House prosecutors used the second day of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to detail a months-long campaign by the former president to stoke hatred and encourage violence over the election results that they said culminated in the mob attack on the US Capitol that he then did little to stop.
Using previously unreleased videos and audio, the Democratic lawmakers vividly showed senators how close the rioters who ransacked the Capitol came to reaching them, as well as then-Vice President Mike Pence. Senators in the chamber listened in rapt silence as the recordings played.
The impeachment managers, who will wrap up their case on Thursday, depicted the assault as not only foreseeable but the intended result of a multitude of actions calculated to incite Trump’s followers. The strategy appeared designed to rebut defense efforts to cast his fiery speech before the assault as normal political hyperbole, and persuade the public that his actions were premeditated and cynical.
Trump’s defense team will present their opening arguments on Friday, and the proceedings could finish with a verdict by the weekend.
The step-by-step timeline House impeachment managers offered set the Jan. 6 violence in the context of months of Trump tweets inflaming tensions even before the election. It was, they said, a “big lie” of baseless claims of election fraud, armed intimidation of state and local election officials, and violence at demonstrations in Washington in December. They stressed Trump’s role in promoting the rally on the day of the electoral count, the timing of his speech just ahead of the congressional session and his remarks pointing the crowd toward the Capitol.
“This was never about one speech,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California, one of the nine House impeachment managers, 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.”
Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, another impeachment manager, said the people who laid siege to the Capitol “did it because Donald Trump sent them on this mission” to stop the peaceful transfer of power as Congress was certifying the Electoral College votes that ratified President Joe Biden’s victory.
Democrats portrayed Trump as indifferent to the harrowing ordeal his own vice president, lawmakers and police were undergoing, even as the violence and mayhem was broadcast live on television, and did nothing to protect lawmakers and others at the Capitol for hours, failing to call in the National Guard. They highlighted news reports quoting associates saying that the former president was initially “delighted” by the attack.
Even as the Capitol was being breached, Trump sent out incendiary tweets, including one disparaging Pence for not having “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” The videos presented showed the crowd stalking Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In one, an unidentified member of the crowd says: “Pence lied to us, he’s a total treasonous pig.”
“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.
The dramatic presentation may have more impact on public opinion than the eventual verdict in the trial. The odds still are against 17 Republicans joining with Democrats and independents to form the two-thirds majority of the Senate necessary to convict Trump. Only six Republicans voted with Democrats on Tuesday to proceed with the trial.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, suggested the prosecution was futile, with most of his Republican colleagues already decided against conviction. He said he had assured the former president “the case is over” and “it’s just a matter of getting the final verdict.”
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 Trump.
“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.
Still, several Republicans acknowledged the power of the House Democrats’ arguments.
“They had a strong presentation put together in a way that I think makes it very compelling,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 GOP leader, said. He didn’t rule out voting for conviction, saying he would listen to both sides “and draw conclusions when it’s all done.”
Trump lawyer Bruce Castor told reporters as he left the Capitol Wednesday night that ”we didn’t learn anything today that we didn’t already know.”
“Yesterday, we said we didn’t dispute that the breach of the Capitol is a terrible thing, and that mob violence is something that President Trump abhors,” he said, adding, “I wonder why we sat through eight hours of videos that aren’t under dispute.”
Trump’s team intends to rely heavily on his use of the words “peacefully and patriotically” at one point in the Jan. 6 speech as part of his defense against the impeachment charge of incitement, according to people familiar with the effort. They also plan to show videos of prominent Democrats using similar rhetoric about fighting to argue Trump is being subjected to a double standard.
Representative Madeleine Dean, another impeachment manager, anticipating the argument, said that Trump only used the word “peacefully” once in the 11,000-word speech, while urging on followers with the words “fight” or “fighting” 20 times.
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 that stopped on Jan. 5.
Plaskett pointed to several incidents in the months leading up to Jan. 6 when Trump encouraged groups of violent supporters, including one that tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas and the Proud Boys, a far right movement, 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 member of the Proud Boys 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