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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Criminal Justice

One’s a tactician, the other’s a showman. Meet Trump’s defense team.

NEW YORK – When former President Donald Trump arrives in Manhattan Criminal Courthouse to be arraigned next week, it will be his first appearance there as a criminal defendant. But for his lawyers, it is familiar territory.

The legal duo representing the former president, Susan Necheles and Joe Tacopina, are longtime fixtures of New York criminal proceedings, each of whom has accompanied both tabloid sensations and more serious political figures through the concrete halls of the Art Deco courthouse.

Neither is new to Trump’s orbit. Both have been working for Trump during the criminal investigation that led to Thursday’s indictment of the former president in connection with a $130,000 hush money payment to a porn star. Necheles was also a member of the defense team in the criminal tax fraud trial that took place late last year and ended in the conviction of the Trump Organization. Tacopina represented Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée, before the Jan. 6 select committee.

People who know them say the two lawyers have very different styles — she’s an understated tactician and he’s a colorful showman, “bombastic,” in his own words — but both have built their careers in New York courtrooms.

In separate interviews, Necheles and Tacopina said they have a productive working relationship — Tacopina described it as “harmonious,” adding that they would likely add a third member to the team who specializes in election law.

And both called their relationship with Trump “respectful.”

“Of course I’ve worked with difficult clients over the years in some cases, and you just try to make them have confidence in you,” Necheles said.

Still, Trump’s recent remarks about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — calling him an “animal” and “racist” — could complicate his lawyers’ ability to work productively with prosecutors.

Necheles dismissed any concerns, saying, “Trump is a little bit more verbal about it and out there” in his criticism of the office. But, she added: “Of course he doesn’t like them. They’re trying to ruin his life.”

Tacopina said the case is in some ways unremarkable and in others extraordinary. “On one hand, this is a belly-of-the-beast, 100 Centre Street, low-level case that should be treated this way. On the other hand, this is the former president of the United States, so we have to be cognizant of that,” he said, referring to the street address for Manhattan Criminal Court where Trump will be tried.

“I’m buckling my seatbelt,” he added. “Let’s put it that way.”

Neither lawyer would discuss their strategy for the Trump case, but both have a history of deploying creative gambits on behalf of their clients. Necheles once used a “divine defense” on behalf of a developer accused of fleecing ultra-orthodox Jewish clients, telling a jury he had received a blessing from a rabbi to build affordable housing. “It was a mitzvah to him, a Hebrew word that means a good deed and an obligation,” she said.

During the trial of a former New York state senator accused of theft, she showed jurors a blown-up image of an apple, while a piece of the fruit sat on the defense table in front of her client. “There’s something rotten about this case,” she told jurors.

Meanwhile, Tacopina helped a rapper named Sticky Fingaz, who faced a gun possession charge that was later dropped, slip into the courthouse undetected by paparazzi.

Tacopina accompanied his driver — who posed as the rapper by donning a hat and sunglasses — through the front entrance while the rapper slipped through another door. Tacopina laughed at the suggestion that he would try to pull a similar stunt with Trump. “I have no tricks up my sleeve here,” he said. “This is the Secret Service’s show here, not mine.”

Tacopina also has some experience navigating choppy relationships between Trump world and its investigators — though not always with favorable results for his clients. Last year, when he represented Guilfoyle before the Jan. 6 committee, Tacopina accused the committee of blindsiding them by allowing some of the panel’s Democratic members to attend the proceeding and she walked shortly after it started. Her premature departure resulted in the committee issuing a subpoena for Guilfoyle’s testimony that ultimately compelled her return for a lengthy interview about her involvement in planning and fundraising for Trump’s Jan. 6 rally.

Tacopina is one of the few Trump world lawyers who have also taken on clients charged for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He and his partner Chad Siegel represented Julian Khater, who was sentenced to 80 months in prison earlier this year for macing three police officers, including Brian Sicknick, who died the next day of a stroke.

Tacopina’s willingness to work with such clients – along with his vocal defenses of clients on TV – has likely helped him appeal to Trump. Tacopina also boasts some of Trump’s bravado. “For each hour in the courtroom, I prepare 15,” he said, adding in a matter-of-fact tone: “My cross-examinations are bulletproof.”

“He has a reputation as being a bit of a street fighter, he’s a brawler,” said lawyer Adam Ford, who was co-counsel with Tacopina to a man accused of running a $17 million stock scam.

A former prosecutor who tried a case against Tacopina described him as a “big presence” in the courtroom. “He has the unique ability to infuriate a judge and have the judge be charmed by him within a span of 10 minutes,” said the prosecutor, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about his experience.

Necheles is viewed as the more academic of the two. She’s earned a reputation for being deeply prepared for court appearances and particularly skilled in cross-examination of witnesses.

Andrew Weinstein was defense counsel for another client alongside Necheles in a bribery case involving NYPD officials. He recalled Necheles’s questioning of Jona Rechnitz, a businessman who cooperated with the government against her client.

Necheles is “not a yeller and a screamer,” said Weinstein, but nevertheless “completely dismantled and dissected Rechnitz on the witness stand.”

He predicted that Necheles will be particularly effective in combating testimony from Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who is likely the central witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s case. “I think Michael Cohen is going to have his hands full if she is the one who cross examines him,” Weinstein said.

Still, Necheles’ role in the Trump orbit hasn’t always gone smoothly. In the Trump Organization trial, prosecutors called her out during closing arguments for displaying excerpts of testimony that had been stricken from the record.

“It’s problematic, and I don’t fault the people for being upset about this,” Justice Juan Merchan said as he sustained an objection from prosecutors. Merchan is likely to preside over Trump’s trial as well.

Necheles apologized and called the mistake inadvertent.

Frank Rothman, a criminal defense attorney who was conducting business at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on Friday, said he thought the brashness of Tacopina and the precision of Necheles could make for a strong pairing.

“Susan is the one who could potentially be writing the motions, doing the legal research, and Joe is the face, doing the trial attorney stuff. You know, trying to knock your head off in trial — like a bull in a china shop.”

Kyle Cheney and Wesley Parnell contributed to this report.

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