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Meet the Inquisitors About to Rule the Impeachment Hearing

One’s a former mob-buster. The other’s a veteran of more than a decade of Capitol Hill’s most divisive investigations. And on Wednesday both will go prime time.

When the impeachment of President Trump finally goes public on Wednesday, two men will be thrust into the national spotlight as each party’s lead inquisitor. One of them is a career congressional staffer who’s rarely been in the public eye but has been in the background for a decade of Capitol Hill investigations. The other is a trial lawyer turned cable-news pundit who spent a decade prosecuting mobsters in a high-profile Manhattan federal court. 

That the attorneys—Steve Castor with the Republicans and Daniel Goldman with the Democrats—find themselves at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is a function of the ground rules that Democrats passed to govern the proceedings. When witnesses take the stand in open hearings this week, they will get grilled not by the top lawmakers on the panel but primarily by the lawyers.

It is expected that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), will ask some questions but cede most of their time to Goldman and Castor. They will each get at least 45 minutes to examine and cross-examine the witnesses—far more than the five minutes that rank-and-file committee members typically get for such questioning. 

The two are no strangers to the work, having already conducted dozens of hours of questioning during the closed-door phase of the impeachment inquiry. But as the most consequential witnesses to an alleged Trumpworld scheme to pressure Ukraine testify publicly for the first time—with the TV cameras rolling and millions watching—Goldman and Castor are poised to become household names. Though they find themselves in the same position, the paths that got them there could hardly be more different. 

His style is right out of the SDNY bootcamp, as am I. He will know everything there is to know about a witness and the circumstances around the witness. He’ll be fully, 100 percent prepared.”
Elie Honig, a former SDNY prosecutor who worked with Daniel Goldman

When Democrats took the majority in January, Schiff hired Goldman to lead the committee’s investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. His pedigree fit the mission that Schiff laid out: Goldman had spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where he prosecuted organized-crime syndicates—including some linked to Russians—for a variety of crimes.

His work at SDNY was often headline-grabbing: He was the lead prosecutor of the famous gambler Billy Walters, who was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail for an insider-trading scheme in 2017. Goldman also helped lead the prosecution of the former boss of the La Cosa Nostra crime family on murder and extortion charges, putting him behind bars for life. 

But Goldman arrived on Capitol Hill from Manhattan as something of a Resistance celebrity: In 2017, he stepped down from SDNY and became a legal analyst for MSNBC (he also wrote occasionally for The Daily Beast). For a year, he was a fixture on the network, appearing regularly to discuss everything from the various twists and turns in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to the sexual-assault allegations made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In the process, he accrued some 70,000 followers on Twitter with a stream of reliably Trump-critical commentary: He once called Trump’s desire to investigate Hillary Clinton and James Comey “pure fascism;” in another tweet, he wondered if congressional Republicans—naming specifically one “Devil Nunes”—had all “sold their soul” to Trump.

Goldman’s charge now is to establish Democrats’ case against Trump by questioning the witnesses they believe are best positioned to tell that story, including Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S ambassador there who was ousted in a pressure campaign led by Rudy Giuliani. 

The former prosecutor has already impressed congressional Democrats this year. And those who know Goldman from his past job say he’s more than up to the task. A fellow SDNY alum turned TV legal analyst, Elie Honig, told The Daily Beast that he will be a calm, focused, and prepared lead inquisitor for the Democrats—one who won’t waste time getting to the most essential elements of the case his side is aiming to build.

“His style is right out of the SDNY boot camp, as am I,” said Honig, who overlapped with Goldman in the office and prosecuted several organized-crime cases alongside him. “He will know everything there is to know about a witness and the circumstances around the witness. He’ll be fully, 100 percent prepared.”

Honig said to pay closest attention to the first five minutes of Goldman’s time with witnesses because that’s where he’ll lay out the “biggest points” he wants to bring out during his questioning. 

“Dan is direct, he’s no-nonsense, he is confident and he won’t be at all cowed or intimidated by the magnitude of the moment,” Honig said. 

He’s a very dedicated institutionalist. He’s one of those people you see on the Hill that you know he could have left a long time ago and made a lot of money in any number of places.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), of Steve Castor

Castor, meanwhile, has an extremely low public profile. “He’s a lawyer’s lawyer,” said a senior Republican congressional aide. “He didn’t come to Capitol Hill to get famous.”

Quite the contrary. Most people saw Castor’s name for the first time when it was in all caps in one of these transcripts. But for Republicans on the Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, Castor has been a quiet but steady presence for over a decade as different investigations led by a cast of chairmen paraded through the often chaotic panel. 

“He has the longest-running institutional knowledge of most anybody on our side of the aisle,” said former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who served as chairman of the Oversight panel from 2015 to 2017. “He’s been through several of these fights in the past.” 

“From Tom Davis to Darrell Issa to me to Jim Jordan to Trey Gowdy, he’s always had everybody’s confidence and we are an eclectic group of oversight chairs and ranking members,” he said. “And the fact that he’s had all of our confidence is saying something.” 

The issues that passed through the committee during Castor’s 14-year tenure there have also run the gamut. From the investigation into steroid abuse in professional sports to the lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff to the Obama-era “Fast and Furious” investigation into a gun-running operation gone bad to the investigation into alleged biased against conservatives inside the Internal Revenue Service to probes into the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice, Castor gained a no-drama reputation for direct questions, trustworthiness, and discretion. 

“If Castor gave his word to someone he was adamant, because the integrity of our ability and power to investigate is at stake,” said former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who chaired the Oversight panel from summer 2017 until he retired from Congress last year. 

Gowdy predicted that Castor would ask methodical questions “rooted in relevance” and that he already knows the answer to. “Good lawyers don’t like surprises,” he said, noting that “other than the drama of a congressional hearing” it’s unlikely any new information would come out during the public examination of the witnesses this week. 

Those who know Castor painted the portrait of a family man and dog lover who passed up higher-profile or better-paid posts in the Executive Branch or private practice to stay on the committee.

“He’s a very dedicated institutionalist,” said former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman who Castor served as counsel for nearly half his time on the committee. “He’s one of those people you see on the Hill that you know he could have left a long time ago and made a lot of money in any number of places.” Including, Issa added, one of the many firms now representing members of the Trump administration who are fighting subpoenas from Congress. 

Staffers like Goldman and Castor rarely become the story on Capitol Hill, but thanks to their dominant roles in the spectacle of impeachment, both may soon face the kind of partisan adoration and rancor usually reserved for prominent lawmakers who are used to the spotlight.

Goldman, for example, has already been the subject of critical coverage in conservative outlets such as The Federalist, which wrote that a “former MSNBC contributor” had been dispatched by Schiff to ask questions of impeachment witnesses. That outlet wrote that Goldman was “flustered” during the deposition of former Ambassador Kurt Volker, allegedly forcing Schiff to shut the attorney down.

The transcripts, at least as written, do not reveal anything of the sort. Instead, Goldman has been the Democrats’ point person for methodically obtaining key details out of the witnesses, asking the who, what, where, and why questions that have led to top-line discoveries from the depositions and helped to establish the Ukraine timeline and fact pattern Democrats see as foundational to the impeachment probe. 

In open hearings, Goldman’s charge will be similar—not to coax testimony out of hostile witnesses, Honig said, but to build a narrative with witnesses whose stories are critical to the Democrats’ case. “These three witnesses are not going to be hostile, so to speak,” he said. “I think by and large, the majority in House Intel will be embracing their testimony, so I don’t think he’ll be in a combative situation with any of these witnesses.”

Castor, on the other hand, will play a different role. He has already shown a flair for lines of questioning likely to please the president and his supporters, and infuriate his detractors. In depositions, Castor has showed a willingness to ask the same question multiple times, a common tactic, but one that frequently irked the counsels representing various witnesses—and, sometimes, the witnesses themselves. He has reliably interrogated officials about their knowledge of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden served as a board member, as Republicans seek to back up claims the Bidens acted improperly. 

In one instance, Castor doggedly asked Laura Cooper—a Pentagon official—what she knew about Burisma, even after she insisted her work gave her no opportunities to learn about the company. “I have no level of personal knowledge or detail on these,” she said, after the fourth question from Castor about Burisma.

The veteran GOP attorney has also led efforts in the depositions to get information about the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president launched the impeachment inquiry. At one point, Castor point-blank asked one witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, if the whistleblower was a particular person—leading Schiff to respond that Republicans were endangering the person’s safety and running afoul of whistleblower protection law. 

But Castor’s M.O. has at other points earned grudging praise from Democratic rivals. He has proven to be “a skilled lawyer who went to great lengths to defend the president,” said a Democratic source. “If there was a piece of evidence that could have been turned up to have saved the president, Castor would have found it.” 

But a lawyer who’s faced Castor from the other side of the dais table hardly cast him as a partisan hack. Bob Driscoll, a Washington defense attorney who has represented clients before the Oversight Committee for years, said his experience in both the majority and the minority has given him perspective.

“When you’ve got the experience having done it both ways, you dispatch a little bit of the drama. People who’ve only been on one side tend to act like you’re about to light the Constitution on fire if you take a position they don’t agree with, whereas I think he’s mature enough that he recognizes that the other side isn’t trying to light the Constitution on fire by asserting their constitutional prerogatives,” said Driscoll. 

“There may still be disagreement, but it’s a tone thing,” he added. “You get very little ‘how dare you!’ coming out of him.”