'You can't incite what was already going to happen': Trump defence argues voter anger made riot inevitable
Trump lawyers use only 3 hours to defend the former president, attack Democrats for alleged hypocrisy
Donald Trump's defence lawyers made the case for the former U.S. president's acquittal on Friday in forceful terms, calling his impeachment an act of "political vengeance" and a "sham."
Trump's legal team spent just under three hours — far less than the 16 hours allotted — presenting its case as to why the former president is not guilty of inciting last month's deadly riot at the Capitol. Their arguments were followed by a lengthy session that extended into the evening, in which senators from both parties submitted a total of 28 written questions to either the House impeachment managers or Trump's defence team.
A verdict in Trump's unprecedented second impeachment trial could be rendered as early as Saturday. A conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote of those present in the 100-member Senate, which likely means at least 17 Republicans would have to defy Trump despite his continued popularity among Republican voters.
The senators concluded Friday's proceedings by giving Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who was present in the chamber, a standing ovation and a unanimous vote in favour of giving him a congressional medal. Goodman has been praised for preventing harm to elected representatives and others with his quick thinking during the Jan. 6 riot.
Five people died on that day, including a Capitol Police officer killed under circumstances still not entirely clear, as well as a Trump supporter who was shot to death by police. Others suffered fatal medical episodes.
Michael van der Veen set out the Trump team's double-pronged strategy early on, focusing on the former president's speech on Jan. 6, at a rally outside the White House in an area known as the Ellipse, but also citing a series of antagonistic Democratic statements directed at Trump.
WATCH | Trump's defence plays lengthy video of 'fighting' words from Democrats:
"No thinking person could seriously believe that the president's Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection," he said. "The suggestion is patently absurd."
Van der Veen at one point seemed to argue that the Capitol riot was an inevitability because of widespread voter anger over the Nov. 3 election, regardless of Trump's words.
"You can't incite what was already going to happen," he said.
Trump's lawyer brought up examples of Democrats in Congress objecting to state electoral counts in 2016, although in that year's vote, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton conceded the night of the vote and called Trump to congratulate him. In contrast, impeachment managers presented several examples earlier in the week demonstrated to show that Trump engaged in two months of denying that he lost the vote to Democrat Joe Biden in a series of tweets, speeches and actions, including calling officials in the most highly contested states that he lost.
Van der Veen also accused the Democrats of hypocrisy and turning a blind eye to the violence that occasionally erupted in protests held in dozens of U.S. cities for several weeks in the summer and autumn of 2020.
He made a number of references to "the left" in his opening address. While House Democrats unanimously voted to impeach, 10 Republicans also agreed, making it the most bipartisan impeachment among the small sample size in U.S. history.
Trump lawyer David Schoen in his presentation accused the Democrats of deceptively editing footage of the riot in their presentation earlier this week, including excluding parts of Trump's speech that were not provocative.
The Trump lawyers said his invocation to supporters to "fight like hell" the certification of the election results was protected by the First Amendment, and they played a string of video clips of Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren using the same word in a number of contexts in recent years. The Democrats have argued this week that First Amendment protections are applicable to a criminal or civil trial, but that impeachment is a political process.
WATCH | Watergate assistant special prosecutor lays out the differences with this case:
Bruce Castor, also arguing for Trump, condemned the activities of Jan. 6 but said they did not meet the strict definition of an insurrection.
The group that breached the Capitol had no coherent plan to take over government, he said. And Trump exhorted those in attendance to "peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard."
Capitol breached while Trump was speaking: Castor
Castor laid out a partial timeline of events, emphasizing that the first breach of the Capitol occurred at 12:49 p.m. ET, some 20 minutes before Trump had finished his speech.
"He neither explicitly or implicity encouraged the use of violence or lawless action, but in fact called for peaceful exercise of every American's First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and petition their government for redress of grievances."
During the question session, lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, outlined how Trump continued to deny the reality of the election result even as he lost 61 rulings in courts across the U.S. in the weeks after the Nov. 3 election.
"It's hard to imagine him having gotten more due process than that," said Raskin.
"Officer Goodman is in the chamber tonight. Officer Goodman, thank you!" <a href="https://t.co/xaLdMKbwIJ">pic.twitter.com/xaLdMKbwIJ</a>—@cspan
Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — believed to be among the Republican senators most open to consider convicting Trump — asked his defence team when the president found out about the riot and what he explicitly did to stop the violence.
While van der Veen mentioned a specific time — 2:38 p.m. ET — he otherwise evaded the question as to Trump's specific actions. The Democrats eagerly took up a repeat of the same question minutes later, pointing out that Trump was silent for two hours as the violence swirled.
"We believe it is a dereliction of his duty," said impeachment manager Stacey Plaskett.
Democratic prosecutors on Thursday wrapped up two days of arguments for Trump's conviction, their case assigned after the House of Representatives charged Trump on Jan. 13 with inciting the insurrection.
In their arguments, the Democratic prosecutors provided numerous examples of Trump's actions prior to the rampage to illustrate what he intended when he told supporters to go to the Capitol and "fight like hell" as lawmakers convened for the election certification.
WATCH | Democrats wrap up their presentation on why Trump should be convicted:
They also pointed out the lengthy period of time after the rioting began before Trump made any comment at all, and characterized those eventual statements as not being a forceful condemnation of the violence. His first tweet after the disruption began was a criticism of his own vice-president, Mike Pence, who was among those seeking shelter inside the Capitol.
Later in the day, Trump in a video address called those who had gathered at the Capitol "patriots."
"He knew that egged on by his tweets, his lies and his promise of a 'wild' time in Washington to guarantee his grip on power, his most extreme followers would show up bright and early, ready to attack, ready to engage in violence, ready to 'fight like hell' for their hero," Raskin said.
For the second day in a row, Trump loyalists Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz — who are serving on the jury — were seen heading into the room assigned to the Trump defence team.
Trump is the first U.S. president to be impeached twice and the first to face trial after leaving office.
His first impeachment trial, which stemmed from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, ended in an acquittal a year ago in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.
No president has ever been convicted in a Senate trial.
With files from Reuters