Donald Trump’s lawyers concluded their brazen, but brief, defense of the former president on Friday, calling the second impeachment trial a “politically motivated witch hunt” and warning that anything short of a swift acquittal would vindicate Democrats’ desire for a “constitutional cancel culture”.
Confident the Senate was prepared to acquit their client, the lawyers delivered a deeply partisan defense that attempted to equate the former president’s incendiary speech before an angry crowd of loyalists on 6 January with Democrats’ own political rhetoric.
Channeling Trump’s bombastic style and his loose relationship with facts, the lawyers portrayed the former president as the “most pro-police, anti-mob rule president this country has ever seen”, arguing, despite evidence to the contrary, that he never condoned violence and repeatedly called for peace as the insurrection at the Capitol unfolded.
Michael van der Veen, one of Trump’s attorneys, argued that Trump’s incendiary remarks on 6 January were no different than the language politicians frequently use in American politics today. Trump exhorted his supporters to “fight like hell” during a rally just before they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and attacked the US Capitol.
“No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s January 6 speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection,” Van der Veen said.
He also veered away from the events on 6 January, instead focusing on several instances over the last year in which he accused Democrats of using similar heated language and not doing enough to condemn violent protesters.
“This unprecedented effort is not about Democrats opposing political violence. It is about Democrats trying to disqualify their political opposition. It is constitutional cancel culture,” he said. “History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat party to smear, censor and cancel not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him.”
At one point, Trump’s lawyers played an extensive supercut of Democratic politicians using the word “fight” in an attempt to argue that Democrats were being hypocritical for impeaching Trump. But Democrats have said Trump wasn’t impeached merely for saying the word “fight” – he invited supporters to Washington on the day Congress was counting the electoral college, and after years of encouraging violence, told his supporters to “fight” and descend on the capitol.
Their swift defense on Friday came after the nine House managers, acting as prosecutors, spent two days building a methodical case against the former president that retold the insurrection with harrowing new video. In their presentation, they argued the riot was the culmination of Trump’s months-long campaign to overturn his electoral defeat.
His incendiary speech to supporters on 6 January, when he exhorted them to “fight like hell”, was hardly the extent of his culpability, they argued, but his last stand in a desperate bid to cling to power.
Crucially, the managers contended, Trump betrayed his oath of office by failing to intervene once the siege of Congress, where both the House and the Senate were in session, began, and that his “lack of remorse” in its aftermath shows he remains a clear threat to American democracy.
In a preemptive rebuttal to some of the arguments advanced by Trump’s team, the managers played video of the insurrectionists shouting at police that they had been invited there by Trump, and pointed to several court documents in which rioters charged with criminal offenses have said they were acting at Trump’s behest.
“President Trump was not impeached because he used words that the House decided are forbidden or unpopular. He was impeached for inciting armed violence against the government of the United States of America,” David Cicilline, a House impeachment manager, said earlier this week.
Jamie Raskin, the lead House Democratic prosecutor, addressed the claim that Trump’s statements were protected by the first amendment earlier in the week, saying it was “absurd”. While a private citizen can urge overthrow of the government, Raskin said, the president of the United States, who swears an oath to defend the nation against all enemies, cannot do the same.
“If you’re president of the United States, you’ve chosen a side with your oath of office,” Raskin, a longtime constitutional law professor, said earlier this week. “And if you break it, we can impeach, convict, remove and disqualify you permanently from holding any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”
The attorneys attempted to redirect the responsibility from the former president to solely the people who laid siege to the Capitol. They also argued that his speech at that day’s rally was protected by the first amendment.
They also sought to recast as benign Trump’s remark that there had been “very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, resisted by counter-protesters, as well as a December 2020 phone call in which he implored the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
Seventeen Republican senators would have to join with all Democrats to find Trump guilty. A conviction would allow the Senate to then vote to disqualify Trump from ever holding future office.
Trump’s lawyers used less than three of the total 16 hours allotted. Panning the trial as an illegitimate waste of the Senate’s time, Castor urged members to use the time instead to pass coronavirus relief.
His team maintained that the trial was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer in office, even though a majority of senators – including six Republicans – rejected that argument after hearing hours of debate on the issue on Tuesday.
Bruce Castor, a Pennsylvania former prosecutor serving as one of Trump’s attorneys, concluded his case with a grave warning about the consequences of convicting the former president.
“This trial is about far more than president Trump. It’s about silencing and banning the speech the majority doesn’t agree with. It’s about canceling 75 million Trump voters and criminalizing political viewpoints,” Castor said, before resting the defense case on Friday. “It is the only existential issue before us.”