Democrats Use Video, Trump’s Words to Build Impeachment Case
(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats showed chilling new video of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as they portrayed the siege and assault on Congress as the inevitable result of former President Donald Trump stoking rage among his supporters over his defeat in the election.
The House impeachment managers spent the second day of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial describing how Trump tried to sow doubt about the Nov. 3 election results months beforehand, as well as his weeks-long efforts afterward to reverse his loss to Democrat Joe Biden with “the big lie” that the election was stolen.
The argument anticipates a central part of Trump’s defense: that his words to a crowd of supporters in Washington before they swarmed the Capitol were standard political rhetoric that doesn’t amount to incitement of insurrection, as the House article of impeachment charges.
The Democrats who are prosecuting the case laid out the timeline of Trump’s statements and tweets before showing dramatic video of the assault and the escape of members of Congress. The presentation including scenes and sounds from within the crowd, footage from Capitol security cameras that hadn’t previously been made public and audio of increasingly frantic police radio calls.
Clips of audio and video made clear that some in the mob were hunting Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump had disparaged, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress.
“They did it because Donald Trump sent them on this mission,” Delegate Stacey Plaskett, one of the nine House impeachment managers, said. That mission, she said, was to stop the peaceful transfer of power as Congress was certifying the Electoral College votes that ratified Biden’s victory.
“This was never about one speech,” Representative Eric Swalwell, another House manager, said. “He built this mob over many months with repeated messaging until they believed that they’d been robbed of their vote and they would do anything to stop the certification.”
Besides arguing that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office, the former president’s attorneys have said he committed no crime and in no way incited the violence at the Capitol that left five people dead.
The defense lawyers have said that Trump’s comments to “fight like hell” at a Jan. 6 rally before the siege were protected by the First Amendment, and that he also told his supporters to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” The former president’s team has pointed to prominent Democrats who have also used fiery rhetoric as evidence that Trump is the victim of a double standard.
Trump’s lawyers are assembling more than a dozen videos with what they hope will be a stronger argument after the rambling and widely criticized presentation by attorney Bruce Castor on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the effort.
Trump’s first impeachment trial last year was based largely on transcripts and video of testimony from hearings. But the House managers this time, led by Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, drew on Trump’s tweets, speeches and comments -- as well as the words of his supporters -- to argue that the former president fanned the flames of violence long before the Jan. 6 rally and could have prevented the assault.
It may not matter. Only six Republicans voted with Democrats on Tuesday to allow the trial to continue, and it would take 17 GOP votes to convict at the end of the trial. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s closest allies, said he spoke to Trump on Tuesday night after the first day of the trial and assured the former president that “the case is over.”
Graham predicted that more than the 44 Republican senators who voted against continuing the trial on Tuesday will vote to acquit Trump.
“It’s just a matter of getting the final verdict now,” Graham told reporters.
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who was among the GOP lawmakers who voted to block certification of electoral votes from two states on the day of the attack, called the footage shown in the trial “horrific.” But he said the House impeachment managers didn’t connect the violence to the former president.
“They spent a great deal of time focusing on the horrific acts of violence that were played out by the criminals, but the language from the president doesn’t come close to meeting the legal standard for incitement,” Cruz told reporters. “There’s not a political candidate in the country who hasn’t used the very same language, including, I would wager every single one of the Democratic senators in that chamber.”
House managers plan to finish presenting their case on Thursday and may not use all 16 hours allotted for them, according to senior aides on the impeachment managers’ team. Trump’s defense will then have 16 hours to argue its case in a trial that could conclude by the weekend.
On Wednesday, House managers took turns outlining the ways Trump perpetuated “the big lie” that the election was stolen and tried to get elected Republicans to overturn the results -- and when that failed, how he encouraged supporters to rally on Jan. 6 to “stop the steal” as Biden’s victory was being ratified.
Swalwell said Trump spent $50 million from his legal defense fund on video ads, online advertising and targeted text messages to amplify his “stop the steal” message up until the day before the rally.
Plaskett highlighted several incidents in the months leading up to Jan. 6 when Trump encouraged groups of violent supporters, including his followers who tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas and Proud Boys who engaged in violence in downtown Washington at a pro-Trump rally on Dec. 12.
The House managers’ contention that the mob was acting on the direction of Trump was bolstered in a federal court in Washington in the case of a Proud Boys member arrested in connection with the riot. The attorney for Dominic Pezzola said in a court filing that Pezzola was responding to “the entreaties of the then commander-in-chief, President Trump.” It claimed that Pezzola was “misled by the president’s deception.”
The House managers moved from trying to establish that Trump provided the provocation for the insurrection to his words at the rally urging his supporters to “stop the steal,” including disparaging Pence for failing to illegally reject electoral votes. Insurrectionists could later be heard chanting, “hang Mike Pence.” While Trump did say “peacefully” once in the speech, he used “fight” or “fighting” 20 times, House Manager Madeleine Dean said in an emotional presentation.
Democrats also said Trump did nothing to protect lawmakers from the mob at the Capitol for hours, failing to call in the National Guard, and they contended that the former president was initially “delighted” by the attack.
“Senators, you’ve seen all the evidence so far, and this is clear: on Jan. 6, President Trump left everyone in this Capitol for dead,” Texas Representative Joaquin Castro said.
Senators listened in silence as the video and audio clips were played, the sound of glass breaking and attackers banging on doors echoing loudly off the walls and ceiling of the Senate chamber.
Security footage showed for the first time captured Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman luring the mob away from a side room Pence was in and from the Senate chamber. The rioters got as close to 100 feet to the vice president as many chanted, “We want Pence! We want Pence.”
Pence and his family are shown later being escorted out of one room and down a staircase, Pence looking back twice. Goodman also ushered Republican Senator Mitt Romney to safety.
Other attackers shown in the video mockingly called out “where are you, Nancy?” as they sought to seize the speaker.
The managers haven’t yet decided whether they will ask the Senate to call witnesses to testify in person, according to the aides. Trump rejected a request from House managers that he testify at the trial though the Senate could subpoena him.
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