Chilling video evidence on the first day of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, showing his frenzied supporters smashing their way into the US Capitol, revived a national trauma.
Combined with a botched, illogical opening by his defense team, it also raised a perennial question: what exactly would it take for Republican senators to finally hold the ex-President to account?
The graphic footage, taken from multiple cellphone cameras and television feeds on January 6, showed the moment when a crowd goaded by Trump invaded Congress just at the moment when lawmakers were certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.
The horrific scenes, played by House Democratic impeachment managers, put viewers inside the raging mob. It brought them into ornate congressional chambers as rioters chanting Trump’s name and “Stop the Steal” hunted lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
The Senate trial resumes at noon on Wednesday. House impeachment managers have already established a clear line of consequence between Trump’s rhetoric and the assault. They also made a strong case to senators sitting as jurors that trying an ex-President impeached in office for effectively attempting a violent coup to stay in power was constitutional.
“If that’s not an impeachable offense, there’s no such thing,” lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin told a silent Senate.
It was a statement that Trump’s legal team, who insulted the dead and injured from the riot by calling the mashup an example of “blood sport” whipped up by a “movie company,” never answered. That’s perhaps because there is no good response.
The defense response was a fair metaphor for aspects of Trump’s performance in the presidency: it was unprepared, contradictory, impulsive and politicized.
Objective observers — and subjective ones, including Republican senators who have already made up their mind — panned the opening contributions of lawyer Bruce Castor Jr. and to a lesser extent David Schoen. Some Republicans said the presentations by House managers were more convincing than those in Trump’s first trial last year after he was impeached for trying to get Ukraine to damage Biden. Impeachment lawyer and CNN commentator Ross Garber described the opening by Trump’s team as a “terrible, terrible performance.”
Far from helping the ex-President, his team, called in at the last minute because his previous representatives pulled out, appear to have confused senators.
“I couldn’t figure out where he was going. (He spent) 45 minutes going somewhere,” said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of six Republicans who voted with Democrats in the Senate to declare the trial constitutional.
“What the hell is going on?” one adviser to Trump simply asked.
‘This cannot be our future’
For the prosecution, Raskin expertly wove an indictment against Trump, using the President’s own inflammatory rhetoric, the symbolic weight of US history and the collective emotion of a people who had seen their democratic institutions violated.
His core legal point was that if Trump was not called to account for his actions, any future President who lost an election in November would conclude they had a free reign to invoke whatever havoc they wanted — a concept he referred to as the “January exception.” The Maryland lawmaker, who recently lost his son, became tearful when explaining how his daughter, who was with him on January 6, said she never wanted to come to the Capitol again. And he used the human carnage wreaked by the Trump mob to condemn its leader.
“People died that day. Officers ended up with head damage and brain damage. People’s eyes were gouged. An officer had a heart attack. An officer lost three fingers that day. Two officers have taken their own lives,” Raskin said.
“Senators, this cannot be our future.”
Another one of the House impeachment managers, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, summed up the case that his side will make in the days ahead.
“What you experienced that day, what we experienced that day, what our country experienced that day is the framers’ worst nightmare come to life,” he told senators.
“Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and walk away like nothing happened.”
The evidence might make that case. But the political reality of a divided, politicized nation means that a president actually probably can do all those things and get away with it.
The former President screamed inside his Florida resort as his defense team unrolled slapdash and illogical counter-arguments, sources told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. His lawyers made a bad case badly. With House managers expected to use more graphic video of the coup attempt against Congress, it seems unlikely things will improve for the former President.
But despite the historic malfeasance of Trump’s attempt to buckle US democracy based on false claims of election fraud, the central truth of his tumultuous and divisive White House term held firm: Most Republicans are still too scared to cross him.
The opening day of the trial begged the question: what level of violence and insurrection and comical flailing by an outmatched legal team would convince most Republicans to put the national interest before their own political futures and split with a former President who is still beloved in the party’s grassroots?
Democrats managed to add only one GOP senator — Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy — to five of his colleagues who had already signaled they believed the trial was constitutional, leaving a two-thirds majority to convict almost unthinkable.
“I believe it is absurd,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, of trying an ex-President after hearing the first four hours of the trial. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana flippantly declared, “You don’t have to be Judge Judy to see the constitutional defects.”
Asked whether any damning evidence could change his mind, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said flatly “No.” Earlier, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah argued on Fox News that Trump’s speech in Washington that sent the enraged mob toward the Capitol should be treated like an errant drive out of bounds on one of the ex-President’s golf courses and he deserved a “mulligan.”
‘A dangerous, snap impeachment’
Castor had not been expected to open. But he told senators that Raskin had been so impressive that the team changed tack, before launching into a rambling, apparently unscripted speech. He toadied up to senators, went off on tangents and, to Trump’s certain fury, stated the case that the ex-President lost the election — a fact Trump refuses to accept.
Schoen put in a more Trumpian performance, implicitly warning that putting a client who spent four years dividing the county on trial could spark a new Civil War. He threw in some obligatory references to cancel culture and liberal “elites” looking down at ordinary Americans they referred to as “deplorable.”
Yet unlike Castor, Schoen did have some decipherable legal arguments.
He accused House Democrats of infringing Trump’s rights by perpetrating “a dangerous snap impeachment.” While arguing it was unconstitutional to try an ex-President, Schoen also argued such a proceeding was premature since evidence was still coming in. His argument that a private citizen cannot be tried was undercut by the fact that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to hold the trial for the impeached President while he was still in office.
But Schoen’s main and most audacious point was that the impeachment was nothing more than an effort by Democrats to disenfranchise the ex-President’s 74 million voters.
“Their ultimate hope is that this will be a shot across the bow of any other candidate for public office who would dare to take up a political message that is very different from their own political point of view,” Schoen declared. He was referring to hopes that Trump may have of running for President again in 2024 that would be nixed should he be convicted and barred from future public office.
He ignored the flaming hypocrisy of his comment. The trial is only taking place because of Trump’s pernicious, false claims that the election was stolen from him and his incitement of his supporters in an operation designed to disenfranchise a popular majority that voted to eject him from office.