David Schoen has stepped forward to represent conservative firebrand Steve Bannon in his contempt of Congress case after two previous stints defending self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, and even former President Donald Trump. But Schoen insists politics is not playing into his decision.
Instead, Schoen says his three-decade-long career as a civil rights attorney made it a no-brainer.
“I subscribe to the words of the great lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston,” Schoen told CNN, “to the effect that a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society. I have wanted to try to make a change to help others who need help.”
Schoen’s law firm is based in Alabama, and he says he still dedicates more than half of his practice to pro bono work representing civil rights clients – anything from death penalty cases to police misconduct. But Schoen has turned his immediate focus to fighting what he perceives as “a very dangerous politicization of the criminal justice system.”
“I see this as an important case for the country to be engaged in,” Schoen said. “By prosecuting Mr. Bannon criminally, the government has broken with decades of policy and practice, and I believe it has put not just important individual constitutional rights at issue, but institutional constitutional principles as well, including important separation of powers issues.”
Schoen is hinging his defense of Bannon, at least in the court of public opinion, on the idea that federal prosecutors are targeting Trump’s former chief strategist because of political considerations, especially since charges for contempt of Congress are rare. The last indictment was in 1983 against an official at the Environmental Protection Agency, and it ended in an acquittal.
Bannon is facing two counts of contempt of Congress for refusing to appear for a deposition or to produce documents to the House select committee that’s investigating the riot at the US Capitol on January 6. The panel wants to question Bannon about the comments he made on his radio show January 5, when he predicted that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Members also want to know about his communications with Trump in the days leading up to January 6, and his involvement in the “war room” at the Willard Hotel, where Trump allies strategized ways to overturn the election.
When Schoen spoke outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington after Bannon’s first appearance in mid-November, he decried Bannon’s contempt of Congress indictment. “There is nothing about this case that reflects a pursuit of the equal justice under the law,” Schoen said. “This thing was a scam from the beginning.”
“If the real purpose were to get information,” Schoen elaborated via email, “and if it were based on a belief that this is what the American people need – information concerning the events of 1/6 – then a civil enforcement action to put the issues before a judge to decide would be appropriate.”
Schoen is stepping up to defend Bannon even despite the podcast host’s demeaning comments about him less than a year ago. During a February 2 episode of Bannon’s podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” Bannon criticized Schoen’s strategy defending Trump during his second impeachment trial, then attacked Schoen’s appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity.”
“And then this guy shows up last night with the beard, right?” Bannon said. “Hey, I don’t look right with a beard either, but, man, the beard’s gotta come off. You can’t come in there like the absent-minded professor, you gotta bring the heat!”
Schoen explained via email that he had grown a beard because he was in a period of mourning after the death of his mother, saying he has not spoken with Bannon about the comments but believes in his case regardless.
“I take great pride in my relationship with my clients generally,” Schoen said, “and hope that he hired me because he has some measure of confidence in me.”
Schoen’s track record defending people in the Trump orbit likely played a role. He took over Stone’s appeal after special counsel Robert Mueller’s team won a conviction against Stone for lying to Congress and witness tampering. Trump later pardoned Stone, and the appeal was dropped. Earlier this year, Schoen represented the former President in his second impeachment trial, where Trump was acquitted.
Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor who helped defend Trump in his first impeachment, says Schoen’s shift to defending people in the former President’s inner circle makes perfect sense.
“There’s nothing surprising about a civil rights lawyer who is now defending people in the Trump orbit,” Dershowitz told CNN. “They are the people whose civil liberties and rights are being denied!”
Dershowitz described Schoen as aggressive and intellectual – a lawyer who is equally strong when it comes to the facts and the law. “He’s the go-to guy,” Dershowitz said. “There’s a preference to get lawyers who are neutral – I don’t think anyone knows David’s views.”
Days before Schoen stepped onto the Senate floor to represent Trump in his second impeachment trial, he explained how he viewed the then-President’s defense through a civil rights lens. Schoen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that while he was surprised to get the call asking him to join Trump’s defense team, “I’ve got 36 years experience as a civil rights lawyer. This is what I do.”
During Trump’s trial, Schoen focused his defense on the idea that political payback was the true driver of the second impeachment – a historic first.
He blasted the process, accusing Democrats of rushing proceedings and depriving Trump of his basic rights.
“The hatred that the house managers and others on the left have for President Trump has driven them to skip the basic elements of due process and fairness and to rush an impeachment through the House,” Schoen said. He accused impeachment managers of repeatedly showing footage from the Capitol riot for “political gain,” and his impeachment trial theatrics included brandishing a copy of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.”
“We all well know that there are many systems in countries around the world that do not offer any semblance of the safeguards our constitutional concept of due process provides,” he said, while referencing the collection of writings from China’s leader of the Communist Party beginning in 1949. Schoen claimed that the true goal of the lawmakers’ impeachment push was to “bar Donald Trump from ever running for political office again,” while asserting that effort was “an affront to the Constitution” and a use of impeachment “as a tool to disenfranchise.”
“Based on partisan force-feeding,” Schoen continued, “this trial will tear this country apart, perhaps like we have only seen once before in our history.”
Schoen is taking a few pages from that playbook now that he’s defending Bannon. He told a crowd of reporters and protesters outside the federal courthouse in mid-November: “We’re going to fight to defend his rights and to defend your rights also.”
Bannon echoed his rhetoric: “Not just Trump people and not just conservatives, but every progressive and every liberal in this country that likes freedom of speech and liberty should be fighting for this case.”
CNN’s Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.