that I wouldn’t be able to work on Shabbos. That was fine, and I wrote a letter [requesting a recess for Shabbos], and [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer agreed.
So it was a done deal, and it was about to be voted on, but then word came from some of the senators that they weren’t so happy because a recess was coming up and they didn’t want to delay an extra day.
So I spoke to the president and it was a difficult decision because he had asked me to take the lead in this case, and this meant I wouldn’t be there. We didn’t know if we’d be talking that day or not. Originally we thought we’d be finishing on Tuesday night, so maybe Shabbos wouldn’t be such an important day.
[In any event,] Trump said, “Listen, I don’t want to make the senators unhappy,” so I wrote a letter saying I don’t want to inconvenience – which was true – I don’t want to inconvenience everybody just for me, and I will make a personnel change and we can continue the trial on Shabbos.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Shabbos was a key time. That was the day they held the question-and-answer period and the closing argument.
Was Trump unhappy?
Yes, but to make up for it, I said, “Alright, if you really want me to speak” – because I wasn’t going to speak again – “what I’ll do is make a video presentation that hopefully will be like a knockout – a home run that will bolster the [Republican] senators.” He liked the idea, so we put together this video and that’s what I ended up doing on Friday.
Did Trump know you were frum (Orthodox) when he hired you?
Apparently not. I made it clear to his underlings, but he said he never got the message.
Taking off for Shabbos was probably somewhat familiar to him, though, since one of his main lawyers when he was a private businessman was Jason Greenblatt, who is a frum Jew.
That’s actually the example he gave me. He said, “Listen, it’s not so foreign to me. I had Jason Greenblatt. Even in a major, major closing, he had to leave on Friday evening right when we were in the middle of things.”
During the trial, you followed the minhag of not wearing a yarmulke in public and you explained to a news outlet that you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself. But because you weren’t wearing a yarmulke, every time you took a drink of water on the Senate floor, you covered your head with your hand, which arguably drew even more attention than wearing a yarmulke would have. Would you do anything differently if you had to do it all over again?
I wrestle with this all the time. I wear a yarmulke in court if it’s just the judge [and me] – if I’m arguing a motion or something like that. But I made a decision a long time ago not to wear it in front of a jury because different people draw different conclusions when they see a yarmulke.
I had a case in the early 1990s in which we noticed that one or two of the jurors were really acting funny. The defendants in that case had their yarmulkes on, and afterwards we had to challenge a juror, and she told us that one of the other jurors said, “I don’t care what the evidence is; you should convict him because the Jews are always bringing drugs into our community.”
So everything was about “Jewish, Jewish, Jewish.” It wasn’t a Jewish case. It was a drug case. So I thought at that time, “I don’t want people to draw stereotypes. It’s not fair to the client. So if I’m in front if a jury, I won’t wear it.”
In this case, I was thinking, “I don’t know these senators. People look at you and draw a conclusion right away. Plus, there are people watching on TV who may be haters.” So I decided I wouldn’t wear it. But I just had Covid recently and my mouth was dry [as I was speaking on the Senate floor], so I needed to drink something. All of a sudden I started to think, “I don’t make a beracha without a yarmulke on. What am I doing?” So I just put my hand over my head.
I didn’t think anybody was [paying attention], but it went like viral. At first people were making fun of me, but then people started standing up and saying, “No. Don’t you understand? It’s a religious thing.”
Schumer told me he explained it to the senators. He said to me, “You know what my name is, don’t you?” I said, “I don’t know, Shomer?” [the Hebrew word for “guardian”]. He said, “Yes, that’s my name, and I explained to the other people what you were doing.”
Some people love Trump and some people hate him. His fans probably thought it was a huge Kiddush Hashem that a frum Jew defended him, while his enemies probably thought it was a huge chillul Hashem that a frum Jew defended him. How do you respond to these two groups?
Frankly, I’ve chosen not to – with one exception. I’ve gotten some of the most fabulous e-mails from people who said to me what a Kiddush Hashem they thought [my public observance] was. I had to respond to them.
People are going crazy. They say things like, “This is bigger than Sandy Koufax” and that it’s inspired shiurim around the world. That I feel really good about. It wasn’t my intention, but I feel good if I’ve made a positive impact and inspired people.
I’m not a learned person, so I can’t really do much to inspire people with Torah learning, but if I can do something like this [it’s gratifying]. People face difficult decisions all the time in the workplace, so [I’m glad if I helped them].
What do you say to people who hate Trump and think a Jew shouldn’t be defending someone whom they believe to be a horrible man?
I think it’s a terrible position to take. I was standing up for the Constitution and the president, and I was honored to do it. And the idea that you should be embarrassed somehow to be Jewish and do that – I don’t understand it.
Legal experts often argue that everyone deserves proper representation – whether you’re a good person or a bad person.
Yes, I’ve always taken that position. Alan Dershowitz is kind of a model for that. He has always been somebody I looked up to in that regard. He says, “That’s a lawyer’s job. Sometimes you have to represent the worst of the worst.”
But that wasn’t the case here. I was honored to do it. I can’t imagine saying “No” to a president of the United States who asks you to represent him.
In The Jewish Press, we have a column called “Is It Proper?” and we actually asked the five rabbis who write for this column recently whether a lawyer should represent even evil people like child killers.
It’s interesting that you raise that because I always take two or three capital murder cases on a pro bono basis, and right now I’m representing a guy who was convicted – before I got into the case – of killing a woman and her two kids. It’s a heinous crime. He was on drugs. But people say to me, “Oh, that’s fantastic, man. You’re really doing great work. People need a lawyer.”
Now I represent the president of the United States and people say, “Oh, my God, you’re a horrible person. How could you do this?” It’s unbelievable.