Last month, as the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump got underway, the president’s defense team took center stage. Among them was one of Trump’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow. It was a career-defining moment for Sekulow, who forcefully made the case against removing the president from office, saying, “Danger! Danger! Danger! To lower the bar of impeachment based on these articles of impeachment would impact the functioning of our constitutional republic.”
When Donald Trump assembled his personal legal team in response to the ongoing controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election, the addition of Sekulow was seen as both baffling and sensible. It was baffling in the sense that Sekulow had little history of criminal defense in more than three decades of work as an attorney, much of it for Christian conservative causes. But his addition made sense when considering the traits he shares with Trump: He is confident to a fault; he is brash and combative; and, like Trump, he has a reputation of not backing down from a fight.
Sekulow’s service on the Trump legal team may have peaked with a central role in the president’s impeachment trial. His arguments before the Senate have introduced him to a broader audience, but this was not Sekulow’s first moment in the spotlight. His work with a prominent and wealthy Christian conservative legal interest group has allowed him to defend a specific vision of American public life, one in which the supposed Judeo-Christian roots of America’s founding should guide domestic and foreign policy. His daily radio program and presence in conservative media such as Fox News have bolstered his culture warrior persona. And his involvement at the edges of elite conservative politics is well-documented, having frequently supported and appeared alongside Republican presidential candidates.
But nothing comes close to defending just the third president in American history to face an impeachment trial. And if Sekulow’s past is any indication, this is the moment he has been waiting for.
AT THE CORNER OF Maryland Ave and 2nd Street Northeast in Washington, DC, sits a nondescript building. One would be forgiven for mistaking it for a home, with its welcoming architecture and bright, clean appearance. Instead, just a couple of blocks from the United States Supreme Court, it houses the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), one of the nation’s most active and well-funded Christian conservative legal organizations.
Shortly after establishing the Christian Coalition, televangelist Pat Robertson founded the ACLJ in 1990 to be a counterweight to the American Civil Liberties Union, which he viewed with disdain due to its work in support of abortion and other legal causes abhorrent to Christian conservatives. To lead the new group, Robertson turned to a young lawyer named Jay Sekulow, who had made a name for himself in the 1980s as a constitutional attorney focused on First Amendment issues. It was, in many respects, a match made in heaven.
A Messianic Jew who converted in college, Sekulow pioneered an effective strategy in defending religious freedom. In Board of Airport Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that religious activity should be understood as free speech, and therefore evaluated under the same under constitutional framework. The Court was sympathetic to this approach, ruling unanimously for Sekulow in 1987. In 1990, he followed up with an 8-1 win in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, in which the Court held that schools could not bar Christian student groups from using facilities after hours.
Sekulow has gone on to appear before the Supreme Court in several other cases on issues ranging from religious expression and abortion to campaign finance reform. Simultaneously, the ACLJ grew to be a powerhouse in the Christian legal movement, employing more than a dozen staff attorneys and coordinating with lawyers from around the country and throughout the world. Sekulow’s resources grew as well: He is responsible for a budget approaching $50 million, including revenue from Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), which he founded purportedly to support different Christian ministries, including the ACLJ. His radio show, Jay Sekulow Live!, is broadcast daily across the country and online, featuring discussions with other contributors to the ACLJ, including Sekulow’s son, Jordan (who works for the ACLJ and, it appears, is also assisting with Trump’s impeachment defense). And even before his appointment to Trump’s legal team, Sekulow was a fixture on Fox News for his commentary on legal issues.
The ACLJ is both a typical and atypical Christian conservative legal organization: typical in the sense that it has historically sponsored religious freedom and abortion cases, but atypical in its alignment with purely partisan causes. For example, in a 2005 ACLJ press release Sekulow called George W. Bush “extremely well equipped to handle the challenges both at home and abroad.” By comparison, the ACLJ blamed Barack Obama for the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack, saying, “President Obama claims to want America to be a shining city on a hill, but refuses to use common-sense steps to secure our homeland from terrorists that want to destroy us.” And the group regularly attacked the Obama administration on issues largely unrelated to their mission, such as the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, which involved the U.S. government selling firearms to Central American drug cartels and then tracking their movements.
Additionally, the ACLJ’s conception of religious freedom appears narrower than those of others in the Christian legal movement. In 2010, in an email to subscribers, the ACLJ justified its opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” by describing it not as a religious freedom issue, but as “an American issue.” And recently, the group has spoken out against schools introducing “mindfulness” meditation to students, while defending the practice of Christian prayer in certain contexts. The ACLJ’s defense of religious freedom for Christians has generally not applied to other religious traditions.
With his role at the ACLJ solidified, in the 2000s Sekulow began to connect more explicitly with Republican Party politics. In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin describes Sekulow as an influential actor in the Bush administration’s judicial nominations process, including in the selection of two Supreme Court justices. Sekulow was one of the few conservative defenders of Bush’s failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the Court in 2005, calling her “uniquely qualified” for the nomination. Sekulow has also gotten close to various Republican candidates for president over the years, advising Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns and appearing with Donald Trump at a 2013 Faith and Freedom Coalition event. Among leaders in the Christian legal movement, nobody has positioned himself better for this moment than Jay Sekulow.
At the same time, the Christian legal movement views of Sekulow are complicated. In interviews for my book and related research, attorneys acknowledged Sekulow’s role in important legal victories but some also critiqued the way he has carried himself and his organization. Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver recounted favorably Sekulow’s work to shape the successful religious exercise-as-speech argument. And one attorney told me she was “impressed by Sekulow’s courage” in his early work. Others, however, were more critical. One lawyer told me it was at times frustrating to coordinate with the ACLJ, since “they keep their information close to the chest … You don’t want to have to remake the wheel each time you litigate a case.” Another raised concerns about the ACLJ’s political activities, saying that the group was jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. And another critiqued Sekulow’s ego, saying, “Sekulow spends an inordinate amount of time tooting his own horn.”
The ACLJ has also faced criticism for its financial structure. One Washington Post report highlighted that Sekulow and his family have profited greatly from contributions to the ACLJ and its related organization, CASE. For example, while Sekulow does not officially draw a salary from the ACLJ, the group reports it paid more than $16 million over five years to one of Sekulow’s private businesses. This is in addition to the annual six-figure salary Sekulow draws from CASE, where he serves as president and CEO. There are also accounts of a private jet and several homes being funded through a complex web of legal and financial arrangements. At least one veteran leader of the Christian legal movement has expressed displeasure with this setup, saying, “I am aghast at modern evangelism and the money.” To defend himself, Sekulow may do well to take a line from President Trump, who once tweeted that his own business dealings were “very legal & very cool.” Sekulow’s arrangement may well be very legal, but there are those who question whether it is also very cool.
WHEN HISTORY TELLS THE story of President Trump’s impeachment trial, Jay Sekulow will be mentioned as a supporting actor in the drama. It’s a predictable turn of events for a man who has made a lucrative career of being at the center of major constitutional and political controversies, and who has spent years positioning himself to be influential at the highest levels of American government.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election gave Sekulow the defining moment of his career. It is only fitting that Sekulow’s performance at Trump’s impeachment trial is helping to set the stage for 2020.
Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University, where he is also assistant director at the Center for Faith and Flourishing. He is the author of Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement.